It's a rough day for SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) investors. Shares of the theme-park operator hit new all-time lows today after the company posted disappointing quarterly results.
It's pretty bad: Attendance across all of its parks, 5.98 million guests, is nearly 8% below where it was during last year's second quarter. After stabilizing with a meager uptick in 2015 and inching higher during the seasonally sleepy first quarter of this year, turnstile clicks at SeaWorld are hurting again.
PETA -- an animal-rights organization and a longtime foe of SeaWorld -- is taking some of the credit for the slide in guest counts. It claims that SeaWorld's decision to keep killer whales in captivity is shooing away potential customers.
"SeaWorld is losing more and more visitors every month because public opposition to confining marine mammals to concrete tanks -- where they are slowly driven insane, grinding their teeth down to nubs on the metal bars and floating listlessly in just feet of water -- is at an all-time high," PETA executive Tracy Reiman said in a statement released this morning.
Unfortunately for PETA and SeaWorld -- and also for Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS), which reports quarterly results early next week -- the issues facing the park operators are a different kettle of fish altogether.
The real problem at SeaWorld
PETA can certainly gloat. It's undeniable that some of the backlash at SeaWorld in recent years stems from the growing awareness of the challenges surrounding killer whales in captivity. It's not a coincidence that SeaWorld's attendance started to fall after Blackfish, a documentary about a killer whale in captivity, was released.
However, SeaWorld's attendance growth last year gave the impression that consumers were starting to move on. If anything, the fact that attendance started to drop off after SeaWorld announced that it would end its orca breeding program in March would seem to suggest that it's the pro-SeaWorld camp that feels betrayed by the theme park winding down its live performances, and eventually its collection of killer whales, that hurt the company.
Relax, conspiracy theorists. PETA and the anti-PETA camps are both wrong. There's a problem specific to Florida, and it was evident when even Disney World suffered a rare dip in attendance during the quarter ended in March.
The problem has only gotten worse in the second quarter. The shift in the timing of the Easter school holiday and spring break -- going from April last year to March this year -- inflated the first quarter's performance at the expense of the second quarter's showing. However, more specific to Florida, the dramatic downturn in Latin American economies has crushed the flow of tourists from Argentina, Venezuela, and, more importantly, Brazil into Florida.
SeaWorld estimates that Latin American attendance to SeaWorld Orlando is down 40% -- or 235,000 guests -- in the first half of the year. That accounts for more than half of the 411,000 shortfall that SeaWorld has experienced in turnstile clicks throughout all of its parks during the first six months of the year. There was also the impact of Tropical Storm Colin smashing into Florida in early June, and then tourists pulling back in late June following the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando.
None of these factors has anything to do with SeaWorld's practices, and it should be clear when Disney likely reports weak attendance for its Florida resort next week. If you want more proof, consider that SeaWorld's attendance through the first half of the year is actually higher outside of Florida. If PETA's influence were as large as the organization claims, wouldn't attendance also be taking a hit at SeaWorld parks in California and Texas?
PETA may be correct that SeaWorld's brand perception has taken a hit as marine mammals in captivity have become a contentious issue, but it's obviously not what's driving the slowdown at SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa.
The silver lining here is that SeaWorld points out that total attendance in July rose 4%, largely helped by a pair of roller coasters that opened in Florida in June. We'll see if Disney is seeing any kind of turnaround at its largest resort for the current quarter when it reports results next week, but it's hard to see it faring well when it will be under the weight of many of the factors that held SeaWorld back this past quarter.