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Has SeaWorld Officially Turned a Corner?

By Motley Fool Staff – Aug 16, 2018 at 1:13PM

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The worst may be behind this struggling theme park operator.

SeaWorld (SEAS 1.42%) has struggled in recent years due to scandals regarding how it treats the animals under its care. The company has made some changes in that area while also adding new thrill rides and attractions and rigorously cutting expenses.

In this segment from Industry Focus: Consumer Goods, Vincent Shen is joined by Motley Fool contributor Daniel Kline as they peek behind the curtains of the company's multi-year turnaround -- the stock has gained roughly 80% in 2018 alone. They also break down the company's revenue streams and examine how Harry Potter deserves at least some of the blame for the company's struggles.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Aug. 14, 2018.

Vincent Shen: Our topic of discussion for today is definitely influenced by your experience from this past summer. Last time you were on Industry Focus, you mentioned making trip after trip to the major theme parks in your neck of the woods down in Florida to keep your son entertained for the summer. Did you have a good time?

Dan Kline: I did. I believe I personally am up to 25 days spent in either a Disney park, a Universal park, or a SeaWorld park.

Shen: Even with the long lines, the heat in Florida, I always wonder if something like that grows old -- even something as fun as roller coasters, does that grow stale? I know you're not a roller coaster guy, but you get the idea.

Kline: I'm not. But, if you come down and visit, you're here for two days, and there's a pressure to get everything in. If I go to Universal with my son, usually, I get up early, I work for four or five hours, we go to the park, we do a ride or two, we have some lunch, we do a show, a couple of more rides. If the line is really long on something, maybe we'll do a single ride, or maybe we'll just skip it. We'll come back to this when we talk about annual passes -- as a local, there's just not that same vacation pressure. I never enjoyed theme parks when it was vacation. Now it's like, "We're going to Epcot for lunch and maybe we'll ride Mission: SPACE." It's very different, and a lot more enjoyable.

Shen: Listeners, that's a very relevant lead-in to our main topic for the show. Dan and I are going to look at three companies from the amusement park industry -- those are SeaWorld, Cedar Fair, and Six Flags. Though we've mentioned some of these companies in the past, this is the first time we're going to take a closer look at the industry beyond the Parks and Resorts division at Walt Disney. That division generated $18.5 billion of revenue last year. That's more than 4X the revenue of SeaWorld, Cedar Fair, and Six Flags combined. It's a good reminder of the massive shadow that Disney tends to cast over the industries it plays in. These are the pure plays, and they're really going through some interesting changes and adjustments, especially at SeaWorld and Six Flags.

We'll look at SeaWorld first, ticker SEAS. SeaWorld Entertainment shareholders have really had to buckle down in the past few years to stomach some of the volatility with this business. Shares plummeted in 2014 because of growing controversy regarding the main attraction at SeaWorld theme parks, their whales and other animals. Year to date, the stock has rallied about 80%. A decent portion of that gain followed the company's second quarter earnings report from last week, which we'll dig into more in a few minutes.

A really brief overview for SeaWorld, the company currently operates 12 parks in the U.S. across several well-known banners, including its namesake SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Sesame Place, and a few others. In 2017, almost 21 million people visited the parks. Its top line last year came out to $1.26 billion, which was down 6% year over year, making it the fourth consecutive year of revenue declines. Breaking down the top line, SeaWorld and its peers make money, generally, not only selling tickets for admission to their properties, but also selling food, beverages, other merchandise in the parks. Between those two categories, for SeaWorld specifically, tickets made up about 60% of the top line, concessions and merchandise making up the remaining 40%.

Dan, SeaWorld is the underdog here for the three companies, given its turnaround recently. Can you talk about some of the evolutions the company has undergone recently?

Kline: Let me jump in with one ... I don't want to say misconception, but. The Blackfish Scandal absolutely hurt SeaWorld from a marketing, public relations, attendance point of view. But it wasn't the only reason it went on a steady decline. It's really Harry Potter at Universal that should get some of the blame of this. There used to be, Disney, you went for four or five days, and then you either did Universal or SeaWorld for a day or two. They were your No. 2 park. Now, obviously, that doesn't affect the whole company. That's just the flagship here. But, you had this major change in the Florida market, where SeaWorld became a clear also-ran because Universal invested so much and stepped up its game.

It really changed the thinking for the whole company for SeaWorld, in addition to having to answer a lot of questions on how it treats its animals. When you go to SeaWorld, I would say about 60% of the messaging is to remind you that these animals have a better life than you do. It's over the top. They used to talk about how wonderful the shows were, now it's all about the work they do to save, and they show you videos of them releasing things, and orcas having steak dinners, whatever you could possibly do to counteract that image.

They fought a lot of bad publicity. They were building in the wrong direction, and they've had to pivot. The SeaWorld parks have become more thrill ride parks, in addition to animals. They used to be very focused on shows and animals. They still have all of that, but they tacked on a lot of roller coasters to make those parks a little more appealing to more people.

Shen: There's also been a leadership transition for SeaWorld that came up in February. It makes an interesting situation for the company. For three-plus years, we had CEO Joel Manby, he had to manage a lot of the backlash and helped rebuild the company's public image. The turnaround was slow-going for several years. He actually announced his departure from SeaWorld back in February. Then, you have the results from this past week, which were very encouraging. Attendance was up 4.8% to 6.4 million guests for the quarter. Revenue was up 4.9% year over year to $392 million. Per capita in-park spending gains, basically the spending per customer, offset some of the declines that they saw in the actual admission pricing.

Daniel B. Kline has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Vincent Shen has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Cedar Fair. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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