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SeaWorld Entertainment saw its attendance and revenue grow modestly in the first three months of the year, helped in part by new rides and attractions in most of its markets, which include a dozen theme and water parks across the United States.
The theme park operator reported a first-quarter gain in attendance of 3.6 percent, to 3.3 million people, compared with the same period a year earlier.
The rise came despite some poor weather in California and a calendar shift that moved Easter and many schools’ spring breaks into the second quarter, reducing international visits. SeaWorld’s 3.6 percent attendance growth in the first quarter compared favorably with an 8 percent decrease in the number of people visiting rival Six Flags Entertainment parks in the same period and a mere 1 percent increase at competitor Cedar Fair.
During a Tuesday conference call to discuss the results, CEO Gus Antorcha attributed some of the growth to new attractions.
“We have brand-new rides, attractions, and events coming to almost every of our 12 parks this year,” said Antorcha, now three months into the job. In recent months the company has opened Sesame Street Land at SeaWorld Orlando, Turtle Reef and Riptide Rescue at SeaWorld San Antonio, and Tigress at Busch Gardens Tampa.
Revenue rose 1.6 percent, to $220.6 million, year-over-year. The company posted a net loss of $37 million, though that was nearly half the net loss a year earlier. Antorcha credited new attractions, a record-high for per-person spending in its parks by consumers, and cost reductions, such as trimming more than 120 jobs, as critical factors in bolstering the company’s bottom line.
The rise in revenue and attendance represented an ongoing turnaround for a company that battled years of negative public relations after the release of the documentary “Blackfish,” which alleged that the company abused its captive orcas, a large dolphin species also known as killer whales. Litigation related to these battles is winding down. The company paid $12.1 million in legal settlements related to the issue between January 1, 2018, and March 31, 2019, it disclosed Tuesday.
A New Investor
SeaWorld executives had little to say about Monday’s news that Sun Wise, its largest shareholder and an affiliate of China’s Zhonghong Zhuoye Group, had defaulted under its loan obligations. Zhonghong had pledged its shares in SeaWorld to secure its debts. The lenders have taken ownership of the shares.
“We do not expect these matters to have a material effect on our business, our financial position, or our results of operations,” said Antorcha.
In 2017, private-equity group Blackstone sold its 21 percent stake in SeaWorld to SunWise.
“Our future focus is on adding new compelling rides and experiences across all the parks, marketing those more effectively to generate demand, smarter pricing and season-pass offerings to capture that demand, and real discipline around costs,” said Antorcha. He cited reductions in spending on vendors and consultants and increased use of automation as ways the company intended to cut costs. However, he believed new attractions would be a critical catalyst for future growth in 2019.