SeaWorld disappointed the market last week by announcing that attendance during the first three months of this year plunged 13 percent to 3.05 million. The shift in the Easter holiday helps explain some of the decline. The seasonally potent holiday took place in March of last year, and the bump to April this time around did limit turnstile clicks. However, this also means that SeaWorld will need to think of something new if attendance doesn't bounce back during the second quarter.
Considering that last quarter's decline in attendance came on the heels of a 4 percent slide last year -- when all of the country's other major park operators fared better -- it's clear that SeaWorld needs to earn back its patrons. Let's go over a few ways to make that happen.
1. End the Killer Whale Shows
Let's address the 800-pound gorilla in the room for SeaWorld by talking about the 10,000-pound orca in the tank. Last year's documentary "Blackfish" may have been one-sided, but it's clear that the people who have watched the film and formed a negative opinion of SeaWorld far outnumber those who invested a few more minutes to consider the park operator's multi-point rebuttal.
We live in a viral world, and for now SeaWorld is losing the "Blackfish" debate. Obviously, releasing domesticated killer whales into the ocean isn't as simple as it sounds. The unfortunate release story of Keiko -- the star of "Free Willy" -- bears that out. However, at least putting an end to the performances and considering more generous habitats for the orcas already in captivity will help silence the protests that are clearly keeping guests away. This may seem like a slippery slope that opens the door for naysayers to rally against performing dolphins and sea lions, too. But should that happen, it would put zoos everywhere in the crosshairs as well, and no doubt be a much harder battle for activists.
2. Add More Themed Rides and Attractions
Some will argue that nixing Shamu shows will destroy attendance, but let's not assume that those marquee orca shows are the reason why SeaWorld has been successful.
Miami's Seaquarium has had Lolita the killer whale splashing about for decades, and the venue has struggled to draw guests because it lacks the rides that SeaWorld has been adding to appeal to mainstream audiences. An annual Seaquarium pass costs a little more than half the price of a single-day ticket at SeaWorld Orlando a three-hour drive away.
It's telling that Miami Seaquarium was sold earlier this year to a Spanish amusement park operator that is likely thinking the same thing, if it can get local officials to approve the addition of rides. Anyone arguing that a marine life park without orca shows is toast probably missed the timeline of Keiko and Tilikum as they were transported from several failing parks over the years -- parks that failed to add rides.
3. Stop Hiring Famous Musical Acts for Festivals
A big reason why "Blackfish" has continued to sting SeaWorld is that the negative publicity snowballed when the protests led several bands scheduled to play at its music festivals to back out.
Activists petitioned bands to stay away, and artists were either genuinely convinced, or figured it was better to bow out than risk alienating fans and potential fans. The "Blackfish" blackmail worked. Which aspect of the story do you think the media played up: SeaWorld losing on iconic recording stars or how these bands had to forgo revenue as a result of these campaigns? You know the answer.
If SeaWorld is still under fire next year, it can sidestep the matter by simply hiring tribute bands. Don't laugh. Even Disney does it. EPCOT has festivals at which legendary artists perform, but it also has other events where it brings in talented tribute bands instead.
4. Get Loud in Turning the Tables
SeaWorld may have paid for full-page ads in newspapers late last year to tell its side of the story, but it hasn't been enough. Most people streaming "Blackfish" or sharing negative comments about the park operator don't know that the park's animal experts have also rescued more than 23,000 animals.
How does SeaWorld get that news out there? Posting digital billboards tallying the animal rescues near its three SeaWorld parks can't hurt. It can also catch the streaming video wave by producing its own reality nature series on its animal rescue efforts. If it can't procure a spot on a cable nature channel, it would be worth it to essentially give it away on streaming video services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Future rides and attractions can also be themed to emphasize the rescue process in an engaging way that will educate the park guests so they have ammo the next time that they come up against the naysayers.
There is so much that SeaWorld can do, though naturally exploring life beyond killer whale exhibits and shows would be the easiest way to turn critics into fans.
Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.