SeaWorld loses $61M in first quarter on falling attendance
SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. lost $61 million in the first quarter as attendance and revenue plunged both by about 15 percent, the company said Tuesday.
The Orlando-based theme park operator blamed the dip during the first three months of the year — typically the company’s off-peak season — on a shift in timing of Easter and spring break, adding that year-to-date attendance is flat. Improving attendance in April and a lineup of new attractions opening within the next few weeks means SeaWorld is “well-positioned going into our seasonally important second and third quarters,” SeaWorld CEO and President Joel Manby said in announcing its earnings results.
Attendance dropped to 2.8 million visitors in the three-month period ended March 31, down 14.9 percent from 3.3 million during the same period in 2016.
SeaWorld generated $186.4 million in revenue during the first quarter, a 15.4 percent drop from the $220.2 million the company generated in the first quarter of last year.
The Orlando company narrowed its loss to $61.1 million, or 72 cents a share, compared with a loss of $84 million, or $1 a share, during the first quarter of last year. Wall Street analysts expected the company to lose 56 cents a share during the first three months of this year.
SeaWorld was optimistic about its future revenue, pointing to an almost 6 percent increase in season pass revenue and a slate of new attractions opening at its parks in the coming months. The company has previously said it also plans to plug millions of dollars into rides, events and other attractions — including at least $18 million to build the Wave Breaker roller coaster at its San Antonio park. The ride, intended to simulate marine animal rescue efforts, is slated to open in June.
The theme park operator has sought to revamp its public image as an eco-friendly entertainment group that provides educational experiences alongside attractions like roller coasters and water parks — a response to years of backlash sparked by the 2013 documentary film “Blackfish,” which scrutinized the Orlando-based theme park operator’s treatment of orcas, and led to declining stock value and falling attendance at its parks.
SeaWorld ended its orca breeding program in March 2016 a few months ahead of legislation signed into law by California Gov. Jerry Brown that banned the breeding of killer whales and their use in entertainment shows.
But, the final orca calf to be bred in captivity at SeaWorld wasn’t born until April at the company’s San Antonio park. Takara, the calf’s 25-year-old mother, was pregnant at the time of the announcement and got pregnant naturally, not as a result of the program. The company is taking steps to prevent further pregnancies through “medical efforts, such as monitoring ovarian cycles and birth control, as well as social management to reduce the likelihood of conception,” SeaWorld San Antonio spokeswoman Gayle MacIntyre said in March.
SeaWorld is also retooling orcas’ role in the parks’ programming to emphasize natural and educational encounters instead of the flashier shows and mammal-based entertainment the company is known for.
Attendance fell by 471,000 visitors in 2016, a 2.1 percent drop from 2015. SeaWorld also posted a net loss of $12.5 million, or 15 cents a share, for 2016 — compared with $49.1 million in profit, or 57 cents a share, the previous year.
The theme park operator cut 320 employees in December as part of a company-wide restructuring program intended to eliminate $65 million in costs and generate $40 million in net savings by December 2018. That round of layoffs included 11 employees at the San Antonio park, SeaWorld San Antonio President Carl Lum said at the time.
Tilikum — the orca who killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 and main subject of “Blackfish” — sired 14 calves over 25 years. He died of a bacterial infection in January.