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5 Ways SeaWorld Is Trying to Catch Up to Disney and Universal

By Rick Munarriz – Nov 7, 2016 at 4:04AM

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A new dining pass at SeaWorld Orlando is going to bring hungry passholders to the struggling marine park. Its larger rivals should be paying attention.

Image source: SeaWorld Entertainment.

SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS 1.84%) is ripping a page out of a regional amusement park chain's playbook in the latest comeback attempt at its most visited attraction. SeaWorld Orlando is rolling out the 2017 Dining Plan as an add-on to annual passes, giving frequent visitors to the Central Florida theme park the ability to pay $79 for an entire year's worth of meals. 

There are plenty of restrictions to the plan as originally reported by The Orlando Sentinel. The pass is only good for a single meal each day. It includes an entree, a side or dessert, and a non-alcoholic beverage. The 2017 Dining Plan is also not valid at its fancier Sharks Underwater Grill restaurant or Dine with Shamu experience. It also doesn't cover pricier fare including ribs, beef brisket, and combo platters.  

It's still likely to be a popular offering for passholders who visit the marine life theme park often. The less restrictive All-Day Dining Deal sets day guests back by $35 for an entire day of unlimited meals at select eateries, making this yearlong pass a pretty tempting value at a little more than double the price.

Six Flags (SIX 2.61%) pioneered the season dining plan, and it's reportedly been a winner. When Janney Capital analyst Tyler Batory reiterated his bullish buy rating on Six Flags stock this summer, it came with an encouraging note about the success of its all-season dining pass. Six Flags now offers its dining pass in three varieties starting at $50 for a basic dining plan that includes lunch and a snack to the deluxe and premium plans that offer lunch, dinner, and a snack for as much as $85 a year across all Six Flags parks.

SeaWorld Orlando may seem to be encouraging gluttony with this pass, but it's a smart way to get annual passholders to come more often. Locals also often eat off-site, and this pass may get them to explore some of the meal offerings that they have typically ignored. SeaWorld Orlando's attendance has bounced back outside of Florida, but SeaWorld Orlando has had a rough 2016. Disney (DIS 1.25%) is also seeing sluggish attendance trends at Disney World, but at least overall revenue is growing at a decent clip. Comcast's (CMCSA 0.66%) Universal Orlando is holding up better than both chains.

We'll get a snapshot on the state of SeaWorld tomorrow morning when it reports financial results for the third quarter, but for now, let's go over some of the things beyond the new dining pass that the theme park operator is doing to get attendance back on track. 

Kicking up the thrills

SeaWorld Orlando opened Mako in June, a record-setting roller coaster that is the fastest, tallest, and longest in Florida. Along with the Manta flying coaster and floor-less Kraken, SeaWorld has assembled an impressive lineup of scream machines.  

SeaWorld is emphasizing rides over marine life shows, something that makes sense in this post-Blackfish climate. It's building out the kind of coasters that family-friendly Disney isn't, and with Comcast's Universal Orlando preferring indoor simulators and screen-based rides -- it hasn't opened an outdoor coaster since 2009 -- it's an opportunity to stand out.

Ambassadorship is the new mission

Image source: SeaWorld Entertainment.

SeaWorld Orlando began offering the Transferable Pass in September, a yearlong ticket that can be purchased along with a regular annual pass. It allows an annual passholder the ability to bring any guest into the park. It costs $40 more than a regular annual pass, but the transferability from visit to visit makes it attractive. 

It's a smart offering. It will lead to passholders bringing new guests into SeaWorld Orlando. SeaWorld has been sprucing up its park over the years, and someone who may have stayed away figuring that it was just a place with controversial killer whale shows could be in for a pleasant surprise if escorted in for free with an active annual passholder. SeaWorld is investing a big $175 million across all of its parks for 2017, and that includes a virtual-reality update to the Kraken coaster. The Transferable Pass is a good way to throw out a larger net.

Hammering home the conservation message

Activists still have their beefs with SeaWorld, and that may never truly change. However, the park operator is no longer struggling to get its side of the story out. Sea Rescue -- a Saturday morning TV show detailing the marine life rescue efforts by SeaWorld -- is likely playing on your local ABC affiliate. 

SeaWorld also got the Humane Society to back its efforts to scale back killer whale performances, and even conservationist Guy Harvey has painted a mural at SeaWorld Orlando. If you hated SeaWorld before, you may merely dislike it now. If you didn't have an opinion, SeaWorld is doing a better job of positioning itself as a place that takes care of animals. 

Refraining from the big price hikes found elsewhere

Disney and Comcast have been making the most of their popularity, and that involves some pretty dramatic increases in admission prices. Disney shifted to demand-based pricing for one-day tickets, making a visit to one of its Florida parks 18% more expensive now than it was a year ago during peak season. Universal has jacked up prices for its annual prices three times since April of last year. 

SeaWorld has inched some prices higher in recent years, but for the most part, it has kept increases in check. It can now feasibly present itself as a value proposition relative to the larger Comcast and Disney. We'll find out tomorrow if any of these efforts are working.

Rick Munarriz owns shares of SeaWorld Entertainment and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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