SeaWorld Entertainment wants less Shamu and more Elmo.
As it moves away from a focus on animal entertainment, the theme park operator announced Thursday morning that it will build at least one new Sesame Place park in the United States and add a themed land at SeaWorld Orlando.
“We share Sesame’s goal of educating and entertaining generations of children, and the extension of our partnership furthers SeaWorld’s mission to provide guests with experiences that matter,” SeaWorld Entertainment president and CEO Joel Manby said in a statement. “We are thrilled to be able to grow the presence of Sesame Place theme parks in the U.S. and help our company diversify its brand portfolio and expand into new areas.”
Already, the company owns and operates Sesame Place, a 55-acre park with rides, water slides, shows, and characters in Pennsylvania. It also has smaller Sesame Street areas within Busch Gardens parks in Tampa and Williamsburg, Va. as well as SeaWorld parks in San Antonio and San Diego. Those exist under a partnership with Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind Sesame Street, that dates back 37 years.
“The existing license was going to expire in 2021, and we thought there was a great opportunity to build new Sesame Places,” Sesame Workshop chief operating officer Steve Youngwood said in an email. “So we agreed on that and expanded the contract.”
SeaWorld and Sesame Workshop said Thursday that they have extended that deal through the end of 2031; under the new license agreement, SeaWorld becomes the organization’s exclusive theme park partner in the United States.
The second U.S. Sesame Place — with a location, size, and scope “to be determined” — is set to open by the middle of 2021, according to the announcement. It will also be owned and operated by SeaWorld Entertainment. SeaWorld will have the option to build more parks in the United States once that opens.
“We know that the magic of theme parks gives families a unique and powerful way to experience and delight in the Sesame Street characters,” Jeffrey Dunn, CEO of Sesame Workshop, said in the announcement. “Building more Sesame Place theme parks will enable us to connect with even more families and provide funding that supports our nonprofit mission.”
The Sesame Street characters are also in parks outside the U.S.: There’s the standalone Parque Plaza Sesamo in Mexico, and themed lands in Universal Studios Japan, Universal Studios Singapore, and PortAventura World in Spain. More international expansion is likely, Youngwood said.
“We are looking to grow with our existing partners, and we are looking for new partners in other territories,” he said.
Back in the U.S., SeaWorld Orlando’s new Sesame Street attraction is set to be finished by fall of 2022. It will replace Shamu’s Happy Harbor play area and will not be exactly the same as the Sesame-themed lands at other SeaWorld parks.
Financial details about the agreement were not released. SeaWorld did not provide the cost of building the new park, but a spokeswoman said it would be a smaller park and financial commitment than a SeaWorld or Busch Gardens park.
“This allows us to be able to build a quality park for much less than the large parks,” she said in an email. “And historically, we have seen our investments in the Sesame brand perform consistently well.”
The development comes as SeaWorld is in the midst of “repositioning the SeaWorld brand from animal entertainment to experiences that matter,” as Manby said in a recent call with analysts. That shift follows declining attendance and revenues in the wake of the documentary Blackfish, which criticized the company’s handling of captive orcas.
Under Manby, who was named to the top job in 2015, the company announced the end of its orca breeding program. It has started phasing out theatrical animal performances to be replaced with more natural demonstrations and accelerated the construction of new rides to attract more visitors.
A “frequently asked questions” section posted by Sesame Workshop shows the nonprofit is also paying attention to public sentiment around animal treatment.
One question asks: “What diligence did you do regarding animal welfare practices?”
In the answer, Sesame Workshop says Sesame Place parks do not include animal interactions or experiences.
“Before extending our partnership, we discussed the SeaWorld theme parks’ animal welfare practices and policies with their new management team,” the organization said. “We also spoke with the Humane Society of the United States, which is working closely with SeaWorld and told us that they are very supportive of the steps and direction that the SeaWorld theme parks are taking regarding animal welfare.”
Dennis Speigel, president of consulting firm International Theme Park Services, said the Sesame Street focus is a smart move on SeaWorld’s part.
“I think it makes a lot of sense,” he said. “It helps them fulfill an image issue that they’re dealing with and a branding issue that they’re dealing with.”
Sesame Street characters are well-liked by parents and have a strong legacy, he said, and the parties’ longstanding relationship means both are entering into a longer relationship with a known quantity.
“This is all part of a broad strategy that they have to initiate and are initiating in terms of intellectual property, in terms of product offering, in terms of market expansion, visitor enhancement, making the guest’s visit more pleasurable,” Speigel said. “And they have some voids they have to fill since the animals won’t be performing anymore in the future.”