SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) is in a slump, but it's not going to simply let the ocean current take it where it wants to. CEO Joel Manby detailed a new vision for the meandering operator of theme parks yesterday.
"Activists won't be happy until SeaWorld releases its killer whales into the wild, and then they may turn their attention to dolphins and sea lions," I wrote this summer, shortly after the November presentation was announced. "That's not going to happen. SeaWorld is investing a lot of money in its new orca habitats. However, with enhanced viewing areas, if it scales back the performances it could make it harder to hate. It's already taking steps to make the marine life angle less important, opening new thrill rides and immersive attractions. SeaWorld is never going to turn its back on its roots, but it wouldn't be hyping a peeled curtain that's less than three months away if it didn't have something radical to offer."
Well, SeaWorld did have some radical things to announce. Let's go over some of them.
1. Shamu shows are going away in San Diego
Living up to my prediction of scaling back the performance component, SeaWorld's original park in San Diego will end its killer whale shows next year. It will replace the One Ocean attraction with an orca presentation that highlights the killer whale's natural behaviors with a heavy conservation message.
This is largely in response to Blackfish-caffeinated activists, even if it will ultimately not be enough to completely satisfy the boo birds.
2. Blue World Project is now on hold
SeaWorld had an ambitious plan to expand the orca environments, starting with San Diego. Blue World Project would provide better viewing areas, larger tanks, and enhanced features. SeaWorld met some initial resistance with the plan, and the California Costal Commission eventually approved the new tanks if it was accompanied with an end to killer whale breeding.
That's not going to happen, so the irony is that the commission's call to end breeding may be what puts an end to the tank expansion that would have enhanced the life of the orcas.
3. More rides are coming
Some of the $100 million earmarked for Blue World Project is being diverted to new attractions. One ride introduced is a SeaWorld Rescue-themed roller coaster that will go into its SeaWorld park in either San Diego or San Antonio. It already has a major coaster set to open next summer in Orlando.
This is the way to go, and armed with a partnership with Panasonic to enhance tech experiences, it's another way for SeaWorld to wean itself off actual animals that have courted controversy.
4. Inns are in
A few of SeaWorld's parks -- SeaWorld Orlando, SeaWorld San Diego, and Busch Gardens Tampa -- are within roughly an hour of Disney's (NYSE:DIS) theme parks. SeaWorld isn't Disney, but it's not afraid to steal what works. Hotels and recognized characters have helped turn Disney into world-class destinations, and SeaWorld is also following suit.
SeaWorld struck a deal with Evans Hotel Group to explore the development of a hotel at SeaWorld San Diego. It also presented maps of some of its other parks, detailing where it can eventually add resort hotels. On the character front, SeaWorld struck a licensing deal with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that will go into play starting with next year's holiday season.
5. Streamlining its ticket prices
Theme parks are like airlines, with folks paying different prices for the experience. SeaWorld wants to change that, and that also includes emphasizing discounts for those buying in ahead of time.
SeaWorld's website is also getting better at promoting add-on activities, and trying to sway buyers into upgrading to multiday or annual passes. Attendance has stabilized through the first nine months of 2015, and now it's time for SeaWorld to splash down with a turnaround of its own.