Did a Bad Choice Doom the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens Parks?

October 17, 2022, 1:28 PM · If Universal was the big winner in the new 2021 TEA/AECOM Theme Index attendance report, it's also clear which company was the big loser last year - SeaWorld. [Please see Universal Makes Big Gains in 2021 Theme Park Attendance Report, if you have not yet read our coverage of the new attendance report.]

States maintained different rules about when and how theme parks could open in 2021, so comparing results from parks in different states requires more asterisks than a fight in an old-school Batman comic. But SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay operate in Florida, which had perhaps the most permissive Covid rules in America in 2021.

SeaWorld and Busch Gardens traditionally lag the Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando theme parks in the TEA/AECOM North America top 20, as they did again last year. Nevertheless, both parks attracted fewer visitors last year than Cedar Point and Kings Island also beat SeaWorld, despite both Ohio parks operating only seasonally.

Piling on, Knott's Berry Farm in super-restrictive California beat both of those Florida parks parks handily, and even Six Flags Magic Mountain trailed SeaWorld Orlando by a scant 4,000 visitors for the year.

Elsewhere in California, SeaWorld San Diego attracted the next-to-fewest visitors among the U.S. theme parks in the TEA/AECOM North America top 20 in 2021, falling behind Magic Mountain for the first time.

Clearly, even accounting for state rule differences, the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens parks lost ground to its theme park competition in 2021. So what did the SeaWorld parks get wrong last year?

They chose not to open any of their new roller coasters.

For the 2020 season, the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme parks announced an ambitious line-up of new coasters for their parks in Orlando, Tampa, Williamsburg, Va., San Antonio, and San Diego. But only the San Antonio coaster opened before Covid forced the closure of theme parks around the world in early 2020.

The lockdowns left parks around the world to decide what to do with their new-for-2020 attractions once the parks began getting approval to reopen, often with capacity restrictions. Do you debut your new ride immediately or wait until capacity rules lift and you can promote that attraction without restriction? Almost every park had to halt construction during lockdowns, and everyone faced serious cashflow issues with their parks closed, so many parks that could reopen in 2020 decided to postpone their new rides until the 2021 season.

SeaWorld went even more conservative and chose to hold off until 2022 in Orlando, Tampa, Williamsburg, and San Diego. That left those parks to operate in 2021 with nothing new to promote, save for being open again. If you believe the TEA/AECOM numbers, it appears that the public's response to this was a collective yawn, shrug, and the question, "So, who's up for visiting Universal instead?"

The pandemic lockdowns did not just delay the opening of 2020 attractions. It also delayed the development of new attractions for 2021 and beyond. The SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks did get to open a bunch of new rides this year, while some of their competitors had nothing new to offer. But the SeaWorld parks entered 2022 from a smaller base of support than those competitors. SeaWorld needs a big year in 2022 win back the ground it lost in 2021 and to keep moving forward in a recovering travel marketplace. If the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks this year do not recover to the positions they enjoyed relative to those competitors back on 2019, the company faces the possibility that its delay in 2021 may have done lasting damage.

SeaWorld management is trying to fight that. The company is planning a full line-up of new attractions in 2023 for its top parks in Virginia, Florida, Texas, and California. And again, the company is looking to new coasters to drive attendance at its top five parks in the year ahead.

In the best-case scenario, SeaWorld's decision to sit out 2021 resulted in a short-term setback that the company managed to overcome with new rides in 2022 and 2023. In the worst case, the company's choice demoted SeaWorld and Busch Gardens to a new, lower baseline of support that will require a far more impressive - and expensive - line-up of new attractions for the company to win back theme park fans.

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Replies (23)

October 17, 2022 at 2:11 PM

SWO & BGT attracts a different type of consumer. One that would find it hard to afford a 2 week stay in Florida, visiting Disney and Universal.
Both parks rely heavily on locals and tourists looking to "kill" a day away from the big 2.
No one plans to visit Florida with SWO & BGT as their must do's. Maybes is the best they can hope for.
Take BGT for instance. Gwazi, a top 5 in the world rated steel coaster, is a walk on almost every day of the week. Weekends are busier, as you would expect. Even world class coasters does not help their cause.
But little things like Spooktacular are filling those parks to capacity every weekend, and once again it's mostly locals who are attending.
BGT is doing OK though. It's SWO who has lost its way, and until those whales are gone, it's never going to change. I mean ... a launched stand up for 2023 !!! Oh dear.

October 17, 2022 at 2:55 PM

Next year will be an important year for determining the future of the Sea World parks. We will get the attendance numbers from this year, seeing if their big new coasters at all of their parks paid off. It will also be the debut of a new slate of rides, including the controversial surf coaster at SWO. It seems Sea World has been at a turning point every two years for the past decade, but I really think this year and next year combined are the real moment of truth.

October 17, 2022 at 3:25 PM

@Makorider: agreed that SWO & BGT attract a different brand of consumer than Disney or Universal. I for one cannot afford a Florida vacation to visit Disney & Universal. However, I entirely disagree that no-one plans to visit Florida with SWO & BGT as their must do's. I was determined to ride Mako and flew from Philly to Orlando for that purpose. A very short visit to Universal was just icing on the cake. I was even more determined to ride Iron Gwazi and nothing was going to stop me. Being able to review it for TPI was a bonus, but bonus or no bonus, it was on my bucket list. And I can't believe that I'm unique in having BGT as a primary destination. The park is breathtakingly beautiful. If Disney and Universal have greater attendance due to their not postponing new attractions that says something about the people who visit theme parks. That tends to suggest that the primary visitors to theme parks are those with a lot of disposable income. And while new attractions undoubtedly attract visitors, there are many like me who visit the same parks over and over for sheer enjoyment of the parks. Carowinds hasn't had a new coaster since Copperhead Strike but I'd go back there in an instant.

October 17, 2022 at 4:34 PM

I'm with Mako here, and strongly believe that the chain is having a hard time recapturing their formerly robust passholder base. Just prior to the pandemic, the Sea World parks started making changes to their annual passes, trying to push people into "memberships" as Six Flags was attempting to do. However, as the pandemic struck, the park was in the process of backpedaling on memberships and modifying the programs. Add to that the SBNO coasters that didn't open in 2021, which undermined promises made to guests to get them to purchase memberships, and new policies that seemed to devalue certain memberships. However, the kicker has been the 5% surcharge the chain has begun charging on EVERYTHING.

I've been on 4 of the 5 new coasters this year, and they're all solid additions to their parks, but I don't think the delayed opening of those rides are solely to blame for the lagging attendance. The parks need to get back to catering more to their biggest fans instead of trying to take advantage of them with ticky-tack surcharges, declining pass benefits, and reworked membership programs that are more expensive yet less valuable. Sea World is not Disney, and cannot take their loyal fans for granted.

October 17, 2022 at 5:02 PM

You’re definitely not alone Bobbie, not even amongst this community. My family of 4 does a week in Orlando pretty much every year, and in 2018 our entire trip was comprised of Sea World, Busch Gardens, Aquatica, Adventure Island and a few non-theme park activities. Truthfully that was one of my favorite trips ever !

But BGT is definitely a must do on pretty much every Orlando trip, and we’ll usually spend an entire weekend down there. The only exception was the one time we stayed at a Disney resort (something I’ll never do again).

October 17, 2022 at 5:30 PM

Bobbie … I agree, there are those of us who go to a park just to ride a coaster, but we are in the minority. Despite SWO going coaster crazy over the past few years, they are not there to attract us enthusiasts, but to deflect away from the orcas that are still present at the park. SWO will never be a BGT, but as a family orientated attraction, the ‘smaller’ family type coasters that SeaWorld seem to be concentrating on may, in the long run, be the savior of the park. Only time will tell.

Russell …. I wouldn’t call Ice Breaker a solid addition, but it does reflect the way the park is headed. Will that, and the new surf coaster, be enough to sustain SWO over the next few years though? I don’t see the park adding, let’s say, a Fury 350, anytime soon, but with BGT adding the screamin’ swing for 2023, maybe that’s an indication of what’s coming next.

It’s going to be very interesting next few years, that’s for sure.

October 17, 2022 at 7:16 PM

The Universal parks are almost univistable at this point. We took probably out last trip to Universal Orlando this past Summer. It was insane. Unlimited Express to the rescue (Hard Rock), but even the CityWalk was unbearable.

You could not get a table in a single restaurant anywhere, the entire time. Day or night. The hotel was obscenely expensive, and I mean double what we paid per night last time.

We decided next year, it's Clearwater Beach for 6-7 days and one entire day at Busch Gardens, which we love, BTW.

Not sure if the new park (Epic Universe) will change anything at IOA / Universal with regard to crowds, but these are the same reasons we stopped doing Disney.

October 17, 2022 at 10:49 PM

With Sea World, think less one huge decision, just a series of bad ones coming together at the wrong time like a lot of companies.

October 18, 2022 at 4:35 AM

I live about equidistance to BGW, Carowinds, and Kings Dominion. Until about 5 years ago, BGW seemed like a clear step up in quality and variety of attractions and experiences from the other two. Now the lines have blurred for me. Carowinds and Kings Dominion have stepped up their games in theming, events, shows, food, and ride variety. BGW has stayed about the same, and they've closed two indoor rides that clearly set them apart from the Cedar Fair offerings. I won't say no to a trip to any of these parks, but it's usually a toss-up and more of a question of which one have we not visited in awhile.

October 18, 2022 at 6:26 AM

I know lots of people that are no longer going to parks with large animals in captivity due to docs like Blackfish and other bad press.

October 18, 2022 at 9:19 AM

I agree Mako that the recent additions are not going to blow the pants off most thrill seekers, particularly with IOA adding Hagrid's and Velocicoaster over the past few years, but I think they do offer experiences that differentiate themselves from their closest competitors. I really think the Orlando park is cutting corners in terms of theming that is essential in that market. They don't have to go to the level of Disney or Universal, but Kraken, JTA, Manta, and Mako have established a bar that satisfies the coaster boys while still giving decent theming to those who aren't all about the g's, airtime, and inversions.

All of the chain's 2021/22 additions have been virtually devoid of theming, and I expect the Surf-coaster to be similarly unthemed. I just don't understand why the chain doesn't see the value in modest theming. They don't need high maintenance animatronics, fancy lighting packages, or elaborate indoor queues, just a few props or an aquarium/animal enclosure or two to enhance the attraction so that it fits with the rest of the park. The slow and obvious trend towards Six Flags-ing the chain is very disappointing, and I hope they eventually understand the need to return to the middle ground where they used to exist between Six Flags/Cedar Fair, and Disney/Universal. I appreciate that it does cost more to build and maintain more highly themed attractions, but I strongly believe that those investments pay for themselves in the long run. It just seems that Sea World feels that they can cut the costs to theme attractions from the budget in order to build more individual attractions, but in the end I really think the chain is shooting themselves in the foot.

October 18, 2022 at 10:39 AM

Over the past decade Sea World has taken all the worst trends of modern humanity and, as Spinal Tap would say, turned it up to 11.

Firing full time employees and replacing them with part time that don't care and don't know what they're doing, nickel and diming, and cutting costs in ways that straight up ruin peoples experience. The 5% fee for every transaction is peak "FU" that a company can possibly do to their customers. The government is starting to go after companies that do this (particularly in the automotive and hotel industries).

October 18, 2022 at 10:40 AM

It's the total absence of atmosphere around a coaster like Ice Breaker that worries me about the future of SeaWorld Orlando. That's been largely the case at SeaWorld San Diego for years, but as a park that mostly got by as a show-first ride-later experience, it hardly mattered. Well, I think it matters now.

The difference between Manta and Ice Breaker is that one offers a bearable queue, thanks to its pleasant, mostly indoor aquarium-centric queue, and the other doesn't. Perhaps that won't matter if SeaWorld rarely experiences large crowds. So much of modern Sea World's world building is based on, frankly, beautiful aquarium's that tie into their centerpiece attractions. I'm not sure it survives as an "add-on" day as Universal and Disney expand if tourists feel it offers so much less than its rivals.

But perhaps I'm underestimating how much locals can support the park. Even then, I think we'd have to hit a point where Universal passes become far less affordable than they are now — though I don't doubt that day is coming.

October 18, 2022 at 10:49 AM

agree with mako on most points but nothing, not even blackfish, hurt the SW/BG parks more than losing the AB ownership. i moved to Orlando in 1990 and the parks were languishing somewhat and definitely subpar compared to the major players. also, the animal rights activists were all over the place, defacing billboards, protesting at the entrance, etc. then AB bought the parks and their PR dept went hard at work to quiet the activism and also pumped bigtime money into park improvements. those improvements were noticeable immediately and from the mid 90's till the exit of the Busch family the parks enjoyed their heyday.

October 18, 2022 at 10:57 AM

AB owned the parks from their inception mbrussmco. InBev purchased AB in 2008, and a few years later the parks division was sold off to investors, and the chain started its decline shortly after the divestment.

October 18, 2022 at 11:05 AM

They owned the Busch Gardens parks (obviously considering they are called Busch Gardens) but they bought Sea World from Harcourt-Javanovich Publishing in 1989.

October 18, 2022 at 12:54 PM

Russell Mayer, the_man is correct. i was more focused on SW in my comment. they had several owners prior to AB. harcourt had a really rough time with them and it showed in the parks. when AB purchased the (at the time, 4 SW parks), they integrated into the Busch parks. SW Ohio was eventually sold to Six Flags.

October 18, 2022 at 1:35 PM

The Sea World parks in the 80s were competently managed, but yes, the AB purchase (by a company with success managing top-tier parks) gave them a boost of legitimacy backed by the company's conservation efforts and positive customer sentiment that quickly made its way into the parks (Hospitality Center - FREE BEER). Also, AB allowed the parks to manage their individual properties with far more autonomy, not lording over them like the current setup. While all the parks were under the same umbrella, each management group had some latitude to cater to their own unique customer base. Now the company is using the same template across the chain giving the properties a sameness that's far more prevalent than it was 20 years ago.

October 18, 2022 at 1:42 PM

i haven't been to any of the central florida parks yet since they have re-introduced free beer but dang, i sure did love that beer school! wish they'd bring that back. the fact they are moving away from whales and other mammals in captivity and building more coasters is a win in my column. up until the early 90's, central florida was not a great place for coasters, and then kumba came along and changed all that. so i will tip my hat to them for that! hard to believe kumba is going on 30 years old!

October 19, 2022 at 9:00 AM

Beer School and the Hospitality Centers were solely offered as a marketing tool benefiting park owners. They were really no different than the brewery tours offered around the country (and in fact a few of the breweries eliminated their tours because guests could do Beer School or visit a Hospitality Center at a nearby theme park). FYI, BGW used to have a monorail from the park to the brewery next door where guests could take a tour and get free product samples - Beer School replaced the monorail and brewery tour when Hastings was converted to Ireland (with Beer School offered in Grogan's Pub) - also because the Williamsburg Brewery needed additional production space to brew the emerging Michelob Ultra, which had just been launched.

Now that a beer company no longer owns the parks, there's no benefit from the management team to offer those attractions other than the goodwill from offering freebies.

FWIW, at the AB breweries where tours are still offered, they are no longer free, so I think even if the parks were still owned by InBav/AB, they would have eventually gotten rid of Beer School and the Hospitality Centers or at a minimum shifted them to upcharge attractions.

October 19, 2022 at 8:17 PM

Ah the old killer whale hypocrisy crowd on the keyboard again! But I doubt Robert’s hypothesis is true about delayed attractions impact. Lots of other factors at play regarding actual attendance and didn’t the company just report record high Ebitda?

October 20, 2022 at 8:15 AM

@Tiptop22 - I do think the delayed coaster opening played a role, but I think it was one of many contributing factors that have combined to erode their passholder/membership base. The delayed openings on their own probably wouldn't have had a big impact, but when combined with changing membership/pass programs, price increases, and new fees, long time fans have grown frustrated with the chain.

October 22, 2022 at 12:25 PM

So, first off... I want to say thank you to many of the contributors on here. I have actively listened to your advise. When the pandemic began to clear, I started getting APs

I weighed the choices carefully and started by getting a Sea World Platinum Aug 21 to 22 pass. I appreciated it and got value for what I paid. What I did not come close to was utilizing the free guests day passes that come with it. In the year, I used about 7 of the 24 day passes I was presented for guests. Without a doubt, 50% discount on all merch I made some purchasing choices (practical items, clothing, flip-flops) with savings that were over 60% over a store purchase. The draw back was most of their major attractions were closed during almost the entire use of my pass window. I still feel I got value.

Enter Disney: I had points that were entering 5 year territory and were about to expire. I used them for 2 Magic keys. (Ironically, my points do not expire now.) Out of the 11 planned trips I have had to bail/cancel on 5 of them largely due to the reservation system. (It is has been a hindrance far exceeding the blackouts) My most recent visits the parks were so overloaded, I left early 2 of our 4 days visiting. (Meaning I left before 1 PM) The crowds were untenable.

I purchased my first ever AP for Universal HW. I have used it twice and already feel like it ALREADY paid for itself. Anything I plan additional with the 8 months I have remaining is a bonus. If I had to give them grades it would be this:

Disney Magic Key: D (A quick word Bob Chapek, if I am not in your park, their is no "per guest spend"
Sea World Platinum: B- (Only because the free passes should have a few less restrictions and parking takes too long)
Universal AP: A- (Starting are passes [first entry] was brutal but that has been the only knock I have)

I would like to note: that 1 pass had no blackout dates with the other 2 having blackout dates. The blackout dates have not at any point been problematic nor conflicted with trip planning.

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