Why One Theme-Park Company Swears It’s Happy to Be Attracting Fewer Visitors

  • Share
  • Read Later

SeaWorld appears to be losing the theme-park wars lately, with declining visitor numbers during the same months that Disney and Universal have seen admission sales soar. Is this all part of the plan for SeaWorld?

For the second quarter of 2013, attendance at SeaWorld’s 11 theme parks dropped by 9% compared with the same period a year prior, and the company reported a loss of $15.9 million. What’s more, the downturn in visitor numbers has taken place during a summer when SeaWorld found itself as the unfortunate subject of a documentary film that essentially argues that orcas — the theme parks’ largest attraction — should not be kept in captivity because it’s dangerous for trainers and whales alike and just plain immoral.

All of which would seem to be bad news for SeaWorld. But company executives are attempting to spin the news in different ways. First off, they say the documentary has not had any impact on park attendance. Secondly, they’ve blamed bad weather and the fact that Easter fell in the first quarter as reasons for the falloff in visitors. Next, they’ve said that the decrease in visitors isn’t necessarily bad news. In fact, they stress that there are positives for the company when it sells fewer admissions.

Businessweek quoted SeaWorld chief executive James Atchison telling investors last week, “Having a couple fewer bodies in the park is also good for our ratings and the experience as well, and we save operating cost.”

(MORE: Is Airline-Style Variable Pricing Coming to Theme-Park Tickets?)

“Some of the attendance decline was deliberate, as the company aggressively raised ticket prices and culled certain discounts,” the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Oh yes, the ticket price increases. All of the major theme parks hiked entrance fees earlier this summer, as it has become seasonal tradition. And the company estimated that jacking up admission prices — now it’s $92 for a single-day adult ticket at SeaWorld Orlando and $89 at its sister park Busch Gardens Tampa — is the reason for one-third of the company’s visitation decrease. In any event, the decline is visitors is O.K., according to SeaWorld, because average revenues per guest in the second quarter rose from $58.75 to $62.67.

There are a few problems with SeaWorld’s explanations, however. While SeaWorld has pointed the finger at rain in Florida, the timing of Easter and ticket-price increases as reasons for the company’s decrease in visitors, Disney and Universal parks — which should also be affected by the factors mentioned — have been enjoying record-high visitor numbers. According to Hollywood Reporter, “The uptick in attendance has even allowed Disney and Universal to push through price increases that have apparently done nothing to slow the tide of visitors.”

Well, it hasn’t slowed visitation down at Disney and Universal parks. It seems to be a different story at SeaWorld’s theme parks. By the company’s own admission, price increases at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens are responsible for at least some of the slump in visitors.

(MORE: $50 Tickets Anyone? Florida Theme Parks Try Out Discounted Weekday Admissions)

But SeaWorld is cool with fewer visitors, right? Recent actions taken by the company indicate something different, however. The other problem with the company’s “all is well” stance is that despite its apparent willingness to accept a decrease in visitors as the trade-off for higher-priced admissions and higher revenues per guest, the company has been actively trying to increase visitor numbers, using aggressive, low-priced-ticket promotions as a lure. A few weeks ago, SeaWorld launched a $50 ticket deal for SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa for any midweek day through Dec. 20.