What Will SeaWorld Announce on Thursday?

By Rick Munarriz Markets Fool.com

It's time to see if SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE: SEAS) can earn a treat by performing a fancy trick above water. The struggling theme park operator has a media event slated for Thursday morning at its flagship SeaWorld Orlando park. Speculation centers around the unveiling of a new sea-rescue-themed attraction, but some brand bashers hope that SeaWorld will be taking additional steps to wean itself from live marine-life entertainment.

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Let's not get too ahead of ourselves on the latter. The timing of the media fete may coincide with Takara -- SeaWorld Antonio's pregnant orca -- being ready to give birth later this month, but there's a reason why this announcement is being made in Florida instead of Texas. SeaWorld is billing Takara's birthing process as the last killer whale born at any SeaWorld park, a slick move to distance itself from the notoriety caused by the documentary Blackfish, but Thursday's move will probably be more about a new ride coming to its most visited park next year.

Concept art for SeaWorld San Antonio's new Wave Breaker coaster. Image source: SeaWorld Entertainment.

Sitting in the Splash Zone

There are few secrets in this age of social media, and the internet has been buzzing with photos of survey markers and cable flags throughout SeaWorld Orlando's Sea Garden area since late last year. SeaWorld itself has also been adding rides at its parks that emphasize its rescue efforts, a logical move to combat the critics.

You don't need to connect the dots -- or survey markers -- to know that SeaWorld Orlando is about to break ground on a new ride. Making the announcement now, more than a year before the start of 2018's peak summer travel season, suggests that this will be a pretty big attraction.

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Rumor aggregator Screamscape.com is hearing that this will be a water-rapids ride. Local and larger rivals Disney (NYSE: DIS) and Universal Orlando parent Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) offer similar attractions already. Disney's Animal Kingdom has Kali River Rapids, and Comcast's Islands of Adventure has Popeye and Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges.

The rumored move makes sense. SeaWorld Orlando already has two of the best coasters in the area, and its third major coaster is getting a virtual-reality upgrade this summer to make it feel less dated. An ocean-themed park needs water rides, and the recent refurbishment of its Journey to Atlantis water coaster actually stripped away most of that attraction's themed elements. SeaWorld Orlando needs an e-ticket ride to woo non-coaster riders, and a bar-raising rapids ride could do the trick.

The timing is deliberate, and not because of Takara and her pending calf. Comcast just wrapped up the buzz-building week of the Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon debut at Universal Studios Florida. If SeaWorld waited until next month, the new attraction announcement would be lost in the media storm surrounding Comcast's Volcano Bay and Disney's Pandora -- The World of Avatar, both of which will officially open in late May.

SeaWorld needs a spark. Goldman analyst Christopher Prykull initiated coverage of SeaWorld and a couple of regional amusement-park operators last week, and only SeaWorld attracted a bearish stock rating. His concern was that recent cost-cutting initiatives would eat into its turnaround potential, but Thursday's likely announcement of a major new ride could turn that thesis on its ear. The more that SeaWorld invests in new rides, the less it has to rely on controversial animal exhibits and stage shows to generate turnstile clicks. No matter where you stand on the debate about SeaWorld, aquariums, and zoos, there's probably common ground on the merits of new rides. SeaWorld shareholders hope that's the case, but we'll find out more later this week.

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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.