It was always about the beer, wasn't it?

August 7, 2018, 12:26 PM · SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment yesterday reported its first strong financial results in what seems like forever, with increases in attendance and spending for the first half of 2018.

The theme park chain said that attendance at its parks across the country grew by 8 percent during the period, from 8.93 million to 9.64 million. The company reported that attendance grew nearly 5 percent in the second quarter, from 6.12 million 6.41 million, meaning that — if you do the math — first-quarter attendance grew even more on a percentage basis, from 2.81 million to 3.23 million, nearly 15 percent.

But before you get too excited by that double-digit percentage growth, remember that those are smaller numbers to start, as seasonal parks were not open in that quarter and the growth wasn't sustained through the start of the busier summer vacation season. The earlier Easter holiday this year also skewed results toward the first quarter.

SeaWorld and Busch Gardens also reported higher revenue, up nearly 9 percent to $609.1 million for the first half of the year. Average in-park spending by visitors was up, though the average admission revenue per visit was down due to heavy discounting and increased annual pass sales leading to a higher percentage of visitors coming in on those passes.

So what changed this year to help SeaWorld and Busch Gardens turn things around?

The return of free beer, to start.

And this is where we say "I told you so." For the past five years, anti-animal-captivity activists have been pushing a media narrative that SeaWorld's theme parks have been suffering declining attendance because of a deceptively edited "documentary" that claimed the company was mistreating orcas at its SeaWorld parks. News organizations have bought the argument, since SeaWorld attendance has been dropping.

The problem with that narrative is that SeaWorld's flagship park attendance peaked in 2009 — four years before the movie. What happened in 2010? That was the year of the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, which led to the company pulling trainers from the water during orca shows, substantially diminishing the spectacle of those performances. But more important, that was the first full year without free beer in the theme parks, following their sale by former owner Anheuser-Busch. And... that was the year The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened at Universal Orlando, forever propelling the Universal parks above SeaWorld as the clear number-two to industry leader Disney.

SeaWorld's attendance hasn't been suffering because people don't like orcas being in captivity. It's been suffering because the parks no longer offered what traditionally were its two unique draws: trainers flying out of the water off the nose of an orca, and free beer. And the parks never found anything else to compensate for those losses, with too many failed new attractions in the 2010s.

The flying trainers likely aren't event coming back. But SeaWorld has brought back the free beer — along with an aggressive line-up of food and drink festivals, and that's helped bring in locals priced out of the Disney and Universal theme parks.

A few SeaWorld fans on Twitter have been gloating that the financial results negate one of our Discussion Forum posts from last month: Seaworld Orlando: a bleak future. I wouldn't be so confident. While it's great to see SeaWorld and Busch Gardens coming around, the 4.8 percent attendance growth that the chain has enjoyed so far this summer isn't nearly enough to return it to the top tier of U.S. theme park attendance. That's about the growth that Epcot enjoyed last year... due in large part to expanded food and drink festivals. And it lags the double-digit attendance growth that Disney's Animal Kingdom enjoyed by opening a truly world-class new attraction.

With a Star Wars land opening at Walt Disney World next year and a new Harry Potter attraction at Universal, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens will need something far more attractive than a small Sesame Street land to close the gap with those parks. More realistically, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens can hope, at most, to remain the leader ahead of the Cedar Fair and Six Flags parks for third place in the U.S. theme park business.

But I think a great many fans across the country gladly would drink to that.

Replies (11)

August 7, 2018 at 1:30 PM

Okay, I propose a new Busch Beer Gardens Land in SeaWorld.

1. Budweiser Clydesdales carriage rides.
2. How Beer is Made attraction with beer goggles.
3. Everyday is October Fest restaurant.
4. Pretzels Twisters flat ride.
5. Sausage Party roller coaster.

August 7, 2018 at 1:31 PM

I’ve been a passholder at seaworld since 2000 and I plan to go more after Star Wars opens. As it is, disney is too crowded most of the year. Add that land and it’s only going to get worse.

August 7, 2018 at 2:05 PM

If it's the free beer, then why don't I see people walking around with beer in hand all the time? I don't go with that logic. Tracy is closer to the real reason ... there's only a limited amount of sardine cramming tourists can take, and the way Universal and Disney are heading it's only going to get tighter. Sea World knows it can't compete with the 'big 2', they would be foolish to try. Just stick with what you are doing (and now planning?) and happily take those sardine unhappy people and welcome them to a park where they can wander round unhindered, and stand in line for any show, ride, eatery for 20-30 mins at the very most. Star Wars at DHS is going to be the closest thing to hell on earth anyone can ever imagine, far worse than Harry Potter ever was. Good luck to all of those planning a trip within the first 12-18 months .. maybe even with the first 24-36 months ??

August 7, 2018 at 2:45 PM

"If it's the free beer, then why don't I see people walking around with beer in hand all the time?"

Because you're not allowed to bring the beer outside of the drink areas.

August 7, 2018 at 3:01 PM

I also dispute the beer reason. For one, the free beer promotion was not instituted at Sea World until May 2018. If people were drawn to the free beer, then the chain would have seen a more dramatic attendance increase in Q2 than it saw in Q1, which is not what actually happened.

I think this is a natural ebb and flow of guests that tend to float between the different parks based on what is new, promotions, and past experiences. My hypothesis is that with a lackluster attraction opening at Universal (Fast and Furious Supercharged) and an addition geared more towards the little ones at WDW (TSL), I think guests that visit Orlando every single year are finding themselves with an extra day in their itinerary to visit Sea World. Personally, if I was a DVC member or other time share owner that visited Orlando every year or multiple times per year, I would find both WDW and UO to be a bit stale right now since DAK opened PtWoA in May 2017 and UO opened Diagon Alley in May 2014. That's all likely to change next year with Galaxy's Edge and the Forbidden Forest coaster, though WDW's will not affect travel plans until late in 2019 so Sea World may be able to skate through the rest of this year and next with modest gains.

I agree with Makorider in regards to Galaxy's Edge, but I think it will only affect locals. There are thousands of regular WDW visitors that are already planning trips for Galaxy's Edge (I was one of them until it looked like the opening would fall outside our normal fall travel window), and most of them don't care a bit about obscene lines and crowds (those obsessive planners know how to get around the crowds even in the face of massive crowds). I agree that the place is going to be a complete madhouse (which is why we're planning on going to Disneyland, which seems to handle crowds so much better despite its small size, next August for Galaxy's Edge), but it's only going to push the locals towards Sea World, most of whom are already frequenting that park regularly now.

What Sea World needs to do is to stay the course and keep prices and pass holder perks stable to hold onto what they have. The last thing they need to do is to get greedy by trying to match upcoming price increases from UO and WDW, or to try to extract even more from their most loyal visitors. They also need to add something that will open in early 2020 to give guests a reason to come back to Sea World despite all the new additions down the road (with even more coming after Forbidden Forest and Galaxy's Edge through 2022). They don't necessarily have to break the bank with their additions, but they've got to be effective counter programming to what WDW and UO are doing, and be timed BETWEEN other major attraction openings. Sea World can't go head to head against WDW or UO, so they must carve their own niche if they want to survive in the competitive market.

August 7, 2018 at 3:00 PM

"Because you're not allowed to bring the beer outside of the drink areas."

You can walk around with beer at Sea World. There's no rule forcing guests to consume their free samples in the bar area. Though I don't think you would get very far with just a 7-oz pour on a hot summer day.

August 7, 2018 at 3:27 PM

I agree with Russell - free beer didn't happen until May. However, there was the Seven Seas Food Festival that happened in Q1 and brought in many people who wouldn't normally go to SeaWorld for the animals. When most people go to Orlando, they don't just stay for 1 or 2 days - they stay for 4-5 nights. SeaWorld won't get to the level of Disney and Universal anytime soon, but it could definitely be a contender for a 2nd or 3rd day trip. And with more attractions bringing more people to Orlando, that can only help SeaWorld.

San Diego is another story. If you've been observing social media and looking at the lease payments from SWSD, you'd notice that there's been an approximately 20% increase in revenue and that's WITHOUT free beer. Cheap new attractions like Electric Eel are proving to be beneficial, which is probably why they're planning on building another coaster there next year.

August 8, 2018 at 10:14 AM

And what is SeaWorld’s response to these higher numbers?

They lay off 125 people to cut costs. *sigh*

August 8, 2018 at 10:32 AM

@James - There appear to be a number of different theories surrounding the layoffs. One is that they were positions that were spared in the last round of cuts. Many of the 125 were upper level managers with overlapping responsibilities that probably knew the writing was on the wall 6 months ago, but were temporarily spared. The second theory is that the culling of the upper management ranks makes the company as a whole more attractive for acquisition, and that the workforce reduction combined with the positive financial results (and higher stock price) is an indication that Sea World may have found itself a buyer.

Part of growing a business is to continuously trim the fat, and it sounds like the 125 were employees that were no longer essential in a company needing to increase efficiency. It's certainly a tough blow for those involved along with the morale of the workforce, but it sounds like those that were cut will not be unemployed for long.

August 8, 2018 at 10:41 AM

A one-day-in-advance ticket $79.99 coupled with free beer makes this park a pretty darn good bargain.

August 8, 2018 at 4:17 PM

It would be great if Cedar Fair or Six Flags bought Sea World and finally gave Orlando the roller coaster park that it deserves. I remember when Six Flags bought Geauga Lake, in Ohio and built 5 or 6 coasters on one year. Bring it on.

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