SeaWorld Has My $79, and Now It Has to Feed Me for a Year

By Markets Fool.com

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SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE: SEAS)rolled out a 2017 Dining Plan earlier this month for its SeaWorld Orlando and Sesame Place annual passholders, allowing anyone willing to fork over $79 a free daily meal through the end of 2017. The plan -- pioneered by regional amusement park operator Six Flags (NYSE: SIX) -- is either sheer brilliance or a master prank to expose our country's gluttonous ways. We'll find out soon enough. Yesterday, I became the latest hungry parkgoer to spring for SeaWorld Orlando's 2017 Dining Plan.

This is probably the point in any SeaWorld article where some of you are fishing around to find my email or Twitter handle. You're livid. You want to let me know that I'm a monster for patronizing SeaWorld Orlando. Shamu swims in a pool the size of a bathtub, and I need to stop everything and stream Blackfish.

I get it. I haven't seen a killer whale show in years. I've applauded SeaWorld Entertainment's moves away from killer whale shows, shifting its focus to rides and attractions that emphasize its marine life rescue efforts and are far less controversial.

I'm at SeaWorld Orlando because it has two of the best three coasters in the state of Florida. I'm there because it's smarting for turnstile clicks, forcing it to do things like offer "Blue Friday" deals this weekend with several tempting BOGO offers and open a lounge where annual passholders can drink down free sodas. I'm there because SeaWorld Orlando is desperate enough for an attendance boost that it's willing to feed me whenever I show up through the end of 2017 for less than $80.

Genius on the menu

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SeaWorld's new plan allows members to grab an entree, an additional side or dessert, and a non-alcoholic beverage. It's good once a day. It pays for itself after a few visits, because everyone knows that theme park food isn't cheap unless you're fortunate enough to be at Knoebel's in Pennsylvania or Holiday World in Indiana.

I worked the math. Moments after activating my 2017 Dining Plan, I put it to work. I sized up the Terrace Bar menu. I ordered a cola-infused roast beef sandwich on a pretzel roll. It comes with kettle chips. I added a strawberry shortcake dessert and a Diet Coke. It would've added up to nearly $18, or $16 with my annual pass discount. It would take four more meals at that rate to cover the cost of the 2017 Dining Plan.

Here's where things get interesting. I've been a SeaWorld passholder for a couple of years, but I hit up SeaWorld Orlando six times this year before yesterday's visit. I ate at the park just twice. I'm not a tourist who's going to hang out all day at a park that I have year-round access to, and I know enough of the area haunts where I can get better value for my money even with the 10% passholder discount.

If I only eat at SeaWorld Orlando two more times in the year ahead, I would be losing money, of course, but that's also why I'm unlikely to do that now that I invested in the dining pass. I'm not going to go between meals. I'm going to go hungry. I'm going to go more often. My goal is to eat my way into SeaWorld's financial ruin, but it will never play out that way. Food costs are probably about a quarter of what they're charging, but that doesn't mean that I need to ring up $320 in meal orders to make me a profit breaker. I'm not going to eat alone. I'll be with other people. I'll buy different food items. I'm going to explore eateries that I never knew existed, warming me up more to the prospects of eating at SeaWorld long after it discontinues the dining plan because business is back on track.

Following Mr. Six

Six Flags is proof that an all-season dining pass works. It wouldn't still be offering it if that weren't the case. A Janney Capital analyst reiterated his bullish call on Six Flags, in part based on the success of the dining plan, where folks pay between $50 to $85 for a season of eating at the regional amusement park chain.

There is a lot to like about this new plan, and I was the one who blasted Six Flags for initially going this route. I have alsolaughed off Olive Garden's Never Ending Pasta pass, but that's because food is Olive Garden's business. SeaWorld is using food as a loss leader like a supermarket that stocks cheap milk at the back of the store to woo you with other temptations on the way in and out of the shopping experience.

SeaWorld is on to something here.The limitations of the dining plan -- it's not good at the ritzier Sharks Underwater Grill restaurant or Dine with Shamu experience or on some high-priced food items including ribs and combo platters -- may make me long for those options in the future. The next time I'm at SeaWorld Orlando, I'm going to come hungry, and that's a situation where both sides can win.

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Rick Munarriz owns shares of SeaWorld Entertainment. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.