SeaWorld attendance and revenues jumped by double digits during the first quarter, a sharp reversal of the prolonged slide that has dogged the company in recent years.
More than 3.2 million people visited SeaWorld parks during the first three months of the year, an increase of nearly 15 percent over the same period a year ago, SeaWorld Entertainment reported Tuesday.
Quarterly revenues rose by an even greater percentage— 16.5 percent — to more than $217 million compared with $186.4 million a year ago.
Although the first quarter is a much slower time of year for the Orlando-based company, the latest earnings report represents a marked improvement over last year when SeaWorld saw its first quarter attendance and revenues both drop by 15 percent.
In early trading, SeaWorld’s stock price jumped by nearly 10 percent in response to the good news.
The improved quarterly results come a little more than two months since SeaWorld announced the sudden departure of former CEO Joel Manby after he was unable to deliver a rebound in slumping attendance and revenues that have persisted years after the release of the anti-animal captivity film "Blackfish."
Interim CEO John Reilly said the more robust revenues and visitation were driven by several factors, including renewed marketing initiatives, anticipation of new attractions and an earlier Easter holiday, which influences the timing of spring break during the first quarter.
The company also has been heavily promoting its season passes for closer-in visitors, an offering that Reilly characterizes as “one of the best values in the industry.”
While buoyed by the financial results, the company still faces significant challenges sustaining the momentum it has realized so far this year. Lingering negative perceptions in the Southern California market about how SeaWorld treats its captive animals and intense competition in Orlando from Universal and Disney remain key hurdles the company will need to overcome.
Reilly, though, remains optimistic, pointing to a strong marketing message being communicated on multiple platforms and a hefty lineup of attractions.
“Despite this strong start to the year, we know we have significant opportunity for further improvement,” he said
While revenues were strong, SeaWorld reported a net loss for the quarter of $62.8 million, or 73 cents a share, up from a year-ago loss of $61.1 million, the equivalent of 72 cents a share. The company said that $21.5 million of those losses included costs associated with departing employees and a legal settlement.
Earlier this year during its year-end earnings call, SeaWorld previewed signs of a healthier quarter ahead, pointing to increases in season pass sales and total attendance. Reilly noted Tuesday that the company saw a 10 percent increase in season pass revenues.
Still, the first quarter provides a somewhat limited view of park performance, given that just five of SeaWorld’s 12 parks are open for the full three months.
The company is hoping for improved financial results following the opening this year of major attractions, including San Diego’s Electric Eel coaster, which makes its debut on Thursday. And the Orlando park is planning to soak visitors this summer with a new river rafting ride it’s calling Infinity Falls.
The company recently announced that a new Sesame Street land will arrive at SeaWorld Orlando next spring.
“We have a revamped capital strategy that we believe will also help drive attendance growth with the goal of offering a new ride, attraction, show or event in every park every year.”
Reilly characterized the coming attractions as “one of the most compelling line-ups we have ever had of new rides, attractions and events.”
One factor that may have contributed to the uptick in attendance, at least for the San Diego park, is that a year ago, the longstanding Shamu shows had just ended, and SeaWorld had yet to debut its replacement — the Orca Encounter. A similar phaseout of the theatrical killer whale shows is also planned for the Orlando and San Antonio marine parks.
SeaWorld does not break out attendance for individual parks, but lease payments the San Diego park makes to the city for its Mission Bay site show a marked improvement in revenues. Those payments, which are tied to SeaWorld admissions and food and beverage sales, rose by more than 30 percent during the first quarter compared to a year earlier.
That is a considerable improvement over SeaWorld San Diego’s performance last year when when more than a half million fewer people visited the park, an attendance drop of 14 percent.