Its no secret that SeaWorld family of parks across the US haven't been in good shape for some time. Controversy, increasing competition and some ill-timed PR moves have all taken their toll on what used to be one of the best-attended theme park chains in the world.
However, even though we've gotten used to hearing bad news about SeaWorld, the firm's latest financial results (which can be downloaded here and include data from the fourth fiscal quarter of 2015 as well as general data about the entire year) actually do contain at least some news that might indicate that this chain is finally ready for a real comeback in 2016. However, that doesn’t mean that all the news is good, as there’s one particularly prickly point that we should probably mention first…
1. SeaWorld admits to sending employees to spy on animal activists
Seven months ago the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) accused SeaWorld of spying. The animal rights group alleged that SeaWorld directed one of its emplyees to attend PETA meetings and participate in protests in an effort to gain "insider" information from the organization. While these claims weren’t backed up by any solid proof when they first surfaced last year, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby confirmed during a conference call discussing the financials that this questionable activity did indeed occur. However, Manby quickly added that he has "directed management to end the practice in which certain employees posed as animal-welfare activists”.
Manby qualified his earlier remarks by noting that the employees were sent to keep an eye on what was happening at PETA specifically an in effort to “maintain the safety and security of employees, customers and animals in the face of credible threats."
However, no matter what the reasoning behind this questionable practice was, it's another PR disaster for SeaWorld.
2. SeaWorld attendance stops dropping
As long as SeaWorld has been struggling, theme park fans and financial analysts alike have been wondering exactly how low it can go before the attendance “bleeding” stops and the parks' numbers finally stabilize. It looks like the chain has finally reached this milestone. In the fourth quarter of 2015, the SeaWorld parks notched 4.41 million visitors, essentially flat with the 4.37 million visitors who visited in the fourth quarter of 2014. And in potentially even better news for SeaWorld, the firmhas also revealed that it was basically stable for the full year as well, as it reported that 22.47 million guests visited in 2015, again on par with 2014, when 22.40 million visitors were reported.
Though there is a tiny bit of growth in there, the real news here is that SeaWorld has stopped losing visitors, which is a badly needed boost for the firm heading into 2016, as SeaWorld Orlando is just about to debut its most ambitious ride yet, the Mako roller coaster. While this type of anemic growth wouldn't be much to celebrate for other theme parks, SeaWorld has been in such dire straights in recent years that the fact that attendance isn't going down again is actually worth celebrating, as it could set the stage for an actual comeback (but more on that in a moment).