It's going to cost a little more to drive past Blackfish protesters and enjoy a day of Shamu splashes, penguin interactions, and one of the finest roller coasters in the state of Florida. SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) yesterday jacked up the price of its SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa theme parks in Florida by 3%; adult guests will now pay $95 plus tax for a one-day ticket to either.
One can argue that Busch Gardens Tampa deserves the modest increase. It just added Falcon's Fury, the country's tallest freestanding drop tower, which sends riders hurtling headfirst 335 feet down. However, it's a different scenario at SeaWorld Orlando, the park that served as the controversial centerpiece for the Blackfish documentary that argues killer whales shouldn't be held in captivity. SeaWorld is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its original marine life park in San Diego with a chain-wide "Sea of Surprises" promotions, but SeaWorld Orlando isn't doing much beyond adding more street performers and animal encounters alongside tweaked versions of its signature shows.
Paying $95 at the gate for a day at Sea World Orlando places it in the same league as Disney's (NYSE:DIS) four Disney World theme parks and Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSK) two Universal Orlando attractions. Adult admission is now $96 at Universal's Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios Florida. Over at Disney World, Magic Kingdom is now up to $99, but admission to EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, or Animal Kingdom is cheaper than SeaWorld Orlando at $94.
That's a lot of money, but at least rival operators have made major investments in new marquee attractions. The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train officially opens next week at Disney's Magic Kingdom. The ambitious Harry Potter expansion at Universal Studios Florida that introduces Diagon Alley complete with an indoor roller coaster and a Hogwarts Express train that connects with Universal's Islands of Adventure will have no problem drawing record crowds this summer. All three of the Florida parks that are slightly more expensive than SeaWorld Orlando are justifying the price hikes made earlier this year with new e-ticket attractions. Whatcha got, SeaWorld?
This wouldn't be a problem if SeaWorld was attracting so many guests that an increase seemed reasonable, but that's certainly not the case here. Attendance declined 4% to 23.4 million guests across SeaWorld's properties last year. Turnstile clicks plunged 13% during this year's first quarter. The Easter and spring break holiday shifts played a major part in that drop, but we certainly didn't see any double-digit declines at Disney or Comcast attractions.
SeaWorld thinks it can coast. It knows that there will be a flurry of tourists hitting up Orlando to visit neighboring parks, and it can always hope that some of those visitors will trickle in during their stays. It also knows that the shift in holidays will make this a rare quarter of positive comps at SeaWorld, and it can point to that as proof that patrons are not rejecting the price increase. After four consecutive quarters of shrinking attendance it can use the change, no matter how it was generated. However, at the end of the day, SeaWorld won't earn this summer's success. Riding coattails can only take you so far, and increasing prices at a time when attendance has been sliding is all wet.