What happened

Shares of SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. (NYSE:SEAS) were rising today after the theme-park operator posted strong results in its second-quarter earnings report. The company, which owns SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, and several other branded theme parks, posted a surprising increase in attendance, a sign the company is recovering after a backlash following the release of the 2013 Blackfish movie. The stock was up 18.7% as of 12:33 p.m. EDT.

So what

SeaWorld said attendance ticked up 4.8% in the quarter to 6.4 million guests, driving a 4.9% revenue increase to $391.9 million, well ahead of estimates at $368.1 million. While average admission prices were down 4.2% to $35.21, in-park spending rose 6.5% to $25.90, making total per-capita spending essentially flat.

A girl puts her hand on a tank wall next to an orca.

Image source: Seaworld.

That revenue growth translated into earnings per share of $0.26, or $0.36 adjusting for charges related to legal settlements and severances, which beat expectations of $0.27.

Interim CEO John Reilly said he was pleased with the results and "continued momentum in the business," adding, "The results were driven by our new strategic pricing strategies, new marketing and communications initiatives and the positive reception of our new rides, attractions and events." Reilly also noted that season-pass sales revenue was up double digits in the period, a further sign that customers are returning to the parks and that the brand's image has improved.

Now what

Management did not provide guidance for the current year, but set out a goal of $475 million to $500 million in adjusted EBITDA by 2020, which the company plans to achieve through operational improvements, strategic pricing strategies, and new rides and attractions. Through the first half of the year, adjusted EBITDA has jumped 59% to $117.5 million, and the company reported $300 million in adjusted EBITDA last year.

SeaWorld shares are now up 84% year to date, but the stock is still down significantly from five years ago before concerns about its orca program arose. That opportunity, along with a leadership change earlier this year, could mean the stock has more room to run, especially if attendance keeps growing.