Personal Finance

SeaWorld Won't Match Price Hikes at Disney World and Universal

Manta roller coaster at SeaWorld Orlando.

It's going to cost a bit more to visit one of Central Florida's leading theme parks, but it's highly unlikely that SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE: SEAS) will follow suit. All eyes are on SeaWorld Orlando, days after Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) and Disney (NYSE: DIS) raised prices on most one-day tickets at Universal Orlando and Disney World, respectively. Those eyes may as well start looking elsewhere.

Disney and Comcast tend to announce higher ticket prices for their Florida attractions around the same time, and for a long time, SeaWorld followed suit. The game has changed over the past couple of years, as SeaWorld has struggled to win back crowds following the Blackfish fallout.

Disney kicked off the latest round of hikes eight days ago, raising prices for most of its one-day tickets and annual passes. Comcast jumped into the fun a few days later, increasing prices of its one-day tickets by $5 -- or $10 for single-day park-to-park admissions.

It can cost as much as $124 for a single day at Disney World or Universal Orlando now. SeaWorld used to match or nearly match its larger rivals, but it's not likely to budge past the current $99 mark anytime soon.

Manta roller coaster at SeaWorld Orlando.

Image source: SeaWorld Orlando.

A whale of a time

The obvious reason for SeaWorld laying low this month is that the marine life specialist bumped its prices higher a little more than three months ago. One-day tickets went from $97 to $99 in early November. Ticket prices also went up by $2 in May of the prior year. Rolling out smaller increases apart from the moves by Disney and Comcast is one way to slip through hikes without generating a lot of media attention, but SeaWorld doesn't have the luxury of simply rolling out pricier admissions.

The move to $97 in 2015 was accompanied by SeaWorld lowering advance-purchase prices for weekday visits by $75 to $70. Early last year, it raised the prices of weekday passes bought at least a day ahead of time to $79, but it also lowered weekend advance-purchase passes from $89 to the same weekday price of $79. November's move to raise one-day ticket prices was accompanied by a limited-time discount on annual passes. In short, SeaWorld can't seem to push rates higher without offering some kind of price break elsewhere.

Attendance has been sluggish across most of SeaWorld's attractions in the years following Blackfish . Things are starting to stabilize now. Revenue has declined by 2% through the first nine months of 2016 on a slight dip in attendance, and we'll find out later this month how the holiday quarter panned out. We're likely looking at the third straight year of declining revenue at SeaWorld.

SeaWorld stock, which has soared 63% since bottoming out last summer, has fared better than its fundamentals. There is growing optimism that the operator's shift to rides and festivals over controversial killer-whale shows will reinvigorate the gated attractions. The turnaround will happen, but SeaWorld can't afford to push its one-day prices into the triple digits like Disney and Comcast just yet. Let the attendance and revenue recover to peak levels before the swagger comes back. Maybe all three operators will introduce substantial price increases next February, but SeaWorld has to earn the right to run with the big boys first.

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Rick Munarriz owns shares of SeaWorld Entertainment and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy .

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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