Why did SeaWorld Parks convert its Aquatica water park in San Diego to a Sesame Place?
SeaWorld has licensed the U.S. theme park rights to the Sesame Street franchise for over 40 years. You can find Sesame Street characters and attractions at all SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme parks across the country, as well as at the SeaWorld-owned Sesame Place theme park outside Philadelphia. But SeaWorld's agreement with Sesame Workshop also required the theme park company to open a second Sesame Place by 2020.
Converting an existing property to a Sesame Place theme made the most business sense for SeaWorld Parks. It eliminates land acquisition costs and places the "new" park in a market where the company already has a promotional presence. Pick the right property to convert, and SeaWorld can minimize construction costs, as well.
So where would Sesame Place fit best within SeaWorld's existing properties? Obviously, SeaWorld Parks would be looking for a property that could improve its attendance and revenue by making the switch - not one where the new theme would represent a downgrade. Given that a Sesame Place theme park is going to be sharply focused on families with young children, SeaWorld's smaller properties would make the best candidates. No SeaWorld-branded or Busch Gardens theme park is going to make this switch.
That leaves the chain's water parks to consider. Ideally, SeaWorld would want the site for its second Sesame Place to be far removed from the Philadelphia original, which would eliminate Virginia's Water Country USA. Orlando's Aquatica ranks as one of the country's most-visited water parks, so there's no chance that SeaWorld would want to mess with that success. Tampa's Adventure Island and San Antonio's Aquatica also rank in the U.S. Top 10 water parks.
So that leaves San Diego. California is not a big water park market, with no parks in the state ranking in the U.S. Top 20. Perhaps the addition of some dry rides, entertainment, and a popular IP could help draw theme-park-loving but water-park-skeptical locals to this Chula Vista location. And even though the percentage of preschool and early elementary children that make up Sesame Street's core audience has been declining for years in the United States, the Southern California market is so large that it can provide millions of potential visitors for the park. Proximity to Mexico also makes the park a potential draw from the large Tijuana market, as well.
That's why SeaWorld Parks announced in late 2019 that it would convert the San Diego Aquatica into the west coast's first Sesame Place theme park. The pandemic delayed the switch for a year, but the new Sesame Place San Diego officially opens to the public today.
I spoke yesterday at the park's media preview day with SeaWorld San Diego and Sesame Place San Diego Park President Jim Lake about the change.
The Sesame Workshop relationship is crucially important to SeaWorld Parks. To maintain that relationship, SeaWorld not only needs to fulfill its contractual obligations to Sesame Workshop, it needs to show that its Sesame Street-themed attractions support Sesame Workshop's mission for promoting healthy childhood development. That's why the emphasis on becoming a Certified Autism Center and expanding the water park's line-up to include kid-friendly rides and entertainment.
The one response from Lake that surprised me came when I asked about the future of Sesame Street at SeaWorld San Diego, which had offered a Sesame Street Bay of Play kids' area for years.
"As we open Sesame Place here, we are continuing to evaluate Sesame Street IP in our SeaWorld park, and we'll make a decision as we move forward which way we want to go with that," Lake said.
I wasn't expecting Lake to throw Bay of Play under the (school) bus, but here we are. I suppose it makes sense to take a hard look at what SeaWorld San Diego has to offer with Sesame Street. The less that Sesame Place is redundant to the long-established and more-visited SeaWorld park across town, the better its chances to succeed.
As I noted in my newspaper column this week, SeaWorld Parks has not developed the all-ages Sesame Street dark rides that Sesame Street theme park rights owners in Asia and Europe have installed. As a company, SeaWorld rarely does well with dark rides, and when it does, the company has trouble sustaining them. (RIP Curse of DarKastle.) But if SeaWorld San Diego were to replace its Sesame Street Bay of Play with something like PortAventura's Sesame Street: Street Mission, it would expand the market for Sesame Street attractions while creating a clear distinction between what was available at SeaWorld in Mission Bay and Sesame Place in Chula Vista.
Win-win for all.
Of course, designing and building a compelling dark ride costs money. So you might forgive local visitors baking in the sun because SeaWorld would not spend the money for a cover over its Sesame Place Theater or Emperor load platform at SeaWorld for being skeptical about SeaWorld's willingness to pay. But if SeaWorld can afford to make an all-cash offer to buy the Cedar Fair theme parks, it can afford to develop the world-class dark ride that SeaWorld San Diego needs. Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott's Berry Farm, Legoland California, and even Six Flags Magic Mountain offer well-received dark rides. Only SeaWorld lacks one.
With a new attraction line-up aimed at finding a loyal audience in a competitive market, Sesame Place San Diego offers a solid upgrade over the Aquatica water park it replaced. Along with the four new roller coasters the company has opened at parks across the country, Sesame Place San Diego shows that SeaWorld Parks can take strong steps forward. The more that SeaWorld Parks continues to do that in the future, the more that theme park fans will benefit.
Previously: A Visitor's Guide to the New Sesame Place San Diego, including photos, videos, and a link to discount tickets.
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