SAN DIEGO - For years after Walt Disney opened his Anaheim, Calif., park, he was dogged by a single regret: Short on cash, he hadn't been able to buy land to fend off a flood of budget motels that siphoned revenue and cheapened his beloved Disneyland.
It was a painful lesson. A decade later, his company wisely bought more than 20,000 acres of Florida land for its Disney World theme park, now home to 26,000 hotel rooms, catapulting it to one of the world's 40 largest hotel companies.
As SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. embarks on a venture to develop a branded hotel in San Diego, it will be following a path blazed by theme park industry behemoths Disney and Universal Studios.
SeaWorld may not have the real estate hoard of its rivals, but it has identified enough land in at least four of its 11 parks to cash in on what industry experts say is a time-tested, lucrative pursuit: Build a hotel at your amusement park and tourists will spend piles of cash on high-priced rooms, multiple visits to the park, meals, and souvenirs.
The perks for guests are equally enticing: early entry into the parks before the masses arrive, front-of-the-line passes, and delivery of park purchases to your hotel room.
"Hotels attached to theme parks generally do very well, and you'll find there's a premium guests will pay for the perks," said Martin Lewison, a theme park consultant and assistant business professor at Farmingdale State College in New York.
SeaWorld has been saddled with sagging revenue and attendance since the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which was critical of the parks' treatment of killer whales. Protests by animal rights activists and negative publicity have dogged the company, which decried the film as inaccurate and unfair.
Company executives acknowledge they will have to do a lot more than simply banish killer-whale theatrics from SeaWorld's Shamu show to win back disenchanted visitors.
Transforming SeaWorld Entertainment into a resort business with its own hotels is a no-brainer for chief executive Joel Manby, who called it a "very proven model." Room rates can be as much as double those of comparable properties outside the theme park, he said during a recent presentation.
In San Diego, SeaWorld will partner with longtime hotel owner/operator Evans Hotels, which already has two Mission Bay resorts near the marine park. A hotel of up to 300 rooms has been in SeaWorld San Diego's master plan since the 1980s, but talk of a definitive partnership with Evans didn't intensify until Manby joined the company in March, Evans president Robert Gleason said.
A hotel, which probably would be no taller than three stories and which could cost $60 million to $80 million, is still years away from construction, assuming it can pass muster with the City of San Diego and the California Coastal Commission.
Although there is no specific design yet, Gleason envisions engaging public spaces and grounds that tie into a SeaWorld theme. There might even be room for an interactive animal attraction, he said.
"We wouldn't be moving forward if we weren't long-term believers in the SeaWorld brand," Gleason said. "We come down on the side of believing in their leadership team to successfully deliver what their current and future guests want."
Leisure industry analyst Bob Boyd isn't so sanguine. Just as SeaWorld draws protests, so too could a branded hotel, he said. "With the growth of the Internet, which has made minority voices louder than they normally would be, there is a good percentage of the population that doesn't like SeaWorld having orcas in captivity," he said. "If they see SeaWorld on the hotel name, they won't go there."
Still, the financial reward of being linked to a theme park where millions of visitors still pass through the turnstiles makes the alliance a smart move, said Scott Smith, a former hotel operator who teaches at the University of South Carolina's School of Hotel, Restaurant, and Tourism Management.
"They're still losing customers," he said, "but there is still a large percentage of people who will continue to patronize SeaWorld."
Although it's difficult to quantify the profits spun off by Disney's and Universal's theme park hotels, the companies' continued building binge speaks for itself. Universal Orlando will open its fifth hotel next year, bringing to 5,200 the number of rooms at the resort.
In its latest earnings report, Walt Disney Co. said occupancy at its hotels was a healthy 84 percent, with guests spending on average 7 percent more than the year before.
If SeaWorld and Evans Hotels are to succeed in their new venture, the park will still need to beef up its attractions, and the hotel will have to come up with appealing nighttime entertainment, said Robert Niles, founder of ThemeParkInsider.com.
By the time the hotel opens, though, there's little doubt it will thrive, he added.