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Why Did It Take a Disney World Rival 2 Years to Open New Roller Coasters?

By Rick Munarriz – Aug 24, 2021 at 11:55AM

Key Points

  • SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay have announced February and March openings next year for rides originally marketed as 2020 debutantes.
  • The timing of Disney and Comcast's Universal Orlando with their 2021 flagship attractions played a part in the push to next year for SeaWorld.
  • With a stock that is up more than sevenfold since the initial pandemic sell-off shareholders are cheering louder than coaster enthusiasts are booing.

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SeaWorld Entertainment won't be opening its new thrill rides in Florida until early 2022.

Don't hate. Procrastinate. SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS 3.16%) announced another delay to the opening of two roller coasters that it was scheduled to open in Florida last year. Ice Breaker at SeaWorld Orlando will now open in February 2022. The more anticipated Iron Gwazi at sister park Busch Gardens Tampa Bay will open the following month.

Delays are part of the art of introducing new attractions at a theme park. Infinity Falls -- the last major thrill ride addition to SeaWorld Orlando -- experienced construction and then operational setbacks in 2018. However, this particularly long two-year delay is far more nuanced, embarrassing, and tactical than a garden variety holdup. It also features rivals Walt Disney (DIS -1.04%) and Comcast (CMCSA -0.31%) in starring roles. Buckle up as we go for a ride in this business school case study with gobs of air time.

Concept art for Busch Gardens Tampa's Iron Gwazi coaster.

Image source: SeaWorld Entertainment.

You must be this patient to ride    

Work on Iron Gwazi at Busch Gardens progressed through 2019 and early 2020, aiming for a springtime opening that year before the pandemic hit. The Tampa Bay Times reports that billboards went up in late March of last year, suggesting that the bar-raising coaster would be opening by March 27 of last year to cash in on the seasonal spike of spring break visitors. The problem -- of course -- is that the park had to close two weeks earlier along with other national theme parks and regional amusement parks in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. 

Roughly an hour's drive away, SeaWorld Orlando was hoping to open Ice Breaker in time for the summertime crowds. Ice Breaker was a smaller coaster that lacked the jaw-dropping specs of Iron Gwazi but was still a welcome addition to the parent company's most visited park with some new-to-Florida thrill elements. The pandemic melted away plans for either ride opening on time.

SeaWorld parks in Florida closed for three months during the initial shelter-in-place phase of the pandemic, reopening in June when they received clearance to unlock their turnstiles as long as social distancing, masking, and capacity limits were observed. One would think that three months of downtime would be more than enough to get the already nearly completed coasters ready for parkgoers. SeaWorld Entertainment had been selling annual passes to the two parks since the fall of 2019 promoting the pair of new scream machines opening in 2020. 

Nothing happened. SeaWorld Entertainment wasn't alone here. Disney World and Comcast-owned Universal Orlando also bumped the launch of their 2020 additions. With capacity limits in place and social distancing measures keeping attraction throughput in check it already had what it needed to max its guest counts. Why would a theme park operator spend 10 figures on a new marquee ride when it couldn't get the most marketing bang for its buck?

Just as Hollywood began pushing out high-profile 2020 releases into 2021 and beyond, theme park operators did the same. Outside of a stunt show at Universal Orlando, Central Florida theme parks that had been promoting 2020 debuts for tentpole rides including Iron Gwazi, Ice Breaker, and Disney World's Remy's Ratatouille Adventure quietly shifted the pitch to 2021. 

It's 2021 now. Universal successfully opened its VelociCoaster in June. Epcot's Ratatouille-themed dark ride is already offering employee previews ahead of an Oct. 1 launch. Why is SeaWorld kicking the tuna can into 2022? 

Ironing things out

There are two factors at play here, and neither of them involve these rides not being ready for white-knuckled thrill seekers. The first reason for the 2022 launch is hinted at in the previous paragraph.

When Universal Orlando set a June opening date for its critically acclaimed waterfront coaster at Islands of Adventure -- and began offering soft openings in the month leading up to the official debut -- it pretty much kept SeaWorld out of an early summertime launch. It would be competing with Universal's marketing machine, and as it learned with Infinity Falls in 2018, delaying a rollout until it was late in the summer travel season was a blown opportunity to maximize turnstile clicks. With Disney pointing to an 18-month event starting in October to celebrate the resort turning 50 it took a fall opening off the menu. Just as a movie studio will shift a premiere so it doesn't bump up against a potentially larger blockbuster, SeaWorld Entertainment ran out of 2021 release windows by not opening sooner. When it didn't go through with a springtime 2021 debut for one if not both coasters it was all but surrendering the balance of the year to its two larger rivals.

The other reason for the delay is as simple as a stock chart. SeaWorld stock has been a seven-bagger since bottoming out in the single digits after closing its parks last March, making it one of the market's best-performing travel and tourism stocks. It has outperformed its more diversified rivals as an investment. Business is bouncing back without the new rides, and next month SeaWorld Orlando will kick off its first hard-ticket Halloween event to take on Disney and Universal. 

In short, SeaWorld has been sitting on its steel monoliths for two years not just because it had to, but because it can. It will have to do right by the pass holders that were promised new rides and didn't get them in 2020 and 2021, but that's an easy fix that is already in the works. SeaWorld Entertainment may be a laughingstock for taking so long to get these new rides out, but pull up a chart and you'll see that it's the one getting the last laugh.

Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Comcast. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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