SeaWorld Gets Desperate This Summer

SeaWorld turns to Groupon to get the turnstiles clicking again.

Jul 3, 2014 at 1:22PM

SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) is back on Groupon (NASDAQ:GRPN) with hopes of discounting its way to more turnstile clicks. The theme park operator is offering its Fun Card -- a pass for unlimited visits to either SeaWorld Orlando or Busch Gardens Tampa through the end of the year -- for $75 through Groupon. The pass retails for $95, plus tax.

The timing isn't likely a coincidence. SeaWorld is in a funk. It saw attendance across all of its parks decline 4% last year. Things got worse during the first quarter of this year, with a 13% plunge. A major contributor to the slide was the timing of the Easter holiday. Going from March in 2013 to April in 2014 cost the operator potential customers on school holidays. They naturally benefited from the Easter timing during the quarter that ended earlier this week; but how will the second half of the year play out?

SeaWorld is no stranger to turning to Groupon when it sees traffic drying up. SeaWorld turned to Groupon in December of last year, offering $59 one-day park tickets to SeaWorld Orlando. It didn't work. The first quarter was a disaster. Offering discounted seasonal passes now -- just as the third quarter is getting underway -- is a pretty fair indicator that SeaWorld knows that it's going to have to do more to get attendance going in the right direction.

SeaWorld Orlando has been struggling since last year's Blackfish documentary called out the company for keeping killer whales in captivity. Several bands cancelled concerts at a SeaWorld Orlando music festival earlier this year, pressured by activists. It's also not helping that the park isn't introducing an E-ticket attraction to woo guests this summer the way that neighboring rivals Disney (NYSE:DIS) and Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSK) Universal Orlando are with Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Harry Potter's Diagon Alley expansion, respectively.

SeaWorld thought that it had a crowd magnet for Busch Gardens Tampa, but Falcon's Fury -- the country's tallest freestanding drop tower, which sends thrill-seeking riders 335 feet down in a headfirst plunge -- has yet to open despite area billboards advertising otherwise.

SeaWorld probably was hoping to cash in on the influx of tourists into Central Florida this summer to check out what the competitors are doing -- taking a day or two out of the trip to hit one of its parks -- but it doesn't seem to be happening beyond the likely surge in Easter-related traffic in April.

I'm doing my part. I'm spending the summer in Celebration, Florida. Armed with annual passes, I've been to SeaWorld's Busch Gardens Tampa, and Aquatica. I've visited SeaWorld Orlando twice. I plan to keep coming. The crowds have been lighter than I recall in previous summers. I can't say the same for my treks out to Universal Studios Florida or Disney's Magic Kingdom. The light crowds may be good news to me as a guest, but it's not what shareholders want to see. 

Even if the Groupon deal works, getting a bunch of thrifty locals to add bodies to the park isn't going work. It will be more people in line for the rides and attractions, but folks waiting for discounted Fun Card passes aren't likely to be spending a lot of money inside the park. SeaWorld's Groupon deal suggests that, as good as the second quarter likely was relative to last year's Easter-less second quarter, guidance for the balance of the year isn't likely to be very encouraging.

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