Freed from the constraints of owners more interested in brewing beer than building theme parks, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment is accelerating plans to expand into new businesses, including movies, television and hotels.
After flirting with the idea for years, the Orlando-based theme-park operator will release a feature film this month through SeaWorld Pictures, the company's new film division. The sea-turtle documentary, expected to reach as many as 400 theaters this summer, is the first of what executives hope will be a long line of SeaWorld-produced nature films that capitalize on the company's reputation for marine-life expertise and buttress it against criticism from anti-captivity activists.
SeaWorld wants to make more than movies eventually. Company executives say they are exploring new projects in television, publishing and consumer products.
At the same time, SeaWorld is working on plans to build its first hotel. And it says it is making progress toward its first international theme park, with the most likely location somewhere in Southeast Asia.
With such projects, SeaWorld is borrowing a page from the playbooks of other large theme-park operators such as the Walt Disney Co., all of whom are searching out new sources of growth to confront what experts say is a nearly maxed-out American theme-park market. Walt Disney Parks and Resorts has devoted much of its capital spending in recent years to building up "flanker" businesses, such as cruises and time shares, and to international expansion, including the $4.4 billion Shanghai Disneyland resort scheduled to open in about five years.
SeaWorld's expansion plans come even as it pumps nearly $200 million this year into new rides and shows for its 10 existing U.S. amusement parks, which collectively draw more than 20 million visitors annually.
"There are really a few things that we're focused on as a company. One is looking forward to grow the parks we have," said Jim Atchison, SeaWorld Parks' president and chief executive officer. "But we'll also look for ways to expand the business internationally or into new geographic markets. We'll also look for ways to grow the business from a tangential standpoint, into other lines of business."
Bolstered by an internationally recognized brand, SeaWorld executives have longed for years to branch beyond theme parks. But their plans proved difficult to sell to higher-ups within longtime owner Anheuser-Busch Cos., for whom theme parks were a one-off business that lacked a direct tie to the company's core business of making and selling beer.
But that's no longer an obstacle for SeaWorld, which in 2009 was sold by Anheuser-Busch InBev to the Blackstone Group in a deal worth about $2.5 billion.
Now, a key corporate goal is to "take such a wonderful, established brand and really expand it beyond the borders of our parks," said Scott Helmstedter, a former entertainment producer who in April was hired as SeaWorld Parks' new chief creative officer.
Putting hotels at parks
Big-ticket construction projects are also on the horizon. Atchison said SeaWorld is "actively pursuing" plans to build one or more hotels at some of its existing U.S. parks.
"It's a good fit with our business," Atchison said. "I don't know that it makes sense in every market where we have a park. But certainly there are some markets where I think we could get in the hotel business in an on-property format that helps better the guest experience."
Atchison would notdeclined to identify the locations SeaWorld is considering for a hotel. But the company has five parks — SeaWorld Orlando, SeaWorld San Diego, Sea World San Antonio, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia — that each draw at least 2million visitors a year, according to industry estimates. SeaWorld Orlando is the biggest park in the chain, with annual attendance about 5.5million.
"Our analysis suggests that, if you could generate 2 million or more attendance on an annual basis, there may be an economic argument for building a hotel, particularly if those 2 million people are derived from the tourist market," said John Robinett, a senior vice president with the market-research company AECOM in Los Angeles.
Farther afield, Atchison said SeaWorld is developing plans to expand internationally. SeaWorld, like other big theme-park chains, is particularly interested in China and neighboring countries. Though not certain, Atchison said it is "probable" that the company's first overseas park will be built in Southeast Asia.
"There's a few opportunities that we're putting a lot of effort into right now," he said.
Atchison said he thinks there is still room for SeaWorld to grow in North America, particularly with some of its niche brands. He singled out the limited-admission park Discovery Cove and the water park Aquatica, both in Orlando, and the children's park Sesame Place, in Pennsylvania, as likely targets for expansion.
"Do I think that in the U.S. marketplace there's a place for 10 more SeaWorlds? Probably not," Atchison said. "But there's probably other locations that could support other concepts that we have and, I think, do very well."
Source Orlando Sentinel