As SeaWorld suffers 'Blackfish' impact, Busch Gardens suffers, too

The Tampa park stumbles as profits plunge for owner SeaWorld, due to movie Blackfish.

Published November 18 2014
Updated November 18 2014

Busch Gardens is many miles away from the first drenched rows of SeaWorld's Shamu shows in Orlando. But Tampa Bay's top theme park is still getting soaked.

Busch Gardens finds itself caught in a financial and public opinion maelstrom not quite of its own making. The park is part of SeaWorld Entertainment, composed mostly of multiple SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks, plus a few smaller brand parks in the United States.

Shares in the publicly traded company lost an astonishing 50 percent of their value in the past year. That's more than $1.4 billion in market value flushed away.

SeaWorld's brand remains under fire from Blackfish. The film debuted last year at the Sundance Film Festival, got distributed by CNN and sparked an uproar over SeaWorld's controversial history with captive killer whales and the deaths of three people, including a SeaWorld whale trainer at the Orlando park.

Blackfish producers call their film a documentary. SeaWorld calls it propaganda. SeaWorld investors call the film's impact a drain on the company, which has seen a 5 percent annual drop in attendance — in a year when Florida enjoyed record tourism.

SeaWorld Entertainment's biggest owner is the private equity firm Blackstone Group, which surely is in a snit over the company's downturn.

What does all this mean for Busch Gardens in Tampa? It finds itself tethered to the corporate SeaWorld brand, which means its market value also has been cut in half in the past year. Part of that decline is its own fault.

According to SeaWorld Entertainment's latest quarterly SEC filing, part of the challenges in Florida relate to "a delay in the scheduled opening of one of our new rides at our Busch Gardens Tampa park," a reference to the Falcon's Fury ride launching too late to catch the park's young summer crowds.

When a public company loses half its value in one year, investors want better accountability. When attendance and revenues dip, fresh capital to purchase the next game-changing ride or to overhaul an aging piece of a theme park gets tougher to obtain. For Busch Gardens it can mean the difference between funding a new SheiKra-level roller coaster or just opening a kiddie ride.

The company's SEC filing also cited "significant new attraction offerings at competitor destination parks." SeaWorld has recently had to face Universal Orlando opening the second part of its popular "Wizarding World of Harry Potter," and Disney's summer pitch built on its super-successful Frozen animated movie.

Now that's intense competition for tourist dollars.

No doubt, Busch Gardens must miss the more paternal days, when it was part of a theme park subsidiary owned by beer giant Anheuser-Busch, the makers of Budweiser. Money was more plentiful then and competition less cutthroat than today's constant pursuit of the next cutting-edge attraction. But Anheuser-Busch was itself acquired, triggering a series of theme park owners for Busch Gardens.

What's ahead? Blackfish looks likely to continue tormenting SeaWorld Entertainment, especially in California, where a bill was introduced in April to ban the use of whales in shows. That proposal is on hold to allow for further study.

The New York Post on Sunday reported that a major investor in SeaWorld Entertainment, a hedge fund that the Post declined to name, has second thoughts about investing in the theme park company. And a shareholder lawsuit accuses SeaWorld of misleading investors about the impact Blackfish would have on attendance.

The forecast? Rough seas ahead for SeaWorld, with Busch Gardens caught in the undertow.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8405.

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