SeaWorld reopens, looks to rebound
Carol Miller hid her oxygen tube behind her Tampa Bay Lightning mask while her son pushed her wheelchair past the SeaWorld Orlando turnstiles and into the park Thursday.
No doubt, she was hot in her mask on a humid, 90-degree day. “It’s tough,” she said.
But that word also described the past few months stuck in her house, missing the rest of the world.
“We love SeaWorld,” said Miller, 59, of Davenport, who was among the loyal SeaWorld fans who turned out as the park welcomed guests for the first time since March 16. “We couldn’t wait to get here.”
The first visitors arrived two hours before the 10 a.m. opening as cars clogged the parking lanes. Once inside, the crowds were light on the wide pathways.
A successful reopening is vitally
important for Orlando-based SeaWorld. It has been struggling for years amid declining attendance as competitors Disney and Universal forged further ahead with billion-dollar investments and the company battled controversies, including the death of a trainer caused by one of its whales.
Despite those challenges — and a revolving door of CEOs in recent years — SeaWorld’s finances steadily improved by 2019. The first two months of 2020 seemed promising — attendance was up — until the pandemic struck, swiftly disrupting the momentum.
Some analysts say smaller, regional theme parks like SeaWorld and Six Flags could recover faster from the pandemic’s economic devastation.
“We continue to believe that the regional theme park group could benefit from both pent-up demand from families that have been isolated at home as well as during a potentially weakened economy — especially as vacation plans this summer shift from those requiring a flight and a hotel to those involving a tank of gas and some snacks,” B. Riley FBR analyst Eric Wold wrote in a research note published Tuesday.
Miller was a perfect fit for that customer profile, driving only about 25 miles from her home in Polk County.
For 90 minutes Thursday, until her oxygen ran out, she could see children laughing and hear the muffled screams from roller coasters. Riding the attractions didn’t matter. It just felt good to be out again. She took selfies with her son.
Miller was discharged from the hospital March 20 in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. She has double pneumonia, which is why she needs the oxygen, and is battling stage four lung cancer.
How many times had she left her house in three months?
“Four? Five? Are we counting doctor’s appointments?” asked her son, David Miller.
The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention warns that people with underlying health conditions are at risk for developing serious coronavirus symptoms, but Carol Miller said she wasn’t worried. She was pleased with SeaWorld’s safety precautions, she said.
SeaWorld’s interim CEO Marc Swanson told the Orlando Sentinel this week attendance would be capped at around one-third capacity, and the park will be open just five days a week to give more time for cleaning. Masks and advance reservations are required while hand sanitation stations and social distancing markers are spread throughout the ride queues and the park.
During Thursday’s opening, some visitors tugged down at their masks or took them off completely, although the majority of visitors did wear them. The park sold its own special coverings that resembled shark’s teeth or a dolphin’s snout.
Similar to Universal Orlando theme parks, SeaWorld has designated spots where people take off their masks and sit down.
Maria Brockman, who took a midday break in what SeaWorld calls the “face covering relaxation zone,” said she knows the masks are necessary now but admits they’re uncomfortable drenched in sweat.
“It’s so hot out. They get sweaty inside. So I come down here and take it off for a while,” said Brockman, who has a SeaWorld annual pass.
Not everything was fully running on Reopening Day One.
It was unusually quiet on one side of the park. No trains went by on the Manta coaster and the Journey to Atlantis ride was drained of water, so it wasn’t operating.
Other rides had longer wait times than normal as employees adjusted to the new rules and ran roller coaster trains that were only half full. They sprayed and wiped down the seats and restraint bars frequently.
By late morning, visitors waited less than an hour for Mako and about 30 minutes for Kraken by early afternoon.
It had been so long since SeaWorld passholder Estefanni Garcia rode Mako — Orlando’s fastest roller coaster — that it almost felt like a new experience, she said.
The coaster is a smooth, fast ride with top speeds of 73 mph. Her mask didn’t bother her, she said. She didn’t think about it; her body was too pumped up with adrenaline.
SeaWorld Orlando Park President Kyle Miller said the park has tested all its major roller coasters with different styles of masks.
“We didn’t have any issues with (a mask) falling off,” Miller said during a media preview Wednesday. “You’re going so fast on Mako, it really just kind of adheres better to your face, to be perfectly honest.”
For a noon show, audience members for the most part got the hang of the alternate row seating plan before the “Sea Lion High” show that features Clyde and Seamore.
But attendance was so light, people naturally spread out in the stadium. Employees did reposition a few parties that were deemed too close.
Some people shed their masks and let the overhead fans cool them.
The show’s script had a few light moments, finding humor in the real world.
“I need to get on Amazon and order toilet paper,” one actor/ trainer said.
Lines form outside SeaWorld Orlando as the theme park reopens on Thursday.
SeaWorld Orlando guests don masks to ride the Mako roller coaster in Orlando Thursday. The park is requiring guests to wear masks after having been closed since March 16 due to the coronavirus pandemic.