Recently Busch Gardens Williamsburg announced the official closure of “The Curse of DarKastle”. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this attraction, the ride was the first outside of a “major” park to implement a style of Oceaneering’s Evolution ride system found at Universal Orlando’s Spider-Man and Transformers attractions.
The reason for the closure was attributed to consistent budget cuts within the chain, and the park’s inability to provide labor, maintenance, and upgrades as necessary to keep the attraction in operation. This ride set a benchmark for theme parks around the nation, and for over a decade was quite literally “one-of-a-kind.” Only recently has Oceaneering developed a cheaper style of this system that’s finding its way into Six Flags parks around the nation.
“The Curse of DarKastle” had a strong fan base, but had been suffering in the past several years as the attraction went without the services needed to keep it operating at the level that was expected. The last public ride was given at the end of Summer 2017 when Busch Gardens Williamsburg announced the building would be used for special-event space throughout the rest of the year. Quietly, the attraction fell into months-long disuse while the company assessed it’s future.
So what does this mean for Orlando? An interesting point-of-note is that the Busch Gardens brand has been one of the few saving-graces for SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment in the last five years. As the fallout from activists has ultimately plagued the bottom line, and as the public has seen visits to SeaWorld as “taboo,” the Company’s non-SeaWorld properties have helped provide some form of consistency to a struggling bottom line.
While the “Curse of DarKastle” had severe challenges for a seasonal-park budget, it survived unscathed for nearly eight years before events that damaged the brand began to sink their teeth into the Company as a whole. The closure of this attraction isn’t much of a surprise if you’re a self-titled themed industry analyst, as I am. However, to the Guests who visit the parks and expect a specific product, what does the dismantling of a multi-million dollar flagship attraction mean for the longevity of the brand?
In Orlando, we see our own signs of trouble. SeaWorld profits have declined steadily for nearly four years, and it’s trickling down to the basic experiences that we see on a day-to-day basis. While the loss of The Polar Express layover at “Wild Arctic” might be justified as a transition of products to IP’s such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I see it as a more concerning thing: the company is floundering. Warner Brothers holds the license to The Polar Express, while NBCUniversal holds the rights to Rudolph, and sells those rights significantly cheaper. It wasn’t a matter of choice, it was a matter of force to abandon The Polar Express. (As an aside, I’ll simply mention that the move may have worked out better, as the overall Guest Satisfaction with the current holiday products has been up quite a bit.)
As a guest, I spend an inordinate amount of my time inside the parks studying and analyzing the decisions that go into the operation. Why charge $2 for SkyTower? Why is the line at Voyagers always unbearably long? Why are three bays staffed at “Wild Arctic” when there’s nobody in line? More and more I see answers I don’t want to admit. The closure of “The Curse of DarKastle” tells me that the small cuts aren’t working. Through the years all of SeaWorld’s parks have seen shorter operating hours, less staff, and altered entertainment offerings. These cuts come alongside now-annual layoffs and dismal quarterly earnings reports. In addition, SeaWorld has made the effort to cushion their bottom line through the addition of ancillary revenue through Epcot-esque year-round festivals. And yet, it isn’t working.
This comeback is simply too hard. SeaWorld is struggling like no company previous to it. Scarred by the poor decision-making skills of its previous management, and unable to survive over the cacophony of screaming activists, SeaWorld’s transformation to a ride-centric aquatic-themed amusement park is running out of time, credit, and capital. Whether you like Joel Manby or hate him, there’s no denying that the task he assumed was insurmountable. With Orca Protection Acts now on the floor of the Florida Senate, his predictions were indeed accurate. That doesn’t excuse, however, the failing product. The Company has now moved to slash an entire attraction, admittedly a costly one, from their roster. This cut isn’t small, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. This isn’t fewer show times, or a single serving line open in the restaurants. This closure marks something different, and it feels like defeat.
SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment has yet to announce a date for their End of Fiscal Year 2017 conference call. The longer the silence persists, the less hope I have. While this Christmas season may have been one of the best at SeaWorld Orlando, that’s not a picture for the entire company. SeaWorld operates nearly a dozen parks across the US, and without all parks shooting good-news and profits home to Orlando, the future looks grim for the SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment.
While we await the results of this past year, we can look to the north-east to a now-closed Castle, which stands as a vacant reminder of a better time in SeaWorld’s history. As the sun sets on this now-abandoned flagship, the silent queue lines and extinguished torches may just be more foreshadowing for the Company than we are willing to admit.
Since the writing of this article, SWP&E has actually announced their call date as 2/27 at 9 AM. Scheduling an end-of-year call that far out is a bit… concerning. If the company had good news to share, one would think they’d want to get it in the hands of investors as soon as possible. That doesn’t seem to be the case…
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Images Copyright: SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment