SeaWorld Attendance Goes Even Lower. Will This Park EVER Recover?

Ever since 2012, the hits have kept on coming for SeaWorld. Despite the fact that SeaWorld Orlando is currently the least expensive major theme park to visit in central Florida, has an annual passholder program with serious perks, and offers some truly aggressive deals and discounts, SeaWorld has not bounced back from its attendance lows in 2014 and 2015 and has confirmed this week what many have long suspected: this park’s recovery is not going to plan at all. 

A little over a week ago, SeaWorld put out a statement ahead of its earnings report stating that revenue and attendance declined in 2016 compared with previous years. Not a lot of specifics were given at the time, but many took this as a signal that SeaWorld’s earnings report would contain a lot of bad news. And unfortunately, this is one situation where this preliminary puff of smoke indicated that there was a blazing inferno.

Attendance is down by huge amounts in 2016, especially among annual passholders

Image: SeaWorld

SeaWorld Orlando has been in an attendance slump for the past half a decade, and though it was looking like the park was going to turn things around under new CEO Joel Manby, that unfortunately did not happen in 2016. Though we don’t have specific numbers, it was reported that as a whole attendance across the SeaWorld family of parks in the US was down across the board, with the steepest declines occurring in central Florida, where Busch Gardens Tampa and SeaWorld Orlando shed a collective half a million guests in 2016.

Image: SeaWorld

Interestingly, it looks like a lot of that lost attendance isn’t just from distracted tourists looking to spend more time at Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando Resort, as attendance among annual passholders, who should ideally make up some of this park’s most loyal “base”, was down by 18 percent in the first half of 2016 when compared with the previous year.

This is all certainly really bad news for the park, which opened new roller coaster Mako in 2016, and was hoping to see attendance finally turn around thanks to this record-breaking attraction. However, it seems like the opposite has happened. According to SeaWorld, the decline is due to bad weather in late 2016 from Hurricane Matthew, Tropical Storm Colin and Hurricane Hermine, slower domestic tourism overall in central Florida, and a decline in international attendance, primarily from Latin America.  

Image: Brian, Flickr (license)

While it’s certainly likely that all three of these issues had some effect on SeaWorld’s most recent attendance levels, we can’t help but feel like there’s something else at work here as well…

Cuts will keep coming as SeaWorld tries to stay afloat

Image: SeaWorld

Last year SeaWorld put itself in a kind of “recovery” mode in response to previous underwhelming revenue and attendance reports. Attractions like Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin were closed on weekdays, staffing was reduced around the park, and several live shows were cut completely while SeaWorld waited for things to get better. However, while it looks like these cuts may have saved SeaWorld some money in the short term, this tactic may have backfired in the long term, as guests have noticed this draw-down around the parks, which could be one of the big reasons why annual passholders numbers have diminished in 2016. 

And even though it looks like guests have responded negatively to cuts at SeaWorld, the cuts will keep coming. After reporting a staggering $12.5 billion loss in 2016, Chief Financial Officer Peter Crage told analysts that SeaWorld is looking at “ways to reduce labor hours and volume,” which basically means more staff will be cut, and you’ll likely see more attractions operating on a seasonal or reduced-hours schedule around the park over the next few months. While the cuts were made last year to help get in front of the park’s financial woes, given the current state of affairs, these cuts might now be necessary just to keep the park going on a daily basis. 

How could things possibly get worse? Volcano Bay

Image: SeaWorld

One interesting footnote in SeaWorld’s recently released financial report was the addition that a greater percentage of guests visited SeaWorld’s water parks in 2016. And while that sounds like an encouraging sign on the surface, this could actually be a hindrance for 2017. 

In case you haven’t been paying attention, Universal is opening its Volcano Bay water park in 2017, and while we don’t know how much admission to this new park will cost, there’s no doubt that water park fans will flock to this new destination this year, almost certainly pulling guests away from Aquatica, which has been one of the few bright spots for SeaWorld. 

While SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby doesn’t think Walt Disney World’s Pandora – The World of Avatar will have too much of an effect on attendance at SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Orlando Resort’s Volcano Bay could really have a devastating effect on attendance at Aquatica, particularly if admission for Volcano Bay is competitively priced enough to lure guests away from Aquatica, which hasn’t opened a new ride in nearly three years. 

Image: Universal

To say that SeaWorld has had a tough couple of years would be a gross understatement. However, this park hasn’t gone down yet, and to his credit CEO Joel Manby has been doing all he can to try and get SeaWorld to bounce back, with new attraction openings, budget cuts, and even the end of the park’s controversial Orca breeding program. However, the sad reality is that almost all of these initiatives have failed to get guests back in the park, with some even having a negative effect on attendance. SeaWorld executives have got to be wondering what they can possibly do to get this park back on track and at this point, we are too. 

So what do you think? Is there anything SeaWorld can possibly do to recover, or is this park simply going to have to accept its new reality of lower attendance and declining revenue? 

  • Originally in Theme Park Tourist By , Wednesday, March 1, 2017 05:48


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