SeaWorld reopens, looks to re­bound

Orlando Sentinel - - Front Page - By Gabrielle Rus­son and De­wayne Bevil

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.

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