Just weeks before the nation went into lockdown, Disney announced a new CEO, Bob Chapek, known for his bean-counter approach. Seven weeks after the parks closed, Disney announced it would be cutting $900 million in capital expenditures. Things looked the same at SeaWorld, with leadership confirming all capital expansion was paused until further notice.
A few weeks after SeaWorld reopened, the construction walls that were previously up on the western shore of the park’s lake, where a new attraction was to be located, were missing. The attraction, known by project name Project Penguin, was thought to be a new coaster for the park. Its location near the front of the park would finish a years-long investment in new attractions around the lake. The missing construction walls — and lack of acknowledgment of the project — fueled speculation that the long-struggling chain wouldn’t add new attractions for years to come.
By August, SeaWorld began indicating that they weren’t going to go the route of Disney and instead would be using this time to potentially expand their hospitality holdings. Interim CEO Marc Swanson stated the company might use some of its recent access to funds to take advantage of opportunities that may arise given the situation.
“There might be situations where there's market dislocation or competitors or others in industry who aren't able to weather this storm,” Swanson explained to investors during the Q&A segment of the Q3 earnings call. “And so, whether it's a waterpark, a hotel or something like that, a park that we could look at and convert to a Sesame Place for example. Those are the type of things we're talking about. And we'll obviously make sure before we would do anything like that that we feel comfortable about the future. But those are the type of things we're talking about.”The plan wasn’t anything new for SeaWorld, where five years and as many CEOs ago, the company announced a plan to add expand its offerings with new hotels and parks. Still, for a company that has seen so much upheaval, the ability to remain focused on this target was surprising, especially considering how 2020 had affected the industry.
Despite Swanson's positive comments, SeaWorld stayed focused on the parks it already owned, with all the company’s major parks except California’s operating at some capacity by fall. The attractions that were to open in 2020 were delayed, but there was no indication that new investments were happening.
In November, Interim Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Castro Gulacsy made it clear the company was committed to investing in its future, going so far as saying the company typically spends $150 million on new investments across its portfolio, explaining that while it may be “a little less than that” in 2021, “[w]e obviously want to continue to deploy capital for our later years' capital plans.”
With the busy holiday season ahead of them, there still no indication beyond words that the company was committed to this. Then in mid-January, the permit application for the proposed Project Penguin attraction saw multiple corrections. Corrections, or clarifications, of this nature are a common step in the permitting process, but after months of extensions, their submission on the permit indicates the project is still active.
The current expiration date, which can be updated if needed, is in July, possibly indicating that the project will begin very soon. In newly published public documents related to the permits, Orange County refers to coaster columns and suggests that there will be a locker area. So far, SeaWorld has yet to confirm any new projects are the works. It's believed to be a Bolliger & Mabillard custom-designed launch coaster
This comes at the same as the company looks to expand its operating calendar, moving every major park, including Sesame Place – Pittsburgh, to a nearly year-round schedule. The long-anticipated SeaWorld Abu Dhabi, owned by a third party, is also still moving forward and is expected to open in 2022.
until 2022. Other rumored projects that may also begin moving in the coming months include a new swing ride at Busch Gardens Tampa and a massive coaster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. SeaWorld has also previously indicated that they may open additional Sesame Street themed parks though details on when or where those would be located has yet to be shared.
For now, the primary focus is on the 2021 offerings, which include a new multi-launch coaster at SeaWorld Orlando, a record-breaking wood hybrid coaster at Busch Gardens Tampa, a dive coaster at SeaWorld San Diego, and at Busch Williamsburg, Pantheon, the fastest multi-launch roller coaster in the world.
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