Did a bad choice doom SeaWorld/Busch Gardens?
If Universal was the big winner in the new 2021 TEA/AECOM Theme Index attendance report, it’s also clear who the big loser was last year – SeaWorld. [Please see Universal Makes Big Gains in 2021 Theme Park Attendance Report, if you have not yet read our coverage of the new attendance report.]
States have maintained different rules on when and how theme parks could open in 2021, so comparing park results in different states requires more asterisks than a fight in a Batman comic book at Ancient. But SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay operate in Florida, which had perhaps the most permissive Covid rules in America in 2021.
SeaWorld and Busch Gardens traditionally trail Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando theme parks in the TEA/AECOM North America top 20, as they did again last year. Still, both parks drew fewer visitors last year than Cedar Point and Kings Island also beat SeaWorld, although the two Ohio parks only operate seasonally.
Stacking up, Knott’s Berry Farm in super-restrictive California easily beat those two Florida parks, and even Six Flags Magic Mountain trailed SeaWorld Orlando by just 4,000 visitors for the year.
Elsewhere in California, SeaWorld San Diego drew the lowest number of visitors among US theme parks in the top 20 TEA/AECOM North America in 2021, ranking behind Magic Mountain for the first time.
Clearly, even taking state rule differences into account, SeaWorld/Busch Gardens parks have lost ground to their theme park competition in 2021. So what does SeaWorld parks stand for? were cheated on last year?
They chose not to open any of their new roller coasters.
For the 2020 season, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme parks have announced an ambitious lineup of new coasters for their parks in Orlando, Tampa, Williamsburg, Virginia, San Antonio and San Diego. But only the San Antonio rollercoaster opened before Covid forced the closure of theme parks around the world in early 2020.
The closures left parks around the world to decide what to do with their new attractions for 2020 once parks began to get approval to reopen, often with capacity restrictions. Are you launching your new ride immediately or are you waiting until the capacity rules are lifted and you can promote this attraction without restriction? Almost all parks have had to halt construction during the closures, and everyone has faced serious cash flow issues with the closure of their parks, so many parks that could reopen in 2020 have decided to postpone their new rides through the 2021 season.
SeaWorld has become even more conservative and has chosen to wait until 2022 in Orlando, Tampa, Williamsburg and San Diego. That left those parks operating in 2021 with nothing new to promote except to be reopened. If you believe the TEA/AECOM numbers, it seems the audience’s response to this was a collective yawn, a shrug, and the question, “So who’s up for visiting Universal instead?”
The pandemic closures have not only delayed the opening of 2020 attractions. It has also delayed the development of new attractions for 2021 and beyond. SeaWorld and Busch Gardens were able to open a bunch of new rides this year, while some of their competitors had nothing new to offer. But SeaWorld Parks entered 2022 with a smaller support base than those competitors. SeaWorld needs a big year in 2022 to regain the ground it lost in 2021 and continue to move forward in a recovering travel market. If SeaWorld and Busch Gardens do not regain the positions this year they held against those competitors in 2019, the company faces the possibility that its delay in 2021 has caused lasting damage.
SeaWorld management is trying to fight this. The company is planning a full lineup of new attractions in 2023 for its major parks in Virginia, Florida, Texas and California. And again, the company is looking to new roller coasters to boost attendance at its top five parks in the coming year.
In the best-case scenario, SeaWorld’s decision to sit out in 2021 resulted in a short-term setback that the company managed to overcome with new rides in 2022 and 2023. In the worst-case scenario, the choice of l The company has downgraded SeaWorld and Busch Gardens to a new, lower base of support that will require a much more impressive – and expensive – lineup of new attractions for the company to win back theme park fans.