SeaWorld Entertainment is banking on a profitable summer next year as it prepares to spend $175 million on new attractions, including Florida’s first virtual reality coaster at its Orlando marine park and a documentary-style orca encounter in San Diego to replace the long-running theatrical Shamu shows.
The substantial investment in new rides and marine mammal experiences marks what SeaWorld is calling one of its largest new attraction years in its half-century history. The announcement last week also signals the company’s move to lure more visitors with cutting-edge theme park technology while still staying true to its mission of providing meaningful experiences that it hopes will educate and inspire people to take action on behalf of animals and the environment.
The attractions planned for San Diego – the new orca encounter and a miniature submarine ride geared to young families – had previously been announced, but the virtual reality coaster is a project that SeaWorld had not revealed before last week. The plan is to retrofit Kraken, SeaWorld Orlando’s oldest coaster, with virtual reality headsets, immersing riders on a deep-sea mission alongside sea creatures inspired by extinct and mythical creatures of the past, including the fictional Kraken.
While there is no virtual reality coaster in Florida now, more theme parks are looking to incorporate the technology into their rides, led by Six Flags, which has added headsets to some of its coasters.
SeaWorld’s announcement comes as it is trying to shore up lagging attendance and revenues, fueled in part by criticism of its treatment of its orcas, as well as its Shamu shows that called on the killer whales to perform various tricks and acrobatic moves. The company announced earlier this year it was ending the breeding of its 29 orcas and would be phasing out the theatrical shows.
Earlier last month, in the face of lower cash reserves than it anticipated, SeaWorld announced it would cut its next quarterly dividend by more than half and suspend future payouts.
“I think what they’re doing is a lot of short-range stepping stones toward their long range goals,” said theme park consultant Dennis Speigel of International Theme Park Services. “They’re touching on VR, they’re touching on the immersive experience, and they’re capitalizing on the popularity of roller coasters. But they’re still tying it all back in some way to their legacy of ocean life and sea life experiences, which is important.
“They still have huge issues around image and branding they have to overcome. They have 50 years of legacy that won’t go away in two years, but they’re pointing the airplane in the right direction.”
SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby highlighted that message in his statement released Tuesday.
“In developing new experiences we want guests to have fun, but also be inspired … and our 2017 additions truly reinforce that mission,” he said.
Plans for the new orca encounter, which will eventually be introduced at the other marine parks in Orlando and San Antonio, will be designed to showcase the whales’ natural behaviors – hunting, eating, communicating – against a documentary-style backdrop that will transport the audience to locations in the wild.
This last summer, visitors to the San Diego park could get a sense of where SeaWorld is headed if they happened to see the new “Killer Whales: Up Close” presentation, where the trainers talk about how they care for the orcas, what they eat, their coloration pattern, and what guests can do to help protect the oceans.
Next summer, visitors will also be seeing the park’s new Ocean Explorer attraction, which will occupy 3 acres and feature multiple aquariums and a 3-minute-long submarine ride that will give riders the sense of being a deep-sea explorer. The subs will be outfitted with digital navigation dashboards customized for different age levels that will allow the riders to answer questions posed to them as they embark on their journey.
The San Diego and Orlando parks will also be getting next summer a new nighttime show called Electric Ocean that will include bioluminescent lighting, music and performances along the parks’ pathways.
Meanwhile, plans for the San Antonio park call for a new coaster that will be designed to mimic what SeaWorld’s animal care team experiences when it goes out into the field to rescue animals in distress. Reaching heights of up to 61 feet, the majority of Wave Break: The Rescue Coaster’s 2,600-foot track will be directly over water.