SeaWorld's Antarctica latest challenge to Disney
By Orlando Sentinel
Published: Saturday, May 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Three years ago, Harry Potter loosened Mickey Mouse's grip on Orlando's theme-park market.
Now, Puck the Penguin is ready to try pulling Mickey's fingers even farther apart.
After more than a year of construction, SeaWorld Orlando this week will open Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, a nearly 4-acre, multiattraction “land” built to look like the icy continent and starring an animated gentoo penguin named Puck.
Orlando-based SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., which just completed a $700 million public stock offering, has enormous expectations for Antarctica, the largest expansion in SeaWorld history. Company President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison calls the project “a real game-changer for us.”
But beyond simply boosting SeaWorld's fortunes, industry analysts say Antarctica has the potential to alter the Orlando market, which historically has been dominated by Walt Disney World.
During the past decade, Disney World's central growth strategy has been to persuade travelers to spend their full vacations on its property, lured by programs such as sliding-scale ticket prices and a free airport shuttle. But that model has been challenged recently by Universal Orlando, which has attracted millions of visitors to its parks on the strength of the 3-year-old Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
With Antarctica, analysts say, SeaWorld has an opportunity to continue that shift.
“Antarctica, in my mind, is a really good test of how different the Orlando landscape has become,” said Bob Boyd, a leisure analyst at Pacific Asset Management, a California investment-management company.
Antarctica is SeaWorld's entry into a parade of lavishly designed “lands” that U.S. theme-park owners are building across the country after the success of Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Universal parent Comcast Corp. is copying Wizarding World at its West Coast park and will add a second Potter land — Diagon Alley — next year in Orlando. The Walt Disney Co. last year opened Cars Land at Disneyland and the initial phases of New Fantasyland at Disney World. It has begun preliminary work on a land based on the movie “Avatar,” also at Disney World and expected to open in 2017.
SeaWorld's Antarctica includes a first-of-its-kind trackless ride and a frigid, walk-through penguin habitat, along with a 325-seat restaurant meant to resemble a multinational mess hall and a penguin-themed gift shop.
The company will not disclose what it spent on Antarctica, though one analyst estimated the cost was substantially less than the $265 million that Universal spent on Wizarding World and the estimated $425 million that Disney is spending on New Fantasyland.
Still, Antarctica is the biggest in a collection of rides and other construction projects on which SeaWorld has spent $420 million combined during the past two years. Executives say they plan to trim their capital spending in the coming years to something closer to $150 million annually.
To maximize the investment, Antarctica will have to do more than drive higher attendance and ticket prices. SeaWorld needs the project to entice guests into spending more on food and souvenirs.
SeaWorld hopes to emulate some of the success Universal has had with “butterbeer” and other Harry Potter-themed food and merchandise in its Islands of Adventure theme park.
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