SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS) may be winning the lobbying battle for its orcas while losing the broader war for theme park-goers. It seems the splash of sub-par publicity is keeping crowds away.
For the first half of the year, the string of theme parks posted a 4.3 percent drop in attendance over a disappointing year-earlier period, according to numbers released on Wednesday morning. As SeaWorld dangled promotions to prop up ticket sales, revenue slid 1.5 percent in the recent quarter.
The company has consistently downplayed the effect of Blackfish, a 2013 documentary that criticized the handling of its mega-fauna talent. (Watch the trailer here.) It is now willing to acknowledge that a California bill to shut down its killer whale shows has hurt attendance.
SeaWorld managed to put off the proposal for at least a year, but the lobbying effort wasn’t pretty. The company threatened to seek damages from the state if the measure passed. “If you ban them, you buy them,” SeaWorld lobbyist Scott Wetch cracked at a time when SeaWorld counted 29 orcas in captivity. The tough talk over the fate of Shamu didn’t really jibe with a feel-good family vacation.
SeaWorld attributed some of its poor performance to bad weather, new attractions at competing parks, and schools letting out later. In comparing the performance of its whale-free rivals, it’s clear that those arguments hold some water.
Six Flags (SIX) posted an 8 percent decline in attendance in the most recent quarter, a result it blamed on “the lingering effects of the long, harsh winter.” Still, those who made it into a Six Flags park spent 11 percent more, on average—a boost that SeaWorld didn’t enjoy.
Disney (DIS) attractions, on the other hand, are thriving in the same market conditions. In the recent quarter, revenue at Disney parks and resorts surged by 8 percent, and operating profit climbed by 23 percent. The company raised prices and crowed about higher attendance.
SeaWorld said it hopes to grow abroad and build new attractions at its current parks. But it has a more immediate strategy to fulfill: damage control. The company is bankrolling a “truth campaign” and other national marketing efforts “to build and protect our brands, as well as to counter the recent media attention.”
Wall Street didn’t seem sanguine; SeaWorld shares plummeted by almost 25 percent this morning.