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Friday, October 20, 2017

By Sandra Pedicini, Orlando Sentinel (TNS)

ORLANDO, Fla. — As it reinvents itself, SeaWorld is pursuing strategies more typical of a smaller regional theme park than an international tourist destination.

SeaWorld last month acknowledged its daily prices can’t keep matching those of Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando. The Orlando park’s planned Mako roller coaster is considered an attraction more typical of a smaller theme park than a Disney and Universal. And SeaWorld is marketing more heavily to people within a 300-mile radius of its theme parks, which also include Busch Gardens.

“We’re trying to play where we know we can win,” Chief Executive Officer Joel Manby recently told analysts. “You have to make choices, and I’m not saying we’re not giving up on the international visitor, a long-vacation visitor, but we’re competing where we can compete the best.”

Executives were not available for an interview. During two talks with investors last month, Manby said SeaWorld will stress price to stand out among its increasingly expensive neighbors. The gap in pricing with Disney and SeaWorld, he said, will likely widen over time.

“I think being a strong-value player in Orlando and even in Southern California is a great opportunity for us, because our competitors are increasing their prices dramatically,” he said.

Several theme-park experts and analysts said Manby’s comments are acknowledging that without the same deep pockets as Disney and Universal, SeaWorld has to be satisfied with a lower caliber of offerings.

“It is SeaWorld really saying, ‘We’re a second-tier park, but, boy, we’re the best second-tier park out there,’ ” said Scott Smith, an assistant hospitality professor with the University of South Carolina.

As late as 2013, SeaWorld was emphasizing higher pricing, saying it was willing to sacrifice some attendance for visitors who would spend more money. Also that year it opened Antarctica, following a trend set by Disney and Universal of building entire lands around one theme.

Manby unveiled SeaWorld’s new path in November, seven months after joining the company from Herschend Family Entertainment, the operator of theme parks including Dollywood.

SeaWorld has lost attendance in the wake of controversy over its killer whales, fanned by the 2013 anti-captivity documentary Blackfish.

However, SeaWorld has a competition problem, too. Universal Orlando, which opened in 1990, has become much stronger, especially during the past five years as it has opened its Harry Potter lands. In 2009, industry estimates showed SeaWorld was Central Florida’s busiest non-Disney park. Now, those same estimates show SeaWorld lagging far behind Universal, with 3 million fewer annual visitors than either of its parks.

As Disney’s and Universal’s attendance has grown, so have their prices, with both crossing the $100 barrier this spring. One-day tickets cost $102 at Universal. Disney charges $105 at Magic Kingdom and $97 for its other parks. SeaWorld tickets cost $99 at the gate.

SeaWorld offers discounts to buy advance tickets online. Those cost $70 for weekday admission, $89 for weekends. Next month, SeaWorld will charge $79 for advance tickets both weekdays and weekends.

Daily rates might come down, Manby said, but SeaWorld is trying to shift people to options such as multiday tickets and passes.

Now its own publicly traded company, SeaWorld finds itself without the same financial resources as Disney and Universal, both part of huge media conglomerates: the Walt Disney Co. and Comcast Corp., respectively.

Both have television networks that provide promotional opportunities, such as an hourlong special NBC ran last year on Universal’s newest Harry Potter area. Both Disney and Comcast created or have purchased rights to popular movie franchises such as Harry Potter and Frozen, big draws in theme parks.

Without such blockbusters to rely on, “I don’t see where they really have any other choice but to become more of a regionally focused chain,” said Robert Niles, editor of the ThemeParkInsider.com blog.

SeaWorld is still investing, with plans to open a new attraction annually for the next five years in Orlando. SeaWorld described the new attractions in a statement as “experiences of exploration, where we can touch the heart, teach the mind, and inspire positive action.”

Opening this summer is Mako, a 200-foot-tall shark-themed coaster expected to be taller and faster than any other in Central Florida, for now. Manby earlier this year described it as “just a classic thrill ride that is more typical of a regional park.”

The investment in the coaster is likely between $20 million and $30 million, said Credit Suisse analyst Joel Simkins — “significant, but not on the scale of a Harry Potter.”

Manby told investors this year that Harry Potter has been a major reason SeaWorld has lost international visitors. Focusing heavily on visitors from 300 and fewer miles away, SeaWorld has been trying to drive visits from pass holders.

“Particularly targeted to our local market, we will continue to always be accessible but with scope unlike our regional competitors,” Manby said.

Some analysts describe SeaWorld as a sort of hybrid between a destination theme park and a regional one. With so many visitors from around the world here in Orlando, they say, SeaWorld needs to keep drawing from them.

“I think there’s definitely room for, let’s call it a premium regional park,” Niles said. “You’re not just trying to compete on cost and frills but get the type of person who would go to Universal on a summer vacation … for a weekend getaway. I think there’s space in the market.”

©2015 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Christian Benseler via Flickr