SeaWorld’s Revenues Plunge as Its Customers Stay Out of the Water

There’s no mention of ‘Blackfish’ or orcas.

(Photo: Flickr)

Aug 6, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Tons of American brands weathered bad press storms this year. Bud Light was accused of promoting sexual assault with an ill-advised slogan, American Apparel suffered a derogatory casting call leak amid its image makeover, and Nasty Gal was slammed with a nasty discrimination lawsuit.

Those might all be considered brand challenges on a basic level. But whatever the gaffe, no company has endured quite the level of colossal backlash that SeaWorld has. The oceanarium amusement park cited “continued brand challenges” as the reason for its 84 percent loss of net income in the most recent quarter. That’s according to an earnings report released Thursday by SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, the Orlando, Florida–based corporation that owns a dozen parks in five U.S. cities.

The report’s vague wording of “brand challenges” failed to acknowledge one whale of an issue that’s been plaguing the company: Blackfish, the 2013 documentary that depicted what can happen when killer whales are held captive in too-small tanks. The famed orca Tilikum, for example, fatally attacked two of his trainers.

RELATED: Will SeaWorld’s Financial Woes Force It to Free the Whales?

The company chalked up its decline in attendance, which dropped nationally by more than 100,000 from 6.58 million to 6.48 million, to the timing of Easter—huh?—and record levels of rainfall near its park in San Antonio, Texas. During the same period, SeaWorld’s total revenue declined 3 percent, a $13.5 million deficit.

“We realize we have much work ahead of us to recover more of our attendance base, increase revenue, and improve our performance, as returning to historical performance levels will take time and investment,” SeaWorld President and CEO Joel Manby said in a statement. Manby was hired to replace Jim Atchison, who stepped down from the company in December amid staff reductions and regular protests by animal advocacy organizations including PETA.

SeaWorld’s financial challenges are particularly unusual at a time when its top competitors are experiencing a boom in both attendance and profits. On Tuesday, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts reported a 4 percent increase in third-quarter revenue to $4.1 billion and a 9 percent bump in operating income to $922 million. A second-quarter report released last month showed Universal theme parks experiencing a 25.7 percent revenue increase from last year to $773 million and a six-month revenue boost of 29.2 percent, thanks in part to its Harry Potter attraction at Universal Studios in Orlando.

RELATED: Sea World’s New Killer Whale Plan: Bigger Tanks, but the Show Goes On

Americans clearly haven’t lost interest in good old-fashioned theme park thrills, but SeaWorld’s low attendance suggests its animal attractions play a big part in its decline. As of June, 56 orcas were held in captivity—more than half of them were born into captivity—in at least 14 marine parks around the world, according to the global nonprofit Whale and Dolphin Conservation. SeaWorld, which has donated millions to orca research, says its whales offer scientists an opportunity to study and conserve killer whales in the wild. But animal rights activists have long argued that the 12,000-pound creatures are kept in inhumane conditions that shorten their life span, negatively affect their behavior, and contribute to their population decline.

Manby vowed the company could overcome its “continued brand challenges” with a popular fall event lineup, increased promotional offerings, and “favorable calendar timing.”