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SeaWorld Turns to Thrill Rides to Keep the Good Times Rolling

By Rick Munarriz - Aug 22, 2019 at 12:50PM

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The theme park operator announces a new coaster, one of at least three new thrill rides it will introduce in 2020.

It's becoming clear that 2020 will be a year for scream machines at SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS 8.21%). The theme park operator revealed on Wednesday that it will introduce the tallest and fastest wood coaster in Texas at SeaWorld San Antonio next year. It will be one of at least three new roller coasters that the chain will introduce in 2020.

SeaWorld Orlando postponed a media event originally slated for Tuesday in which it was widely expected to unveil its new coaster. The park -- the chain's most visited attraction -- put out a teaser for the arctic-themed coaster with a 2020 debut date two months ago. We also have the more ambitious thrill ride currently going up at Busch Gardens Tampa, billed as North America's tallest and the world's fastest and steepest hybrid coaster. In short, there will be a lot of new rides for thrill seekers to check out at the SeaWorld Entertainment parks next summer.

Manta at SeaWorld Orlando, an existing flying coaster, as it skims along the water.

Image source: SeaWorld Entertainment.

Splashing down

You can rearrange the letters of "orcas set" to spell "coasters" -- and that seems to be what SeaWorld is doing. It's replacing the stigma that some animal activists are trying to amplify when it comes to keeping killer whales in captivity -- the orcas set in this example -- with bar-raising thrill rides that woo the teens and young adults that often get caught up in trendy activist causes.

SeaWorld will always be known for the marine life that has been the signature attraction at the chain's three namesake parks in California, Florida, and Texas. However, with attendance taking a hit following the 2013 release of the scathing Blackfish documentary -- before bouncing back in a major way last year -- it's easy to see why SeaWorld is banking on less controversial attractions to help it compete with local amusement park operators.

There is clearly money to be made in following its peers into new rides and expanded music and food festivals. It's also easier to court guests and woo musical acts by emphasizing non-marine life aspects of its gated attractions. SeaWorld's strategy is working. Attendance continues to move higher in 2019, with revenue, margins, and earnings growing even faster than the turnstile clicks. The shares hit six-year highs this summer.

SeaWorld is striking a delicate balance. The company wants to continue pleasing hardcore fans that appreciate the signature marine-life performances, but it also realizes that an elite roller coaster will smoke out new visitors without courting controversy. Thrill rides also help sell season passes to locals, a key part of any park operator's strategy. SeaWorld's new rides will have their ups and downs, but there's no denying the direction that SeaWorld's stock has taken in nearly tripling over the past two years. Bring on the scream machines.

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