It’s been ages since I’ve taken up the theme of SeaWorld here in this space, so an update is long overdue. Where do we stand? What’s the State of the Oceanic Union? Turns out, as is so often the case, the story is mixed. Some wins, and unfortunately a lot of losses.
Let’s start with the big loss. Tilikum, the orca that defined an entire empire of water-themed amusement parks after the film Blackfish (2013) came out, succumbed to illness a couple of weeks ago. His passing was cause for putting SeaWorld back into the headlines, again in a negative way. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Blackfish on these parks. Originally the operators decided to take the high road, but that only led to more protests and emboldened protesters. Only last year did SeaWorld finally capitulate, announcing that this current generation of orcas was the last one to be held in captivity–essentially meaning that although they were not giving up the orca shows, they were giving up the orca breeding program. And then Tilly died.
Attendance has not, it seems to my untrained eye, ever really recovered from 2013, at least not here in Orlando. I would not have predicted that this movie could have delivered a fatal blow to the park, but it’s come awfully close.
Evidence that SeaWorld is hurting goes beyond the wide pathways not choked with people. They’ve started adding rides that have nothing to do with orcas. It gave us Mako, the one and only hyper coaster in Central Florida. I’m here to tell you, the ride is nothing short of glorious, and is worthy of an annual pass all on its own. That the lines are down is, in some ways, a complete blessing.
More recently, the operating hours of the park have given clues as to its financial health. The 3-day Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday usually is seen as big on attendance, with the middle day (Sunday) usually seen as the busiest at any theme park. But SeaWorld closed at 6pm. Clearly, they could tell from advanced bookings that staying open late was just a way to lose money. It made me think that the recent Christmas season, when the park WAS open late, might have been losing money for them. They can’t close early and still have holiday lights everywhere, so it was probably something of a double-bind for them. Unfortunate.
Perhaps most telling of all, they’ve started pandering to locals, or at least repeat visitors. There is now an annual passholder lounge in one corner of the former “free beer” facility, boasting free phone charging and free Freestyle Coca-Cola machines with unlimited soda. This is the moment when we discovered SeaWorld apparently worked with Coca-Cola a few years ago to create a custom flavor called South Pole Chill. OHMYGOSH. You have to try this. It’s great. The diet version, not so much, but the normal one is vanilla goodness I wish I could reproduce at home.
But that’s not half the story. There’s a $79 add-on to your annual pass you can buy, giving you one free entree, one side dish (or dessert), and one drink per day. ALL YEAR LONG. The mind boggles at how much money they are going to “lose” on this, if my own attendance patterns are any indication. Can you imagine how much Disneyland would have to charge to give you an entire tray of free food every day you came to the park?
There are a few “little things” that don’t matter much (such as the fact that the Polar Express overlay didn’t return to Wild Arctic this year, for reasons I never pursued to find out – presumably the license ran out?) It’s balanced by new stuff like the Rudolph walking trail.
Net result? Mixed. Attendance is assuredly down – I can feel that in the lack of wait times. And there were 300 layoffs in December. But they are doing things that are positive for the repeat visitor, which could be a sign of desperation, but could also be a sign of simply re-aligning to core principles that matter.
I do hope SeaWorld pulls through. I like competition in my Central Florida theme parks–it’s the primary reason we get new stuff each year. But more importantly, it’s hard to imagine a future where this beautiful, lovely, just-about-perfect hyper coaster isn’t here to lift me out of my seat thrillingly each week.