SeaWorld rebounds, still faces COVID-19, worker challenges

'The current labor market continues to present staffing and wage challenges ...'

Hiring enough theme park workers remains a challenge for SeaWorld Entertainment as the company keeps rebounding from the pandemic.

The Orlando-headquartered company’s CEO Marc Swanson discussed the labor struggles and the ambitious plans to expand — as well as SeaWorld’s failed attempt to buy Cedar Fair — during an earnings call Thursday morning.

The company’s total revenue hit about $371 million for the fourth quarter, a whopping $217 million more compared to the same period in 2020 before vaccines were widely available and many people feared leaving home. About 5 million guests visited SeaWorld’s theme parks this quarter.

“We delivered record revenue, record net income and record adjusted EBITDA. We are especially pleased to deliver these record results while continuing to operate in an environment with significant and unprecedented headwinds related to COVID-19,” Swanson said.

In 2020, SeaWorld furloughed or laid off thousands of employees.

Now, the company is struggling to hire more workers as the parks are fully open and attendance grows.

“Like many other companies, the current labor market continues to present staffing and wage challenges which we are working to manage through,” Swanson said during the earnings call.

SeaWorld is turning to international workers for the first time at nearly all of the company’s parks, Swanson said, calling it “something we didn’t take advantage of as much as our competitors may have in the past.”

On the earnings call, Swanson was also asked about SeaWorld’s failed bid to buy amusement park operator Cedar Fair which operates 11 parks in the United States.

SeaWorld offered to buy the company for $3.4 billion, according to media reports earlier this month.

“We have a lot of respect for Cedar Fair, their assets, and their management team, a lot of respect for them. We obviously believed the combination made sense for us,” Swanson said Thursday, adding he didn’t want to comment on too many of the details behind the bid “They rejected the offer. It didn’t work out obviously.”

But Swanson asserted SeaWorld is in the driver’s seat and looking to invest whether that means building new attractions or a new park and updating technology, like creating a mobile app. Swanson has also said the company is interested in getting into the hotel business for the first time.

“We like the strong financial position we find ourselves in and I think we have some flexibility,” Swanson told analysts Thursday.

The company’s liquidity was more than $800 million, Swanson said.

Overall, attendance for 2021 still lagged about 2.4 million visitors compared to the pre-pandemic 2019’s figures since international tourists aren’t fully returning, the company said. The United States didn’t lift travel restrictions for many foreign airline passengers until November.

But Swanson told analysts he was confident attendance will rebound and he believes the lineup of new rides, including Orlando’s Ice Breaker coaster and Tampa’s Iron Gwazi, will help.

Ice Breaker is already open to the public at SeaWorld Orlando. Iron Gwazi’s debut is March 11 at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

Gabrielle Russon

Gabrielle Russon is an award-winning journalist based in Orlando. She covered the business of theme parks for the Orlando Sentinel. Her previous newspaper stops include the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Toledo Blade, Kalamazoo Gazette and Elkhart Truth as well as an internship covering the nation’s capital for the Chicago Tribune. For fun, she runs marathons. She gets her training from chasing a toddler around. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter @GabrielleRusson .


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