If you value a company by the company that it keeps, SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) would be a hit with activists. Marline life artist and conservationist Guy Harvey has been at SeaWorld Orlando over the past two days, painting a mural that will serve as the visual centerpiece of Shark Wreck Reef when it opens for guests on June 10.
The partnership won't end as soon as the paint dries. Harvey will be providing unique artwork and apparel to be sold exclusively at the park. Proceeds from the merchandise sales will benefit the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation. The two parties will also team up to raise awareness on the plight of sharks in the wild and the ocean's health in general.
It won't be enough to appease some of SeaWorld's harshest critics. The theme park operator thought it finally had critics won over back in March when it announced that it would end its orca breeding program. It would also start to wind down its iconic killer whale shows. The move was enough to win the approval of the Humane Society of the United States and eventually dismiss legal fisticuffs with the California Coastal Commission.
However, SeaWorld wants to continue to show off the whales in expanded habitats. PETA and some activists won't be satisfied until they are released to sea pens. On the other end of the spectrum, CEO Joel Manby had town hall meetings with its park pass holders last month, and they felt that SeaWorld should have done more to fight the claims raised in Blackfish. Both extremes aren't happy, and that's typically the sign of an ideal compromise but it could also create backlash on both ends. SeaWorld fans feel betrayed, and many of the people that the park was trying to appease aren't satisfied.
Mako to the rescue
Harvey's mural won't be the star attraction of Shark Wreck Reef. The new section of the park will be anchored by Mako, a world class coaster that will be the area's tallest, fastest, and longest thrill ride. SeaWorld Orlando will never have the richly themed dark rides that nearby rivals Disney (NYSE:DIS) and Universal Studios parent Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) offer. It's not generating the kind of attendance or revenue that Disney World and Universal Orlando are delivering.
However, SeaWorld should be able to outspend regional amusement park operators for world-class scream machines to woo millennials, and eventually appear young families with more family friendly rides that have an educational component.
SeaWorld is evolving, and after suffering attendance declines of 4% in back-to-back years in 2013 and 2014 the turnstile clicks stabilized in 2015. That finds us with revenue and attendance inching up marginally in early 2016, but we're still far removed from 2012's peak levels.
We'll know this summer if it yielded too much to activist pressure -- if Mako is enough to liven things up at SeaWorld's most visited theme park. The park operator's own guidance is conservative, but when you're not Disney or Comcast -- and you're not appeasing your biggest fans or critics -- there's still a wide universe in the middle that can save the day.