Aquatica will become a Sesame Street theme park in 2021

Theme park based on Sesame Street characters will be the first on the West Coast


Elmo, Big Bird, Cookie Monster and the rest of the Sesame Street gang will be putting down roots in Chula Vista in 2021 as SeaWorld Entertainment plans to remake its Aquatica water park into a Sesame Place theme park.

Orlando, Fla.-based SeaWorld and Sesame Workshop, the educational nonprofit group behind the children’s TV show and brand, announced Monday that the South Bay city has been chosen as the location for the first Sesame Place on the West Coast.

The park will feature tame roller coasters, carousels and other family-friendly rides, the street made famous on TV, a parade, live shows and character interactions, said Marilyn Hannes, park president of SeaWorld San Diego.

Slated for 17 acres at the Aquatica site, Sesame Place will incorporate many of the existing water attractions into the new park, particularly those that are appropriate for younger children.

For now, the only existing Aquatica slide targeted for removal is HooRoo Run, which has an 80-foot drop, Hannes said.

But the entire Aquatica water park will be re-branded and re-named Sesame Place.

“It is a significant investment for the company,” Hannes said. “This is the first new Sesame Place park in 40 years. It certainly expands our commitment to the San Diego region, as well as to theme parks in the United States. It is a big decision and big investment for us.”

SeaWorld Entertainment operates nearly a dozen SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks nationwide and has a licensing agreement with Sesame Workshop. As part of that deal, it committed to open a second Sesame Place in the U.S. by 2021, according to filings with federal securities regulators.

“San Diego was not the only place we looked, but it seems like the best next step for us to go,” said Steve Youngwood, chief operating officer of Sesame Workshop, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. “The weather is wonderful. We have good brand awareness in that area in general and from our heritage with SeaWorld San Diego. And (Sesame Place) can draw on a larger area like Los Angeles and beyond.”

The original Sesame Place is in Langhorne, Pa., in suburban Philadelphia. Operated by SeaWorld, it opened in 1980 and serves up rides, shows and water attractions based on popular Sesame characters.

“My question has been (Sesame Street) is such great intellectual property, what has taken them so long?” said Dennis Spiegel, president of Ohio-based International Theme Park Services. “They’ve had many years to capitalize on that, and now they are.”

SeaWorld Entertainment has been pivoting away from animal shows at its parks nationwide following a drop off in attendance in the wake of the 2013 anti-captivity film, “Blackfish,” which was critical of SeaWorld’s treatment of its killer whales.

Recently, SeaWorld has focused mostly on adding thrill rides such as roller coasters — including two new coasters at SeaWorld San Diego in the past few years — in hopes of mounting a comeback.

The strategy has begun to pay off this year, with attendance up at SeaWorld San Diego for the first time in several years.

The company also has tapped its Sesame Street partnership over the years to bolster a family-friendly image at its SeaWorld parks, including holding parades and shows featuring Sesame Street characters alongside its marine attractions.

The Sesame Street Bay of Play opened in SeaWorld San Diego in 2008, and Sesame Street Land debuted recently at SeaWorld Orlando to positive reviews.

The addition of a Sesame Place theme park in Chula Vista further diversifies SeaWorld beyond its animal-based heritage.

The new Sesame Place is expected to be similar to the Pennsylvania park, which has 18 land-based rides such as Elmo’s Cloud Chase and Oscar’s Wacky Taxi Coaster, as well as nine water rides including Big Bird’s Rambling River.

In part because it will retain most of the Aquatica water attractions, Sesame Place in Chula Vista aims to offer something fun for older siblings in the family as well as younger ones, Hannes said.

“The younger child is the sweet spot — I would say from a toddler up to 9 or 10,” she said. “I will say that because this park will have exciting family rides and exciting water attractions, we will be able to skew a bit older.”

The park will open as a Certified Autism Center, mirroring Sesame Place in Pennsylvania. Staff will receive autism sensitivity and awareness training, and the park will set aside quiet areas. It also will publish a sensory guide on its website so parents can plan their family visit around their child’s needs.

“One thing they’re doing that is really smart is capitalizing on Sesame celebrating their 50th year,” said Spiegel of International Theme Park Services. “On TV this morning, they were all on the ‘Today’ show celebrating their anniversary, and Sesame is on the comeback trail with the introduction of autism with one of their characters.”

SeaWorld expects Sesame Place will remain open longer during the year than Aquatica, which typically operates daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day, then on weekends through early October before closing for winter.

Hannes declined to reveal the project’s cost. But Spiegel estimates it will be at least $15 million to $20 million.

Aquatica will be open as usual through the summer of 2020. SeaWorld expects to complete the Sesame Place renovations during the off season.

Sesame Place will join Legoland California Resort in Carlsbad as the second theme park in the county geared primarily toward children.

“San Diego excels as a family destination, especially for families with young children,” Hannes said. “So we think adding Sesame Place is a perfect complement to this region.”