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A Disney World Rival Sets Its Sights on 2020

Rick Munarriz, The Motley Fool

SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE: SEAS) is putting the finishing touches on the new Sesame Street area for young families that it plans to introduce at SeaWorld Orlando next week, but the country's third largest theme park operator has bigger plans for 2020. It's the right approach for SeaWorld at its biggest park in its most financially significant market.

This year, it isn't going to be able to keep up with Disney (NYSE: DIS) or Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) Universal Orlando. The chain may have carried momentum coming out of 2018 -- beating its rivals in attendance growth as well as stock gains last year -- but its better-financed peers are making big investments that SeaWorld can't and won't match. The opportunity to turn heads will come next year, and SeaWorld Entertainment will be ready.

Manta roller coaster at SeaWorld Orlando.

Image source: SeaWorld Entertainment.

It's a gap year for Shamu

The back-in-favor theme park chain filed several building permit applications with the county earlier this week, according to the Orlando Business Journal. There aren't a lot of details here beyond an estimate of the early work setting SeaWorld back at least $7 million. However, the permits do address modifications for lockers, all but guaranteeing that this will be a thrill ride requiring guests to stow their belongings outside. 

SeaWorld Orlando will need to come up big after settling for a Sesame Street makeover as its major addition for 2019. It has also struggled with keeping last year's new ride -- a river raft ride called Infinity Falls -- consistently in operation. It's just as well, since Disney and Comcast are investing in bar-raising attractions. Universal Orlando is set to open Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, a one-of-a-kind family-friendly roller coaster with immersive theatrical elements. Disney will counter two months later with the first phase of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, the resort's most ambitious expansion in 21 years.

It also doesn't help that SeaWorld is breaking in a new CEO. Cruise line industry vet Gus Antorcha was tapped as the chain's new helmsman last month. Earlier this week SeaWorld announced that John T. Reilly -- the interim CEO who retreated back to his COO role after Antorcha was hired last month -- would be leaving the company by the end of this month.

It's understandable why Reilly would step down after not being chosen to be the chain's permanent CEO. Attendance at SeaWorld's collection of parks rose 8.6% in 2018, more than any of its larger or even smaller peers. The stock soared 63% last year, also outpacing all of the publicly traded theme park and regional amusement park operators. 

There are no guarantees that the coast will be clear in 2020. Disney has several new rides and attractions that have been announced to open by 2021, and a few will likely debut next year. Universal Orlando is more tight-lipped about its pipeline, but it is starting to clear land for what many believe will be a Jurassic Park-themed roller coaster. 

SeaWorld has already gone official with its commitment to making its mark in Florida -- home to nearly half of its dozen theme and water parks -- in 2020. It's promising to build a record-setting coaster at Busch Gardens Tampa that will open next year, and now it seems as if it will provide another thrill-packed bookend to SeaWorld Orlando. Taking a breather in 2019 after all the momentum and credibility it regained last year may seem like a gamble, but it will have plenty of chips on the table come next year.

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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 recommends Comcast. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.