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One of the first guests to get on the new Infinity Falls raft ride at SeaWorld Orlando get a massive splashdown on the attraction's official opening day, in Orlando, Fla., Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018.

One of the first guests to get on the new Infinity Falls raft ride at SeaWorld Orlando get a massive splashdown on the attraction's official opening day, in Orlando, Fla., Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

SAN DIEGO - A year after posting the steepest attendance drop among North America's largest theme parks, SeaWorld San Diego led all others in 2018 with a 20% surge in visitation.

Both the San Diego and Orlando marine parks, which had experienced double-digit declines in 2017, saw double-digit increases in attendance last year, easily outstripping the percentage gains of other top parks in the U.S. and Canada, according to an industry report released Wednesday that tracks park attendance. Attendance at SeaWorld Orlando jumped 16 percent, the report said.

No other park approached that kind of growth in 2018, and the only other theme park to reach a double-digit increase was Disney's Animal Kingdom park in Florida, which saw a 10% increase in visitation.

It's a remarkable turnaround for a theme park company that, up until 2018, saw year after year of revenue and attendance declines fueled in part by growing anti-captivity sentiment among the public following the 2013 release of the "Blackfish" documentary critical of SeaWorld's treatment of killer whales. Most affected was SeaWorld San Diego, where visitation sank nearly 14% in 2017, according to AECOM, a multinational engineering firm that partnered with the Themed Entertainment Association on the attendance report.

Globally, overall attendance for the SeaWorld portfolio of parks ranks far below that of amusement park behemoths Disney and Universal and just behind North American regional chains Six Flags and Cedar Fair, but "more change is in the wind as SeaWorld starts to become an international brand," the report says.

Collectively, SeaWorld Entertainment park attendance was nearly 22.6 million, compared to more than 156 million for Disney and 50 million for Universal, although their respective 4.9% and 1.2% attendance gains last year trailed SeaWorld's 8.6% growth. For the SeaWorld San Diego park, attendance rose from 3.1 million in 2017 to more than 3.7 million last year, the report said.

"SeaWorld's good performance is creditable to investments in new rides and programming and leveraging the Sesame Street IP, in addition to working actively to change the conversation about the parks - internally and externally - and making other positive changes," the report concluded.

In the past two years, SeaWorld, while not abandoning its focus on marine mammals, has doubled down on higher profile rides, opening this Friday in San Diego its second roller coaster, Tidal Twister, in as many years. And next year, it will unveil what it's calling its tallest coaster yet - the 153-foot tall Mako dive coaster.

While the regular release of exciting attractions is crucial to the theme park business, report author John Robinett underscores the growing importance of leveraging intellectual property, like the Harry Potter worlds at Universal and the Avatar world at Disney. He predicts that Disney's soon-to-open Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland and a few months later the opening at Disney World are expected "to take things to a whole new level of immersion," not to mention what will most likely be huge attendance gains.

Because theme park companies only report attendance figures for their collective portfolios of parks, the annual report from AECOM and Themed Entertainment provides a useful tool for comparing visitation trends at the world's top parks.

The latest numbers for SeaWorld shouldn't come as too big a surprise, given the rebounding growth in both attendance and revenue reported by parent company SeaWorld Entertainment across its 12-park portfolio over five consecutive quarters.

Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com

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