Can Trick-or-Treaters Save SeaWorld?


The season of costumes and make-believe could be just the ticket for SeaWorld (SEAS). The beleaguered operator of marine-life amusement parks is beefing up its Halloween-themed offerings, hoping to turn around more than a year of slumping attendance at its gated attractions.

The holiday has become a golden opportunity for regional theme parks to extend their operating seasons and for larger theme parks to cash in. Disney (DIS) and Universal parent Comcast (CMCSK) are kicking off their nighttime events in late September.

Universal Studios Florida is now in the 24th year of its annual Halloween Horror Nights, with guests paying as much as $95.99 to spend a night exploring eight haunted houses, several "scare zone" experiences and some of the park's rides and attractions. Disney World's Magic Kingdom is transformed into Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, a far less macabre affair with guests paying as much as $71 to enjoy the late-night events that include trick-or-treating stations and holiday-themed parades, shows and fireworks.

SeaWorld Takes the Bait

It's against this backdrop that SeaWorld Orlando -- wedged between the Disney and Universal parks -- is rolling out Halloween Spooktacular during the four weekends in October. Kids in disguise can hit up trick-or-treat stations, just as they can at Disney's fete. Themed shows and attractions round out the events.

The Halloween Spooktacular doesn't cost extra. SeaWorld isn't closing early the way that Disney's Magic Kingdom and Universal Studios Florida are on select event nights, charging a separate admission.

SeaWorld doesn't have much of a choice. It doesn't have Disney's brand or Universal's high-tech haunts. However, this isn't the only way that SeaWorld is hoping to drum up attendance. It's offering annual pass holders an incentive program during October. Pass members receive stamps for each of the eight Halloween Spooktacular dates. If they attend twice, they get a free meal. If they collect three stamps they can take a special behind-the-scenes tour.

Yes, folks. SeaWorld is that desperate.

Making a Big Splash

Things haven't been the same at SeaWorld since last year's "Blackfish" documentary took the theme park operator to task for having killer whales in captivity. Attendance slipped 4 percent last year, and it now sees revenue sliding 6 percent to 7 percent for 2014.

This has come as cruel timing for retail investors who first bought into SeaWorld when it went public at $27 early last year, just before the "Blackfish" documentary was released. The stock has been crushed in recent months, pushing its yield up to 4.2 percent.

Drawing sugar-hungry kids through October weekends won't necessarily be enough to put an end to the negative publicity surrounding its killer whale shows. However, since SeaWorld has already indicated that it will be cutting costs during the latter half of this year, one can't blame the park operator for trying to position itself as the venue for a cost-effective holiday outing. It may as well see if it can hand out more treats as a way to avoid tricking investors.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. To read about our favorite high-yielding dividend stocks for any investor, check out our free report.