SeaWorld's PR Nightmare Could Affect Next Quarter

SeaWorld's PR Nightmare Could Affect Next Quarter

Theme parks have been a surprisingly strong investment in the past few years, mainly because while families are recovering from the financial crisis and getting out of the house, they are choosing more conservative, close-to-home vacations. SeaWorld , the increasingly controversial interactive aquarium park, had benefited in recent years from growing revenue, better margins, and operating income.

The company has only been available to retail investors since April, when the stock debuted to a seemingly disinterested market. Since then, the stock has remained roughly flat. In the recently ended quarter, however, things looked to be improving -- or at least stabilizing. The question now is, with a damaging attack against the company in the form of a jaw-dropping documentary, can SeaWorld draw more visitors in?

Earnings recap
Before we get to the image and ethical issues facing the company, let's take a look at how things are moving along.

SeaWorld made a splash (sorry) with net income up 30% over the prior year's number to $120.2 million -- $1.33 per share. The figure came in at a sharp premium to the average analyst expectations of $1.19 per share. Sales grew just 3% to $538.4 million. Though attendance still dropped -- down 3.6% this quarter -- the bleeding seems to have slowed from last year, when the company saw a near 10% year-over-year decline in traffic.

Free cash flow grew 15% to $140.8 million, driven by the company's record EBITDA of $254.4 million -- a 10% gain over the prior year.

Looking ahead, the company expects as much as $1.46 billion in revenue, down slightly from previous estimates of as much as $1.48 billion. The company did, however, bump up its EBITDA guidance by $2 million on both ends -- now expecting in the range of $432 million to $442 million.

By the looks of it, the company had a pretty strong quarter. Still, the market had a muted reaction to the results, perhaps because of the lowered revenue guidance. Another thing to consider is whether the market predicts coming issues now that CNN has rebroadcast a troubling piece on the company.

Though sharply refuted by SeaWorld management, the recent Blackfish documentary about the treatment of the theme park's animals could be a sticky enough story to keep increasingly conscious families from visiting the allegedly negligent parks. The film centers around the 2010 death of a whale trainer and how killer whales are highly evolved sentient creatures that are physically and psychologically injured by remaining in small concrete bodies of water.

The story has received immense attention from media, bloggers, and everyday folk who have developed sharp opinions on the matter. It's not going to bring the company to the ground, but it may very well affect attendance in the short to medium term. The recently ended earnings period does not reflect the effects of the October-released documentary.

Though theme parks are a compelling investment thesis these days, investors may want to look elsewhere. SeaWorld has a black eye at the moment, and thrill-seekers could get their jollies in a less controversial manner.

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