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City Numbers Reveal the Extent of SeaWorld San Diego's Sinking Performance

SeaWorld San Diego’s rent payments to the city of San Diego and its attendance are down as the company faces challenges nationwide.

Attendance and revenues at SeaWorld San Diego are tanking as the marine park battles efforts to force it to stop housing killer whales.

The company’s struggles are hitting its San Diego park hard, according to reports required as part of SeaWorld’s lease with the city for its Mission Bay property.

Lease payments, which are based on a host of the park’s revenues, fell 16 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to the city’s data.

Attendance dropped a similar amount during that period.

The plunges came as SeaWorld faced continued backlash from the movie “Blackfish,” which panned SeaWorld and its decision to hold orcas in captivity. Claims in the movie – which the company denies – inspired a recent state Coastal Commission decision to force the company to slowly phase out its killer whale program as a condition for obtaining permits for larger orca enclosures.

In 2013, SeaWorld paid the city about $14 million, money that was funneled toward day-to-day operating needs and improvements at city parks.

Lease records show the company only forked over $11.7 million last year and that its rent payments in the first eight months of this year were down another 9 percent from the same period in 2014.

Sea World Rent Payments

Attendance slid downward last year, too.

A city spokesman said SeaWorld San Diego reported only about 3.8 million visitors in 2014, about a 17 percent drop from the previous two years.

That decrease is steeper than the one estimated in an annual report released earlier this year by the nonprofit Themed Entertainment Association and AECOM, an economic consulting firm. The report found SeaWorld San Diego saw a 12 percent drop in attendance from 2013 to 2014 while its sister park in Orlando saw an 8 percent drop. By comparison, the groups found the nation’s other top 20 amusement parks saw an average 2 percent spike in visitors.

The company’s taken an even harder hit in the stock market.

SeaWorld, which owns three namesake parks and another nine regional and water parks, has seen its stock prices halved since “Blackfish” was released in July 2013.

SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby, who took the helm in April, has been upfront about the challenges the company’s faced.

“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,” Manby said in August when the company released its second quarter results.

Manby is set to detail SeaWorld’s third-quarter performance and his long-term plan for the company early next month.

In another financial call in May, Manby declined to offer specifics on that plan but hinted SeaWorld may try to focus on the range of experiences its parks offer rather than single draws like the killer whale shows.

“If you look at Busch Tampa, which is really one of our highest market-share parks and does incredibly well, it has a very strong mix of great animal experiences as well as great ride experiences, and that combination is incredibly unique in our industry,” Manby said. “So it really is a good model that we’re looking at for all of our parks.”

But city and coastal mandates could hinder the company if it tries to pivot dramatically from its current model.

The city lease and master plan for the park require at least 75 percent of SeaWorld’s attractions include significant animal education or conservation-related elements, which could complicate a shift toward more rides or fewer animals. The master plan also dictates that that no more than 25 percent of the theme park can eventually exceed the 30-foot height limit and that the majority of the exempted structures need to be under 60 feet.

It’s not clear Manby or SeaWorld are interested in drastically changing the SeaWorld parks anytime soon.

Last year, the company repeatedly told me it was proud of its care of its marine mammals and had no interest in phasing back on educational or animal attractions

SeaWorld’s since announced plans to commit $10 million to research killer whales in the wild and $100 million to double the size of its killer whale habitat. Now that project may be in limbo given the Coastal Commission’s condition that SeaWorld stop breeding orcas if it chooses to build the project. The company plans to fight that ruling in court.

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