The awe-inspiring but controversial killer whale shows -- and eventually the whales themselves -- are going away at SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS). The operator of marine life-themed parks announced this morning that it will immediately end its orca breeding program and wind down the theatrical shows starring the majestic killer whales.
SeaWorld's announcement may not come as a complete surprise. It had announced in November that it would end its iconic killer whales show at its original theme park in San Diego later this year. The One Ocean attraction starring Shamu would be replaced by a presentation showcasing the natural behaviors of the orcas with a heavy conservation message. Now that plan has been expanded to SeaWorld's two other parks in San Antonio and Orlando, though those shows may not end until 2019.
However, putting an end to its active breeding program will take place immediately, which means that the orcas in the park now will be the last orcas at SeaWorld. It's a pretty big deal, even if it won't give Blackfish-fueled activists the instant "free Willy" moment that they've been clamoring for. The request to stop breeding was originally imposed by the California Coastal Commission as a condition for approval of the expanded Blue World Project expanded orca environment that SeaWorld was trying to push last year. The irony there is that SeaWorld doesn't have much of an incentive now to spend $100 million to expand the habitats through its Blue World Project since the captive killer whales are now on a biological clock.
It's still the right call, and Wall Street's digging the move if we go by the stock's nearly 7% move higher through the first few hours of the trading day on Thursday. There will be less of a stigma in visiting SeaWorld as it becomes more like a zoo with thrilling coasters, unique dark rides, and immersive shows and attractions.
Patrons were already starting to come back. Attendance inched 0.3% higher in 2015 after back-to-back years of 4% declines. Larger theme park operators Disney (NYSE:DIS) and Universal parent Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSK) (NASDAQ:CMCSA) are growing faster, but they're not mired in the brand-tarnishing nightmare that SeaWorld has had to live through in recent years.
If activists at least lay down their picketing signs in light of SeaWorld's game-changing announcement -- and The Humane Society of the United States is already on board with it and partnering with SeaWorld on outreach efforts -- it could lead to a dramatic turnaround in turnstile clicks and branding opportunities. It only helps that Disney World and Disneyland raised ticket prices by as much as 18% last month. Comcast followed suit. Two of SeaWorld's three namesake parks happen to be in direct competition with Disney's and Comcast's parks in Florida and California, giving SeaWorld the leeway to either boost prices or promote its value proposition.
SeaWorld's future is one where themed rides and attractions can pitch a conservation message as less controversial shows and immersive exhibits attract families. It's the smartest move for SeaWorld as a company to make, and we'll find out soon if it delivers a long overdue bounce in attendance during the peak summer travel season.