SeaWorld sees attendance climb after pushing back against critics

SeaWorld vows to battle damage caused by Blackfish

SeaWorld Entertainment, the marine-based theme park company under attack by animal rights groups, reported improved attendance numbers and revenue for the first three months of the year.

Attendance at SeaWorld parks jumped 5.6% to 3.2 million visitors. For the first quarter, SeaWorld reported revenue of $214.6 million, an increase of $2.3 million over the same period in 2014, and a net loss of $43.6 million, compared to a loss of $49.2 million in the 2014 first quarter.

Although animal rights groups pointed to net loss as sign of trouble for the Orlando, Fla.-based company, SeaWorld executives say the financial numbers for the first quarter paint a more complicated picture of the beleaguered firm.

SeaWorld executives said part of the reason for the higher attendance numbers was that Easter fell into the first-quarter period this year while the holiday took place in the second quarter in 2014. Attendance typically rises during holidays when children are on break from school. 

Still, SeaWorld Chief Financial Officer James Heaney told analysts Thursday that even without the shift in Easter, attendance would have been higher than during the first quarter of last year.

But he cautioned that per capita spending by guests was down 5.6%, partly because of promotional deals launched this year, as well as a slight drop in spending on food and merchandise by visitors.

SeaWorld executives also pointed out that the company launched a campaign on television, social media and in newspapers to respond to criticism that followed the 2013 release of the documentary "Blackfish." The film accuses SeaWorld parks of abusing and neglecting its killer whales.

Joel Manby, who took over as president and chief executive of SeaWorld Entertainment last month, said responding to the criticism from animal rights activists would continue for months. He assured investors that the campaign will succeed at repairing the company's image.

"I believe that when we get the facts out to our guests, our partners and other constituencies, we win,” he said. "We are just beginning that fight.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said that the latest financial numbers show that SeaWorld's treatment of orcas has permanently damaged the company.

"SeaWorld continues to operate at a loss of millions of dollars, while parks such as Universal Studios have reported continuing financial success," PETA said in a statement. "SeaWorld's sinking ship will continue to take on water until it frees the orcas confined to tiny tanks in its parks and retires them to coastal sanctuaries."

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