Theme Park Insider

SeaWorld Hires Herschend's Manby as CEO

March 19, 2015, 2:17 PM · SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment has hired Joel Manby from Herschend Enterprises as its new CEO. Manby, 55, has been the president and CEO of Herschend, which owns the Dollywood and Silver Dollar City theme parks, among several other themed entertainment properties. Manby takes over at SeaWorld next month. (Even non-theme park fans might know Manby, as he was featured on an episode of CBS's "Undercover Boss" series a few years back.)

Joel Manby
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

"I am honored to be selected as SeaWorld Entertainment's new CEO," Manby said in a news release. "This company has tremendous brands, and for more than 50 years, families have come to our parks to learn about animals, have fun and be entertained." As CEO of SeaWorld, Manby will oversee the three SeaWorld parks — in Orlando, San Diego, and San Antonio — as well as Busch Gardens Tampa, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Sesame Place, and several water parks.

Over the years, Herschend's theme parks have earned a reputation among Theme Park Insider readers for excellent customer service and for delivering world-class experiences at parks that operate with budgets far below those at Disney, Universal, and even SeaWorld/Busch Gardens.

Manby's facing some tough challenges at SeaWorld, which has been suffering declining attendance for many years, especially in Orlando, as its parks have not been able to match the appeal of new attractions offered by its competitors. The SeaWorld parks have failed to react aggressively to challenges since the death of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, whether they be attacks from anti-animal-captivity activists, or, more importantly, a slew of popular new attractions from direct competitors, such as Universal Orlando.

For years, SeaWorld did well by picking up extra days on Orlando-area visitors' Disney vacations. But with Universal Orlando charging forward to demand visitors' attention, time, and spending, SeaWorld's been left to watch its attendance dwindle in Orlando since 2010. SeaWorld and Busch Gardens just haven't offered a compelling case for why visitors should spend time with them instead of with Harry Potter, Transformers, The Simpsons, King Kong, Disney's New Fantasyland, or any of the other new attractions at competing theme parks. Delays in opening new rides such as Tampa's Falcon's Fury, haven't helped the parks build a case with the public.

In the meantime, SeaWorld's promotional efforts in recent months have focused almost exclusively on praising its animal care and wildlife rescues, presumably to counter an ongoing anti-SeaWorld campaign by PETA and other anti-animal-captivity activists. While SeaWorld's record in those areas are admirable — no matter what the publicity hounds at PETA say (and let's not forget that while SeaWorld is rescuing thousands of animals a year, PETA is putting thousands of animals to death rather than let them be adopted) — zoos don't draw the crowds that theme parks do. SeaWorld built its brand as a theme park, and not simply as an animal rescue organization.

With his strong background in theme parks, customer service, and proactive public relations, Manby has the background to help SeaWorld put its focus back on the theme park side of its operation. His selection offers hope to fans who have been wanting a message that SeaWorld hasn't forgotten that it's supposed to be a theme park, too.

Replies (9)

March 19, 2015 at 3:31 PM · Huge win for SeaWorld, huge loss for Herschend. Joel Manby, the few times I met him, seemed to be a terrific person. At the Outlaw Run media preview in particular he was down to earth, no respecter of persons (he even let me conduct a short interview with him), and had a genuine love of thrills and themed entertainment. His management style, based on his book LOVE WORKS, is so different from most of the known world that I will be very intrigued to see how (if) it works at SeaWorld. The "cast members" at SeaWorld may experience quite a culture shock. Best of luck to Mr. Manby and to SeaWorld. They lured in a real winner this time.

Any word on his replacement at Herschend?

March 19, 2015 at 9:45 PM · I wish him luck but I believe Sea World is beyond saving. Besides the debate on whether the animal shows are ethical, they're just boring and anachronistic. Manby could improve the park's food, which is just awful, but most people are not going to pay premium to visit an aquarium with a few (great) rides. Sea World would need to triple the number of their few great rides and create an amazingly immersive theme to compete with Disney, Universal and Legoland, and that's just not in the budget. I wish Manby and Sea World well, but I don't think there's any way to right this sinking ship. I'm afraid Sea World is the Kodak of theme parks.
March 20, 2015 at 8:02 AM · This looks like a great hire on paper. I think the deeper issue here is that Sea World needs to decide what it wants to be. Theme park or animal attraction?

I have seen the numbers of Sea World tickets sold steadily dropping the last few years as Universal and Disney have been out competing them easily for the tourist dollar here in Orlando. Let's face it, if you are here for a week and go 4 days at Disney, 2 possibly 3 at Universal, what else do you have time for? Even repeat guests don't seem to be that interested in going there as there are other things to do like Fun Spot, Gatorland, Kennedy Space Center etc.

Maybe they might be able to turn things around in other places than Orlando which is very crowded entertainment wise and I wish them luck.

March 20, 2015 at 11:30 AM · ^Maybe Mr. Manby can cut back on the "unethical" animal shows and improve the food at the same time - by serving the unemployed animals! Shamu burgers coming up!!! Yummmm....

I don't believe SeaWorld is beyond saving. Despite some issues over the last few years, the attendance at the SeaWorld/Busch parks is still among the upper echelon in the theme park industry. Some adjustments need to be made, but Manby's success at Dollywood and Silver Dollar City (two of the best performing independent parks in the nation) speaks volumes. If there is a turn around necessary, Manby is the guy for the job.

March 20, 2015 at 1:55 PM · Manby, I wish you the best of luck. I love Sea World and Busch Gardens, and I really hope you can bring in the attendance numbers they truly deserve. What I've always loved about them is that even without huge financial backing from a big-name film studio or the rights to popular franchises (except for Sesame Street), they were still able to compete with Disney and Universal. But beware, for you face many threats ahead: radical animal-rights activists, competing parks, Florida weather... But you must overcome these hurdles and return these two gems of the amusement industry back to their former glory!
March 20, 2015 at 2:38 PM · Ringling Bros Circus will remove the elephant act in 2018. Maybe SeaWorld needs to cut the Shamu act for the sake of its business. Relying on Orcas as the main entertainment is its problem. They should develop animal acts that are less controversial. The Shamu show has evolved to be pure entertainment. Any edutainment was reduced. It's all splash and wet.
March 20, 2015 at 4:17 PM · We did a Seaworld Buchgardens trip last year. It was great! I hope this will help SeaWorld get back on their feet.
March 21, 2015 at 8:28 PM · I've surprisingly been enjoying Busch Gardens new Wildlife Docs show and I'm not an animal show fan at all. It's great to see all the work going on behind the scenes and to see they are more than just a theme park. I wish I would have seen the show before my last trip out there. I would have spent more time checking out the animal habitats.

I hope the new CEO is able to continue this. I agree with the other comments that the parks have a severe identity crisis. Are they a jumping fish circus, a extreme thrills park, or an education animal park? It's definitely time to end the jumping circus.

March 21, 2015 at 10:17 PM · just went to Sea world with my family a few weeks ago, first time in 20 years I believe. LOVED IT, only did about 60 percent of the park too . Its a great park, cant wait to go again

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