Theme Park Industry Looks to 'Sesame Street' and Superheroes To Boost Attendance

New Venue Opening Next Year Near San Diego Reflects Long-Term Efforts

SeaWorld Entertainment plans a March 2022 opening for its new Sesame Place in Chula Vista, California, along the same theme as its venue near Philadelphia, above. (Getty Images)

SeaWorld Entertainment has a March 2022 opening planned for a family-friendly "Sesame Street"-themed redevelopment of its former water park in Chula Vista, California, as the theme park industry kicks development projects back into gear amid rebounding U.S. attendance.


The company’s redevelopment and rebranding of its former Aquatica park in southern San Diego County to its Sesame Place banner was originally slated for completion this year. It was postponed by a pandemic that cost the U.S. theme park industry at least $23 billion in lost 2020 revenue amid attendance declines ranging from 50% to 70% of pre-pandemic levels for most major operators, according to consulting firm International Theme Park Services.


Dennis Speigel, CEO of International Theme Park Services, told CoStar News that Walt Disney Co., Six Flags and other big park owners generally put long-range planning for new on-site developments on hold in late 2020, but began restocking their five-year pipelines earlier this year to sustain this summer’s nationwide increase in attendance.


“The theme park industry depends on repeat business, and that’s about capital spending — new rides, new events, new attractions,” Speigel said, noting it can take one to five years, and often longer, to plan and build the top crowd-drawing rides and attractions.


The consultant expects theme parks — which generate traffic for nearby hotels, restaurants, stores and other businesses — to recover 70% to 80% of their past-year revenue losses by the end of 2021, as per capita spending at U.S. parks has risen significantly amid pent-up demand, though it could still be late 2023 or early 2024 before attendance returns to pre-pandemic levels.


Officials at Disney, the world’s largest theme park operator by attendance, last month reported a significant boost in year-over-year attendance, thanks in part to newly opened developments including a Marvel Avengers superhero campus at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California.


Speigel said the U.S. parks of Disney and other operators could benefit from the White House’s relaxation of international air travel restrictions for those who can document their vaccinations, but cautioned that most of those benefits are likely to be delayed to next year because the new rules don’t take effect until November.


SeaWorld Entertainment, based in Orlando, Florida, operates 12 U.S. parks under brands including SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, and the new park near San Diego will be its second Sesame Place. The other is in suburban Philadelphia. The family-oriented venue is designed around characters and settings licensed from producers of the long-running children's TV show “Sesame Street."


In a statement, the company said the new venue would employ about 800, including several dressed as iconic fuzzy characters such as Big Bird, Elmo and Cookie Monster. Sesame Place project manager Clint Brinker said plans called for 11 “reimagined water attractions,” seven dry rides, a musical play area and an on-site theater for live performances and special events.


SeaWorld Entertainment officials did not immediately respond to CoStar News’ request for comment on redevelopment costs and other construction-related details, or whether other park overhauls are planned.

The Chula Vista Aquatica, which was itself revamped from its original Knott’s Soak City branding after being acquired from Cedar Fair in 2012, has been closed since mid-2019 for the redevelopment.


Speigel said theme parks are facing labor, material and other logistical challenges, some of which are also affecting neighboring commercial businesses. The park industry overall is now 30% to 35% below ideal pre-pandemic staffing levels because of difficulties finding workers and is facing challenges obtaining computer chips, steel, kitchen appliances and other supplies needed to build new attractions.