SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., the subject of a critical documentary over the use of killer whales in its theme parks, is slashing ticket prices in the wake of a 9 percent second-quarter attendance drop.
The company’s original park in San Diego is offering area residents a free kid’s ticket with an adult ticket purchase midweek, a $71 value, according to its website. SeaWorld Orlando cut $42 off the price of a midweek ticket, a 46 percent discount, if purchased in advance online.
“I’ve never seen a SeaWorld promotion that aggressive in the 10-plus years I’ve been listing SeaWorld coupons and deals,” said Mary Waring, who runs the MouseSavers.com website for theme park visitors. She said the Orlando discount started this month.
The current promotions are a reaction to consumer demand and part of an effort to fill parks on weekdays, Fred Jacobs, as spokesman, said in an e-mail. Attendance is falling because of higher prices instituted earlier this year, bad weather and the timing of Easter on the calendar, Chief Financial Officer James Heaney said on an Aug. 13 conference call.
The company is also coping with negative publicity from “Blackfish,” released in U.S. theaters on July 19, which began getting attention after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
“We can attribute no attendance impact at all to the movie,” Jacobs said.
SeaWorld, which owns 11 parks in five states, introduced a new ticketing strategy this year that involved higher prices and less reliance on third-party distributors. SeaWorld Orlando increased its single-day ticket price three times, or 12 percent, to $92 in June from $82 in July 2012, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
The June Orlando price increase put it on a par with neighboring attractions at Universal Studios and below Walt Disney Co.’s Magic Kingdom, Jacobs said.
“We are continually refining our consumer offers and have various types of ticket packages in the marketplace at all times,” Jacobs said.
“Blackfish” argues that killer whales shouldn’t be held in captivity, and that the company ignored warning signs of the danger to handlers. SeaWorld has countered with a detailed critique of the film, calling it “a dishonest movie” in a statement distributed to critics and refuting many of its conclusions.
Recent videos posted on the Internet of a dolphin and a pilot whale left out of water at SeaWorld parks in San Antonio and Orlando may also be affecting public attitudes, according to “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite.
“It’s been a sobering year for SeaWorld,” Cowperthwaite said in an e-mailed statement. “It’s likely people are realizing that nothing at that place is what it seems. The jig is up.”
The company's stock sank $2.06, or 6.5 percent, Wednesday to close at $29.70. SeaWorld sold $807 million in stock to the public in April. Through Tuesday, the shares had advanced 18 percent since their initial public offering.
The company said on Aug. 13 that its parks welcomed about 600,000 fewer guests in the quarter that ended June 30, and overall revenue fell 3.4 percent to $411.3 million. The company lowered its full-year revenue estimate by $10 million to a range of $1.45 billion to $1.48 billion.
SeaWorld’s ticket discounts and the partial closure of dining options at its Busch Gardens Tampa park are indicative that attendance is down, according to Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a consulting firm in Cincinnati. The visitor numbers are surprising given that in May the company opened Antarctica: Empire of the Penguins, its largest investment in a new attraction to date, at SeaWorld Orlando.
“When you’re seeing those kinds of discounts in the first part of August, that’s telling you attendance is off,” Speigel said. “Something didn’t gel.”
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