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SeaWorld attendance slumps 15% as Shamu shows are phased out

Orcas perform during Sea World San Diego's final Shamu show Jan. 8.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. failed to break out of its attendance slump during the first three months of this year, blaming a sharp decline on a later Easter holiday and the absence of a killer whale attraction at the San Diego park since early January.

The Orlando, Fla., company reported Tuesday that attendance across its 12 parks during the first quarter sank 15% compared with a year earlier, while overall revenue fell to $186.4 million — also a 15% decline.

The Easter holiday fell in April this year, which affected the timing of spring break for a number of schools, SeaWorld said. Also a factor — although to a lesser degree — is ongoing construction at SeaWorld San Diego as it prepares to debut at the end of this month its new Orca Encounter, which will showcase the natural behaviors of killer whales in the wild. The park’s final Shamu performance was in January. (Shamu shows have not yet ended at the SeaWorld parks in Florida and Texas.)

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“The company believes the decline in attendance during this transition results largely from a lack of new content during the interim period,” SeaWorld said in its earnings release.

In last year’s first quarter, SeaWorld saw overall attendance rise 2.6%, helped by an Easter holiday that fell in March.

The company sought to put a positive spin on Tuesday’s disappointing report, noting that attendance overall was flat through the end of April, thanks to a rebound in the number of visitors that month.

“Remember, this is without any new rides or major attractions, except for InvadR [a wooden roller coaster] at Busch Gardens” in Virginia, SeaWorld Chief Executive Joel Manby said.

Manby said that so far this year, revenue from season pass sales are up nearly 6%. The company reported a first-quarter net loss of $61 million, or 72 cents a share — an improvement from last year’s first quarter, when it lost $84 million, or $1 a share.

Investors seemed pleased, pushing SeaWorld stock up 3.2% on Tuesday to $18.11.

SeaWorld executives are hoping that new attractions, which Manby described as “one of the strongest lineups” ever offered, will help bolster the company’s financials.

Along with the Orca Encounter, SeaWorld San Diego will debut its new Ocean Explorer attraction, which will include a three-minute mini-submarine ride. And the SeaWorld park in Orlando will transform its Kraken roller coaster into a virtual reality experience, providing riders with VR goggles to simulate an underwater adventure.

The Tuesday earnings report comes a day after SeaWorld’s new investor, Zhonghong Zhuoye Group of China, finalized its acquisition of Blackstone Group’s stake in the company. The new partnership is expected to open up opportunities for new theme park development in Asia over the next several years.

Weisberg writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

lori.weisberg@sduniontribune.com


UPDATES:

2:35 p.m.: This article was updated with the stock’s closing price.

This article was originally published at 8:05 a.m.


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