SAN DIEGO — SeaWorld San Diego, which has been struggling to reverse its slumping attendance, has introduced a new $99.99 annual pass designed to induce repeat visits from the Southern California market.
The park decided to focus on making visits more affordable for regular visitors from throughout the Southern California region rather than deeply discount single-day tickets, park president Marilyn Hannes said.
The new $99.99 offering represents a $60 discount off the previous year-round pass and includes in-park discounts.
While the theme park is also offering an even lower priced pass called the Fun Card, at $89.99, that promotion does not include daily parking at $17 and it also comes with certain blackout days. It will be valid through 2018.
“In our research, affordability is consistently a top barrier,” Hannes said. “Theme parks are an expensive day for families anymore. So this is really about being loyal to San Diego and allowing families to come back over and over again by making the pass so appealing.”
It also appears to be a clear response to the most recent earnings report by parent company SeaWorld Entertainment, which showed that in San Diego attendance from Southern California visitors had declined during the second quarter.
The company last month singled out San Diego, pointing to the re-emergence of what it called its “public perception issues” after having cut back on marketing efforts to bolster its reputation. CEO Joel Manby also said at the time he was disappointed by the lower-than-expected attendance gains from the park’s new Ocean Explorer attraction, which includes a mini-submarine ride geared to younger children.
Next year, the park will debut its fastest and tallest roller coaster, Electric Eel, hoping to attract an older demographic.
Compared to other Southern California theme parks, the annual pass is a bargain, although SeaWorld does not have the breadth of attractions that Disneyland and Universal Studios offer. The lowest annual passport at Disneyland, which also includes admission to California Adventure but does not include parking, is $339.
The SeaWorld pass, though, is more on par with pricing at regional parks such as Knotts Berry Farm, noted theme park analyst Bob Boyd of Pacific Management Group. He said he suspects that SeaWorld is hoping the discounted pricing will help spread the word about its new attractions to a wider audience.
Monthly lease revenue reports provided by the city of San Diego, which leases Mission Bay Park land to SeaWorld, reveal a significant decline in money coming in. So far this year, through the end of July, revenues are off more than $900,000 compared to the same period in 2016.
“San Diego is still the market where they have the most concern around their brand and image,” Boyd said. “So this is an opportunity to show some of the new changes they’ve made like the killer whale encounter and how they’ve invested a decent amount in the park.
“It feels like it’s a better offer than we’ve seen previously but not dramatically different.”
Hannes pointed out that in addition to the lower pricing on the new Southern California annual pass, purchasers will be able to make payments of less than $9 a month and no longer will an initial down payment be required. Another bonus is that the pass includes two free guest tickets and notification of member-only events not available to the public.
Orlando, Florida-based SeaWorld Entertainment has been working to overcome criticism surrounding the captivity of its orcas since the 2013 release of the documentary “Blackfish,” which sought to expose how SeaWorld treats its killer whales.
SeaWorld has since ended the breeding of its orcas and in San Diego replaced its theatrical Shamu shows with an educational presentation that syncs natural behaviors of its orcas with National Geographic-style video on a huge screen.
In addition to its announcement about the new passes, SeaWorld also unveiled its lineup of new attractions and seasonal offerings throughout the rest of the year and next year.
New to the park will be a January-only “meet the animals” experience that will give visitors access to behind-the-scene visits with dolphins, sea turtles and otters, plus free tours of the park’s animal health and rescue center.
Also new is a Sesame Street parade on weekends in May and June of next year. The parade will feature Sesame Street characters, including Elmo, themed floats and performances along the route.
“We’re just taking a step back and during this time of philosophical change and new changes in that direction, how can we be a better value, a better product and better experience instead of always trying to keep up,” Hannes said.