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New roller coasters — and new technology for old rides — are coming to SeaWorld Entertainment parks as the struggling company tries to attract visitors while moving away from its signature orca shows.
The theme park company is investing about $175 million in new attractions that will debut next year, including family-friendly submarine and swing rides in San Diego, a wooden roller coaster in Williamsburg, a jet ski-inspired coaster in San Antonio, and a new virtual reality element for the Kraken ride in Orlando.
“In developing new experiences we want guests to have fun, but also be inspired, and our parks are uniquely suited to create meaningful and fun vacations,” SeaWorld Entertainment president and CEO Joel Manby said in a statement. “We want our guests to share experiences that matter, and our 2017 additions truly reinforce that mission.”
The parent company, which has 12 parks across the United States, unveiled the plans in detail last week, though executives had previously announced some news, including the capital investment amount.
New rides include a wooden roller coaster, called InvadR, debuting at Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia in the spring. The park’s first wooden coaster will feature a drop of more than 70 feet and allows guests to vote and choose details that will be included in the ride.
While not a new ride entirely, the Kraken roller coaster at SeaWorld Orlando will add a virtual reality component next summer with riders wearing headsets that integrate a deep-sea experience. The combination of virtual reality and coaster is new for SeaWorld, but other theme park operators — especially Six Flags Entertainment — have introduced the technology as a way to refresh rides without spending serious dollars.
One new coaster coming in the summer, Wave Breaker: The Rescue Coaster at SeaWorld San Antonio, highlights the company’s efforts to help animals who are sick, injured or otherwise in peril.
Ocean Explorer, a new three-acre area at SeaWorld San Diego, will feature aquariums and five new rides, including a submarine voyage and swing ride.
Other attractions offer a more passive look at marine life. An updated dolphin nursery in Orlando will allow for closer views of mother and baby dolphins, while the theatrical killer whale show in San Diego is being replaced by a more educational “orca encounter.” The killer whale shows in Orlando and San Antonio will follow suit in 2019.
The move away from the dance-and-pose shows toward a more natural experience is part of SeaWorld’s effort to reverse the onslaught of criticism that followed the 2013 release of the documentary “Blackfish,” which was critical of the company’s treatment of captive orcas. Manby announced in March that SeaWorld was ending its killer whale breeding program and phasing out the theatrical shows.
After the policy shift, the company said public sentiment about the parks improved and more people said they intended to visit. But business has not rebounded.
In the second quarter, attendance dropped by 7.6 percent and revenue fell 5 percent. Profits rose, but the company lowered its outlook for the full year. Executives said during the August earnings call that attendance had been hurt in Orlando by weaker-than- expected visitation from Brazil. And the impact of the spreading Zika virus in Florida and the Brexit vote in the UK was still unknown.
Late last month, SeaWorld said it would stop paying its shareholders a quarterly dividend.