One of the more surprising names hitting all-time highs on Thursday when most stocks were retreating was SeaWorld Entertainment (PRKS -0.48%). The operator of namesake theme parks as well as Busch Gardens, Sesame Place, and a handful of water parks moved higher after serving up better-than-expected financial results. 

Topping expectations is always a good look, but is SeaWorld really more valuable now than it's been at any point in time since going public nearly eight years ago? You probably know the answer. We're at pre-pandemic levels. We're at pre-dividend-suspension levels. Heck, we're even at pre-Blackfish levels. Something smells fishy here, so let's don a wet suit and take a deep dive into why SeaWorld Entertainment stock is making a big splash with investors right now.

Manta roller coaster at SeaWorld Orlando skimming along the water.

The Manta roller coaster at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. Image source: SeaWorld Entertainment.

Blood in the water

Thursday morning's fourth-quarter report may seem pretty brutal at first glance. Revenue plummeted 48% to hit $154.1 million. The bottom line was a mess, as SeaWorld Entertainment checked in with a deficit for the fourth consecutive quarter. Attendance of 2.23 million was a savage 53% slide from where it was during the prior year's holiday quarter. 

There are glimmers of hope in the shipwrecked financials. Seeing its top line being nearly cut in half is rough, but it follows year-over-year slides of 96% and 78% in its two previous reports. The quarterly loss of $45.5 million is the least red ink that it has spilled in the 2020 fiscal year, a notable achievement since it has historically been the summertime period when SeaWorld is the most profitable. 

Entertaining less than half as many guests as it was a year earlier is bad, but with its California parks closed and the rest of its attractions limiting daily capacity, we know that the turnstiles aren't turning at the same velocity as before.

More important, comparing the 53% decline in attendance to the 48% top-line plunge means that SeaWorld is making more money off of each guest. Revenue per capita is up 9.4% to $69.40, largely on admissions, but in-park spending is also marginally higher than it was a year ago when we weren't in a pandemic or a recession

So, yes, SeaWorld is showing sequential signs of improvement. In some ways it's in better shape than it was a year ago at this time. It didn't open any of the major rides it was supposed to unveil at its parks in 2020, and all of those will be opening in the coming months to keep momentum building as we head into what has historically been the peak spring break and summer seasons. 

Is this still worth SeaWorld being at fresh all-time highs? The stock's performance doesn't match the industry narrative. The closest pure plays on amusement parks -- regional operators Six Flags (SIX -1.15%) and Cedar Fair (FUN -0.41%) -- are trading 41% and 33% below their peaks set three and four years ago, respectively. And unlike SeaWorld, which stopped paying its dividend five years ago, Cedar Fair and Six Flags didn't suspend their once-generous quarterly distributions until early last year when the COVID-19 crisis was becoming a 2020 reality. 

SeaWorld will also take a longer time to bounce back than the regional amusement park chains. Six Flags and Cedar Fair rely on locals for the most of their revenue. SeaWorld Entertainment (particularly in Central Florida, where it operates its most-visited attractions) feasts on international visitors who will take longer to come around. The U.K. and Brazil are the two largest contributors of guests at SeaWorld Orlando outside of North America. Both of those countries have been hit hard by the pandemic, and they're not likely to ease up on restrictions anytime soon. 

SeaWorld is still doing a lot of things right, and it's taking smart gambles in card games that its larger theme park rivals can't play. The stock price nonetheless seems too far along for a turnaround that is still a couple of years away. The waves are inviting, but swim at your own risk here. There's no lifeguard on duty.