Sorry, SeaWorld: I was wrong. Attendance is up, free beer is a win, and Rudolph will be back in December

Bierfest at Busch Gardens Tampa
Bierfest at Busch Gardens Tampa Photo by Seth Kubersky

I like to think of myself as a seasoned observer of Orlando's theme park industry, but at the risk of being accused of peddling "fake news," I'm going to admit that I got something wrong. Earlier this year, in both this column and an interview with WMFE, I shared some critical (perhaps even cynical) comments about SeaWorld and its sister attractions, based on my personal experiences and published reports. Without addressing the orca-shaped elephant in the room, I'm conceding that my predictions of SeaWorld's performance were off-target, in light of some electrifying new evidence.

Back in the spring, I was betting that Walt Disney World (with its new Toy Story Land) and Universal Orlando (which debuted Fast & Furious) would have superb summer seasons. But now that the grand opening hoopla has faded, neither attraction appears to have made much long-term impact on the general public. I was able to obtain a prime pair of Slinky Dog Dash FastPasses on 24 hours notice during what should have been a peak attendance period at Disney's Hollywood Studios, and the wait for Supercharged rarely exceeds an hour, even though it often operates only a fraction of its party bus fleet.

SeaWorld Orlando, on the other hand, exceeded all my expectations this past summer – as well as the capacity of its parking lot on some days – thanks to its EDM-inspired Electric Ocean event. By balancing tasty, reasonably priced food offerings with unique live entertainment – the POP bubble show is the trippiest theme park attraction since Hard Rock Park's Nights in White Satin ride closed, and Ignite would be the best pyrotechnic display in town if it were only twice as long – Electric Ocean attracted impressive crowds during what otherwise seemed like one of the slowest summers in several years. And it managed to do so despite the delayed opening of the Infinity Falls raft ride, which was supposed to be the season's big draw, but was still testing as of this writing.

Furthermore, last month's quarterly report revealed nearly 5 percent gains in SeaWorld Entertainment's revenue and attendance, resulting in a surge for the company's stock (which is likely little comfort to the 125 employees who were laid off). Interim CEO John T. Reilly credited "strategic pricing strategies, new marketing and communications initiatives, and the positive reception of our new rides," but perhaps he should have tipped his hat to something even more basic: beer. The parks' impressive increases in season pass sales and per capita spending can probably be attributed at least in part to free suds, a beloved tradition that both SeaWorld and Busch Gardens brought back for a limited time.

"Free beer" certainly lured me through a hurricane-like lightning storm for August's media preview of Busch Gardens Tampa's brand-new Bier Fest, which is currently going up against Epcot's International Food and Wine event in a Central Florida Fall Foodie Festival Face-off. Epic rain, the threat of electrocution and ultimately my aging liver kept me from fully exploring all the brews and bites Busch's event has to order, but I can attest that the Arrogant Bastard Ale fully lives up to its name, while my wife recommends the Stiegl Grapefruit Radler as the perfect beer for those who hate the taste of beer. My favorite foods were the hot pretzel sticks with fresh beer cheese and the Mediterranean lamb meatballs; for whiskey drinkers, the bourbon tasting is a treat.

As much as I enjoyed imbibing my way through Bier Fest, my fear is that this flurry of new festivals at Busch Gardens and SeaWorld may become victims of their own success. After applauding the value of previous food-oriented festivals, I felt that the $50 10-item sampler card at Bier Fest wasn't quite as fantastic a deal as at earlier events, considering the portion sizing of some items. And while the chefs did their best to cope with the inclement weather, food preparation procedures were far less efficient than I've come to expect, resulting in long lines of soggy, hungry journalists. (Cue world's smallest violin.)

They say that lightning doesn't strike twice, but "they" don't live in Florida. So just as I misjudged the park's potential profitability, I was also in error when I told the WMFE audience that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and friends would not be returning to SeaWorld's holiday celebration. It's true that when Comcast consumed DreamWorks Animation, it acquired rights to the original Rudolph television special, and there were vague rumors of Islands of Adventure's Lost Continent (where the long-running Eighth Voyage of Sindbad stunt show is closing Sept. 15) being overhauled with a Christmas theme. But Character Arts LLC retains control of Rudolph's theme park rights, and they've extended SeaWorld's contract through the 2023 season. That's good news for one of Orlando's best holiday events, and great news for those who want SeaWorld's parks to rely more on fictional animals rather than captive ones.


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