It's not just Blackfish-fed activists calling on SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS 4.09%) to free the whales from its clutches. Citi analyst Jason Bazinet is suggesting -- in a note to clients -- that the theme-park operator should sell its most visited park.
SeaWorld Orlando has been a laggard in the otherwise booming tourist hotbed of Central Florida. Disney's (DIS 0.33%) industry-leading theme parks are growing modestly. Rival Universal is growing quickly. SeaWorld is struggling. Attendance at competing parks in Orlando has risen between 4% and 76% over the past five years, according to industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association. SeaWorld Orlando's turnstile clicks in that time have dipped from 5.8 million in 2009 to 4.683 million, off by 19% in that time.
It's going the wrong way, so Bazinet's modest proposal involves SeaWorld selling off the park. It owns the park's land -- unlike its original park's leased site in San Diego -- and that could net SeaWorld $500 million in after-tax value. Given the surge in popularity at Universal and Disney's expansion efforts that will play out in the coming years, it's easy to see how a juicy chunk of land right off I-4 between Disney and Universal could be tempting for developers if the buyers didn't want to stay in the theme-park business.
Many people don't realize that Sea World also owns Busch Gardens and several water parks under different banners. Just three of the 11 parks are SeaWorld-branded attractions. If it sold off SeaWorld Orlando it could open the door to shake off any notoriety by releasing the orcas and dolphins at its California and Texas parks, rebranding those as Busch Gardens or something else.
SeaWorld is in the process of seeking approval from the California Coastal Commission to double the size of its killer-whale environment, a costly move to give orcas more space to move around that would also provide park guests with enhanced viewing areas. The commission votes next month. Some of the more vocal activists have shot down the upgrade -- they want an outright release of the mammals -- so the expensive olive branch could be a waste of time and money.
SeaWorld isn't going to release its killer whales and dolphins just as any zoo isn't going to release its animal collection into the wild. New CEO Joel Manby will make a presentation on Nov. 6 to unveil a new strategy for the meandering theme-park operator, but that likely doesn't include an outright release of its signature marine life. However, it's clear by SeaWorld's decision to open a new roller coaster in Orlando -- one that will be the tallest, longest and fastest ride in Orlando when it opens next summer -- that it's trying to appeal to more than just folks that want to see dolphins do flips in the air or an orca drench guests sitting in the first few rows of the park's signature show.
SeaWorld isn't as broken as you think. After two years of back-to-back attendance declines of 4%, the entire chain experienced a 0.7% uptick through the first half of 2015. This isn't a turnaround just yet. SeaWorld has had to discount admissions and in-park spending is lower. Earnings and free cash flow are going the wrong way. However, there's a spark of stability here.
Unloading SeaWorld Orlando at the bottom doesn't make sense. Bazinet's argument is sound on the surface. SeaWorld could take the proceeds from the sale to repurchase shares and pay down its debt, propping up the stock price. The move would justify expanded multiples based on the growth prospects of the rest of the company. However, that weighs SeaWorld Orlando's free cash flow contribution based on its sorry state now -- and not where it can be by next summer when it has three world-class coasters in its arsenal, more than any of its rival's individual parks.
Let's wait until Nov. 6 before announcing a fire sale. If Manby earns his keep after a successful run at the parent company behind Dollywood in presenting a promising vision, SeaWorld Orlando could soon be the star of the show instead of the albatross.