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.Tweet
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