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Tipping Comes to United Parks Quick Service Dining
Where Does Your Money Go When You Tip at a Counter Service United Parks Restaurant?
By Zachary Posted in News on July 2, 2024 0 Comments 9 min read
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Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s parent company, United Parks (formerly SeaWorld Parks), rolled out a new tipping system at their flagship property, SeaWorld Orlando, last month. United Parks properties with table service restaurants and/or full-service bars have long offered tipping for waitstaff (as is traditional for similar establishments throughout much of the United States). This newly-debuted tipping system at SeaWorld Orlando expands well beyond those traditionally tipped locations though—instead showing up at the registers for counter service dining locations throughout the park.

For example, this means that after picking their own food off of a serving line and carrying it to a cash register to pay, SeaWorld Orlando guests will now be prompted to add a tip to their order. A photo showing this new tipping interface in action at a counter service restaurant at SeaWorld Orlando can be found below via Twitter user Ethan Hershaft.

Although this system has not yet rolled out to Busch Gardens Williamsburg, given the way similar ploys (such as the 5% surcharge) have spread throughout the United Parks chain previously, we would not be surprised to see a similar setup implemented in the months or years ahead at Busch Gardens Williamsburg—assuming, of course, that it proves successful for SeaWorld Orlando.

So, what does success look like for this system? Why would SeaWorld invest in its implementation to begin with? Where do the tips that are voluntarily surrendered by guests actually go? Which employees get the tips? Does all of the money guests tip make its way into food service workers’ pockets? Thanks to a collection of tipping program-related documentation provided to BGWFans by an internal United Parks source, we have some answers.

Where Does the Money Go?

Per the leaked, internal United Parks documentation we have been provided, tips contributed at all SeaWorld Orlando food and beverage locations excluding bars, Sharks Underwater Grill, Dine with Orcas, and Ports of Call will be pooled together into the “SeaWorld Orlando Tipped Pool Program.” Funds deposited into this program will be allocated to the paychecks of food and beverage service ambassadors, bakers, cooks, and culinary trainers working across SeaWorld Orlando (excluding those working in the previously listed establishments).

The Catch

Unfortunately, the tale does not simply end at “tips are divided and paid out to employees atop their normal paychecks,” because, per the documentation we have reviewed, SeaWorld Orlando is actually using these tips to pay a portion of their culinary employees’ existing wages.

SeaWorld Orlando is executing this scheme by differentiating between what they refer to as the “Position Guaranteed Rate” and the “Individual Guaranteed Rate.” SeaWorld Orlando provides the following example in their internal tipped pool program documentation:

Say a food and beverage service worker is currently paid $13 an hour. With this new tip pool program, that $13 per hour becomes this employee’s Individual Guaranteed Rate. That is the minimum amount per hour this employee will make under this new program with or without tips. That $13 an hour does not, however, become this employee’s Position Guaranteed Rate. In the example SeaWorld Orlando included in their documentation, this employee’s Position Guaranteed Rate is actually $12 per hour—a pay rate that just so happens to be the current Florida minimum wage.

Why does this difference matter? Because whenever there is a delta between an employee’s Position Guaranteed Rate and their Individual Guaranteed Rate, that difference is subsidized by the SeaWorld Orlando Tipped Pool Program. In other words, when an employee is allocated a portion of the tip pool, their portion of the tip pool actually goes to pay the difference between their Position Guaranteed Rate (in this example, minimum wage) and their Individual Guaranteed Rate (in this example, the employee’s pay rate pre-tipping program implementation). Effectively, when an employee receives money from the tip pool, it reduces the total wages SeaWorld Orlando pays to the employee. The only point at which an employee’s take-home would actually increase is when their portion of the tip pool exceeds the delta between their Individual Guaranteed Rate and their Position Guaranteed Rate—and in that scenario, the employee in question would only see whatever is left over after the pay delta is satisfied.

Incredibly, the example SeaWorld Orlando provided in the documentation we’ve reviewed actually spells out how slimy this program is quite effectively. Returning to the food and beverage ambassador with a Position Guaranteed Rate of $12 and an Individual Guaranteed Rate of $13, SeaWorld Orlando outlines a scenario in which this employee is allocated $1.75 per hour from the tip pool for hours worked during a given day. In this scenario, this employee’s pay for this specific day increases to $13.75 per hour. An additional 75¢ per hour for the employee is nice, but where did that other $1 per hour go? Effectively, it went directly to United Parks’ profit margin as that is $1 an hour United Parks no longer pays the employee in question. In this example, United Parks is essentially converting about 57% of customer tips for this employee into cost savings for the corporation, leaving about 43% for the tipped pool program staff member to actually take home as additional wages.

SeaWorld’s Tipping System is a Scam

In my opinion, given the documentation BGWFans has obtained, SeaWorld Orlando’s new pooled tipping program is a scam. When customers tip the staff of a restaurant, customers expect that tip to go into the pockets of the employees serving them. United Parks will likely argue that 100% of the tips are going into the pockets of employees. That is, as far as I can tell, accurate.

What they would be leaving out with such a statement, however, is that SeaWorld is paying these employees less when they receive tips—effectively allowing customers to pick up the bill for the difference between what SeaWorld wishes they could pay employees (in their own example, minimum wage) and what the corporation actually has to pay employees to ensure a minimum level of acceptable staffing.

Given how opaque the system is paired with the reasonable expectation by guests that the money they tip goes directly to employees as additional wages, I do believe it is completely reasonable to call the SeaWorld Orlando Tipped Pool Program a “scam.”

I would also be remiss if I did not highlight that this new tipping charade has been layered atop the existing 5% surcharge that remains in place across much of the United Parks chain. Back in 2022 when SeaWorld debuted the forced 5% surcharge, the company claimed that it was the result of “unprecedented increases in the cost of goods, services & labor.” Given the chain’s repeated attempts to quite literally hide the surcharge from guests, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the level of decite involved with this new tipping ploy.

Furthermore, it cannot be ignored that the surcharges and this new tipping scheme have been accompanied by rapid increases in listed in-park food prices as well. For instance, a bacon cheeseburger at Busch Gardens Williamsburg has increased in price by 20% since 2020—significantly outpacing inflation—and that’s before the 5% surcharge and any possible, future tipping pressure.

And, of course, all of this has taken place as United Parks posts absolutely enormous profits—far outpacing those seen pre-pandemic.

The Solution

Resist the social pressure to tip at tip pooling locations in SeaWorld Orlando. The social contract that typically exists with conventionally tipped roles in the United States—the idea that you decide how much the employee serving you will make—does not exist within this program. If you don’t tip, employees are guaranteed their current pay no matter what. If you do tip, a likely not insignificant portion of your tip is, effectively, going directly into United Parks’ pockets.

Another way we can fight this new measure? Share the information provided above with any friends and family who may be going to a United Parks property in the months ahead—encourage them not to tip at counter service locations at United Parks properties either.

The spread of this tipping program appears to require point of sale system upgrades. If people don’t tip, SeaWorld will not see any savings from skimming a portion of said tips off the top to fund employee wages. If the anticipated profits from this scam aren’t realized by United Parks, perhaps additional point of sale system replacement investments won’t be funded in the months and years ahead—in turn preventing the spread of this greed to other United Parks properties.

Lastly, if you are a Florida resident, consider sending this story to Orlando-area news outlets. Guests attending SeaWorld Orlando deserve to know where their tips are going and perspective employees deserve to understand why they aren’t receiving the pay increase they may expect when taking a job in a tipped pooled location at SeaWorld Orlando.

Thanks for reading and please do pass this story along.

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