Here's how SeaWorld can stay above water

Here's how SeaWorld can stay above water
Photo via Shutterstock

Last week, while all the good Jews were busy preparing matzo-ball soup for the seder, I was noshing on roasted pork and other delicious (though decidedly non-kosher) Latin dishes during a media preview of SeaWorld Orlando's Seven Seas Food Festival. The second annual event, which has been extended for an additional two weekends through April 29, represents another strong entry in a growing seasonal calendar that also includes this summer's returning EDM-inspired Electric Ocean party and a first-class Christmas celebration starring Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

However, if you follow the theme park industry, you know that these are challenging times for the home of Shamu. Attendance and revenue dropped last fiscal year, leading to a $200 million loss and the recent departure of CEO Joel Manby, who had been brought in to turn the company around in the wake of the Blackfish backlash. Although animal rights activism is certainly impacting SeaWorld's bottom line, it's far from the park's only problem. While I don't have any definitive advice for interim CEO John Reilly (other than "keep your résumé polished"), as a seasoned attractions observer I can point to places where SeaWorld appears to be swimming in the correct direction, and others where it's swiftly sinking.

Right: Demographics

With festival booths serving authentic Latin dishes like mofongo con carne frita and bacalaítos, and the Bayside Stadium hosting Puerto Rican musicians Yandel (April 7) and Jerry Rivera (April 8), SeaWorld again demonstrates its leadership among Orlando's attractions in outreach to our region's fastest-growing community. "It's not something new to us," marketing manager Maribel Alicea says. "We've had 17 years of doing Viva Musica; we were the only theme park in Orlando to do a Hispanic event. So we're very proud of our history with the Hispanic market."

Wrong: Intellectual Property

SeaWorld once ran neck-and-neck with Universal attendance-wise, but has fallen behind since Harry Potter's appearance. Disney is firing back with Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel, but SeaWorld has sat on the sidelines of the intellectual property war soaking up shrapnel. An expansive Sesame Street land (due by 2022) will cement SeaWorld's reputation as the best park to take preschoolers, but may be too little, too late for the all-important tweens in the face of Universal's Super Nintendo World. It's a shame they can't synergize with a hit eco-centric entertainment brand like Blue Planet, because Guy Harvey and Jack Hanna aren't exactly attracting millennials.

Right: Live Entertainment

SeaWorld's regular performances, from the Pets Ahoy show to the Longshoremen slapstick troupe, are the equal of any attraction, but it's their weekend festival concerts that really put the competition to shame. Not only does SeaWorld (and its sister park, Busch Gardens Tampa) have a more diverse musical lineup for Seven Seas than those featured at Disney and Universal's current seasonal events, its shows are far longer and offer plentiful free seating.

Wrong: Operations

Some guests might consider SeaWorld primarily about animal exhibits, with attractions an afterthought; park management shouldn't do the same. All three of the park's major roller coasters were running at a fraction of their maximum capacities during one of the busiest weeks of the year, with Kraken struggling to dispatch trains in under three minutes even after its virtual reality headsets were unceremoniously removed. Upkeep on dark rides seems equally apathetic: Antarctica is aging rapidly, Wild Arctic looks on its last legs, and most of Journey to Atlantis's effects are apparently abandoned. Hopefully the upcoming Infinity Falls raft ride won't also be allowed to decline after its debut season.

Right: Value

Epcot's fan-favorite food fests charge entree prices for amuse-bouche portions, but SeaWorld's Seven Seas lets you fill your stomach without emptying your wallet. Sampler lanyards, which give you your pick of food and alcohol samples for as little as $4 apiece, are an even better bargain (though be aware that many of the new Latin dishes aren't included). "You already spent a lot of money to come in the park," explains executive chef Hector Colón. "The value of the dollar you get is right there in the food." That attitude extends to things like the $99 "pay for a day, get the rest of the year free" Fun Pass, which is still the cheapest multi-month admission to an Orlando theme park.

Wrong: Immersion

Theme park visitors want to get lost in fantastic environments, but SeaWorld's haphazard layout always leaves me disoriented in exactly the wrong way. And despite my soft spot for its original 1970s brutalist infrastructure, the park is crying out for an extreme makeover to unify its random assortment of aesthetics, starting with the uninspiring entry plaza. Newer attractions like the National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey in New York completely immerse guests without even using any water; to stay relevant, SeaWorld needs to do them one better.


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