SeaWorld de­vel­op­ing safety plan for re­turn

Com­pany has suf­fered a $56.5 mil­lion net loss in first-quar­ter earn­ings

Orlando Sentinel - - Front Page - By Gabrielle Rus­son

SeaWorld parks in Or­lando and else­where will re­quire em­ploy­ees to wear masks and get their tem­per­a­tures checked, and the pub­lic could be spaced in ev­ery other row in the sta­dium to watch an orca show.

In­terim CEO Marc Swan­son gave an update Friday on a coro­n­avirus safety plan un­der de­vel­op­ment, al­though he stressed he still can­not give any of­fi­cial open­ing dates yet. SeaWorld’s Texas at­trac­tions could open first be­fore Florida in phased-in open­ings around the county, Swan­son said.

“We are in reg­u­lar con­tact with lo­cal, state and fed­eral au­thor­i­ties,

and we look for­ward to open­ing our parks and wel­com­ing back our guests as soon as it’s safe and per­mit­ted to do so,” Swan­son said in a news re­lease as the com­pany dis­closed the most re­cent fi­nan­cial hit from the coro­n­avirus pan­demic that have shut down their parks since March 16.

The Or­lando-based com­pany suf­fered a $56.5 mil­lion net loss in first-quar­ter earn­ings while at­ten­dance that broke records in early 2020 then tanked by 31% by the end of the quar­ter March 31. Rev­enues fell 30% to about $154 mil­lion.

Once state of­fi­cials give the green light, it could take two to three weeks be­fore a park is ready to wel­come guests, Swan­son said.

SeaWorld’s tech­nol­ogy team is de­sign­ing ride reser­va­tion sys­tems and mo­bile or­der­ing, al­though the vir­tual plat­forms might not be fully fin­ished when the parks open. The parks could rely on mark­ers, signs and em­ploy­ees giv­ing di­rec­tions, Swan­son said.

Swan­son out­lined re­quire­ments for em­ploy­ees, such as wear­ing masks and get­ting tem­per­a­ture checks, al­though he did not say whether those rules would be en­forced for vis­i­tors, too.

For years, SeaWorld has fought to re­build its at­ten­dance af­ter years of ma­jor fi­nan­cial strug­gles fol­low­ing the “Black­fish” doc­u­men­tary con­tro­versy and multi­bil­lion-dol­lar ex­pan­sions by Uni­ver­sal and Dis­ney.

Now, maybe SeaWorld’s smaller size could play into its fa­vor in a post-coro­n­avirus world as ex­ec­u­tives must weigh how to keep vis­i­tors safe but also whether they will at least break even once they do re­open.

“We rarely op­er­ate at full ca­pac­ity,” Swan­son said.

On peak days in SeaWorld Or­lando, at­ten­dance could hit 30,000 peo­ple a day but might dwin­dle to 5,000 dur­ing a slow day in Jan­uary, he said.

This spring, the com­pany was set to open two roller coast­ers in Cen­tral Florida at SeaWorld Or­lando and Busch Gar­dens Tampa Bay. But in re­cent weeks, the com­pany hasn’t given an update on the sta­tus of Or­lando’s fam­ily-friendly Ice Breaker coaster. Adren­a­line junkies also are fol­low­ing Tampa’s Iron Gwazi coaster. The web­sites now say: Com­ing in 2020. It’s still un­known if the ride open­ings will change in Florida.

Through­out all SeaWorld’s parks, con­struc­tion crews had com­pleted 90% of the new at­trac­tions that were sup­posed to open this year. The com­pany said it will de­cide whether it’s worth de­lay­ing them un­til 2021.

Sim­i­lar to Dis­ney World and Uni­ver­sal Or­lando, SeaWorld hasn’t pub­licly an­nounced a new open­ing date but is tak­ing on debt to help the com­pany nav­i­gate the shut­down. Shanghai Dis­ney­land be­comes the first Dis­ney in­ter­na­tional park to start al­low­ing vis­i­tors on Mon­day with sig­nif­i­cant fewer crowds al­lowed.

In April, SeaWorld said it had enough cash to make it through into the fourth quar­ter in 2021. De­spite pay­ing lit­tle in fed­eral in­come taxes, the com­pany said ear­lier it also hopes to tap into a fed­eral loan pro­gram for mid­sized busi­nesses that Congress and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump cre­ated to pro­vide re­lief from the coro­n­avirus.

With 95% of its em­ploy­ees fur­loughed with­out pay, the com­pany is still car­ing for the whales, dol­phins, man­a­tees and other an­i­mals. Res­cue crews helped more than 350 an­i­mals sick or in­jured in the wild in the first quar­ter, SeaWorld said Friday.

One an­a­lyst asked ex­ec­u­tives if SeaWorld could still draw good staff since the ma­jor­ity of cur­rent em­ploy­ees are fur­loughed and lost their health in­sur­ance.

“One thing I like about our com­pany is we have a lot of peo­ple who are pretty pas­sion­ate about work­ing here. There’s a lot of good things this com­pany does with con­ser­va­tion and an­i­mal rescues,” Swan­son said. “I’m con­fi­dent we can get em­ploy­ees.”

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