Jim Atchison Steps Down as SeaWorld Parks CEO After a Dreadful Five-Year Run

December 11, 2014, 8:11 PM · SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment CEO Jim Atchison stepped down from his position today, bringing to an end his five years in the CEO job. During his time running the company, the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme parks posted the worst performance relative to the industry of any other major theme park chain.

SeaWorld San Diego
Explorer's Reef at SeaWorld San Diego

Let's look at the attendance numbers for the four largest parks in the chain since 2009, the year Atchison took over and the parks spun off from the Anheuser-Busch companies. (Data are from the annual TEA/AECOM Global Attractions attendance report.)

SeaWorld Orlando
2009: 5.8 million
2010: 5.1 million
2011: 5.2 million
2012: 5.3 million
2013: 5.0 million

SeaWorld San Diego
2009: 4.2 million
2010: 3.8 million
2011: 4.2 million
2012: 4.4 million
2013: 4.3 million

Busch Gardens Tampa
2009: 4.1 million
2010: 4.2 million
2011: 4.2 million
2012: 4.3 million
2013: 4.0 million

Busch Gardens Williamsburg
2009: 2.9 million
2010: 2.8 million
2011: 2.7 million
2012: 2.8 million
2013: 2.7 million

See a trend here? Attendance has dropped significantly at SeaWorld Orlando, while remaining essentially flat at the other parks — up slightly in San Diego and down slightly in Tampa and Williamsburg. But this has happened during a five-year period that's brought significant growth to the other major parks in the theme park industry. Since 2009, the SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment parks are the only North American parks listed in the annual TEA/AECOM attendance report to see a drop in attendance over this period. Let's look how some other representative parks have fared:

Knott's Berry Farm: Up from 3.3 million in 2009 to 3.8 million in 2013.
Cedar Point: Up from 2.9 to 3.3 million
Hersheypark: Up from 2.8 to 3.1 million
Six Flags Magic Mountain: Up from 2.5 to 2.9 million

Market leader Disney's biggest park, the Magic Kingdom, saw its attendance rise from 17.2 million visitor a year in 2009 to 18.5 million visitors last year. But the real story lies in comparing SeaWorld with what was once its closest competition in attendance, the Universal theme parks.

SeaWorld competes with Universal in both of Universal's U.S. markets: Southern California and Central Florida. While SeaWorld San Diego limped from 4.2 million annual attendance in 2009 to 4.3 million last year, Universal Studios Hollywood surged from 4.3 million a year to 6.1 million. And in Orlando, well, it's been a total wipeout. Fueled by the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal's Islands of Adventure grew from 4.6 million annual attendance in 2009 to 8.1 million last year, while SeaWorld Orlando dropped from 5.8 million visitors a year to 5.0 million.

Why have the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens parks performed so poorly? Were they really that dependent upon the free beer they poured when Anheuser-Busch owned them? (Actually, it appears that they might have been.)

While other theme park companies have moved aggressively to develop new attractions and intellectual property in the wake of the Great Recession, the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens parks have stumbled through one challenge after another. The debuts of the two Manta roller coasters, in Orlando in 2009 and San Diego in 2012, provide the few bright spots during this period. Otherwise, the parks have suffered through construction delays on multiple new attractions, including missed projected open dates for major new drop towers in Williamsburg and Tampa.

Looking back through our Theme Park Insider reader ratings, I can't find a single example of a new show debuting during this time period at any of these four parks that scored a higher reader rating than the show it replaced. In 2013, SeaWorld Orlando made what it called the largest capital investment in its history in opening Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. An effort to compete with the engaging and immersive environment of Universal Orlando's Harry Potter land, SeaWorld chose to go with depicting what might be the most inhospitable environment on Earth: Antarctica. Sure, people love penguins, but SeaWorld's technically innovative Antarctica ride left visitors spending too much time spinning around in low-light caverns with there were no penguins in sight, rather than spending time with cute new penguin character SeaWorld had created for the attraction. At the end of the ride, SeaWorld crafted a new, open display environment for its penguins, but doing show required keeping the guest areas in the exhibit so cold that few visitors could stand spending more than a moment or two looking at the pavilion's most compelling attraction — the live penguins themselves.

In early 2010, SeaWorld suffered its greatest tragedy when trainer Dawn Brancheau died after being dragged underwater by the orca Tillikum in Orlando. The accident understandably left many in the SeaWorld community in shock, but there comes a time when corporate leadership must move forward. Instead, SeaWorld appeared flat-footed when anti-animal captivity activists used Dawn's death to develop the movie Blackfish. It took SeaWorld months to put together a rebuttal that exposed the film's deceptive edits and falsities. Instead of hosting a media campaign with movie critics and reporters when the film first debuted, which could have mortally wounded the film's credibility, SeaWorld stuck its head in the sand, as if it were hoping the whole thing would just go away. When SeaWorld finally did respond, it was with a PDF posted online.

Since then, SeaWorld's primary promotional focus has been on its laudable efforts in animal husbandry and environmental conservation. But, guess what? Zoos don't attract the visitor levels that theme parks do. And the organizations running zoos don't make anywhere near the profits that theme park companies earn. If SeaWorld wants to be a zoo, then it will watch its attendance level continue to fall to the levels that top paid zoos attract. (The top-visited non-theme-park zoo in America, the San Diego Zoo, brings in a little more than three million visitors a year.)

If SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment wants to catch back up to the rest of the theme park industry, though, it needs to get aggressive again, building (or licensing) IP that connects with audiences in well-themed attractions that engage them. SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Chairman David D'Alessandro will take over as interim CEO. But SeaWorld doesn't need interim help. It needs a long-term vision for what the company and its theme parks will be — a vision compelling enough that it would make more theme park fans eager to book a visit to a SeaWorld or Busch Gardens theme park over visiting the formidable competing parks the company faces.

What would make you feel that way about the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks again? (Note: Given our past experience with this subject, we will not be approving anonymous comments for this post.)

Replies (24)

December 11, 2014 at 9:12 PM · They need licensing rights to popular characters to build attractions around. I'm not sure if it makes sense in terms of theme, but my first thought would be to chase the DreamWorks gang. Round up Po from Kung Fu Panda, Toothless the Dragon and the Madagascar Gang and cram them into the park. I'm sure they're tied up elsewhere (I seem to remember Po being attached to someplace in New Jersey), but get some loveable characters and add some thrill rides and see how it goes. My 2 cents.
December 12, 2014 at 12:20 AM · SeaWorld has the US theme park rights to Madagascar from Dreamworks, so it already has established that business relationship. I agree; How to Train Your Dragon is the most obvious match for SeaWorld of all fictional IP out there.
December 12, 2014 at 1:08 AM · Meh their parks aren't impressive. They were better with beer goggles... Now they are hardly, if any, better than the old Paramount parks. Sea World could disappear and I'd hardly bat an eye. The Busch parks need the beer, but they have a few decent coasters I suppose.
December 12, 2014 at 3:28 AM · In October, I went to Busch Gardens Tampa for the first time in about 15 years, and I was not impressed. Some of the roller coasters were really fun, but I think they need to chart a new course toward IPs, like Madagascar, which did have a small presence at the park. But a small presence is not going to cut it. I think they need to really work hard on creating fun, colorful lands based on the Intellectual Properties from Dreamworks, such as Ice Age, How to Train Your Dragon, and Madagascar. I don't remember if Rio is part of this group, but if so, throw them in there too.

Pantopia is really colorful, but there's nothing that the average person connects with. Land and sea animals are great, and they can't abandon that aspect of their heritage, but I think they need to take a hard look at who they are and what they want to be. A zoo? A theme park?

It's amazing that they seem to have blinders on and are spending so much money on things nobody really cares about.

Another thing, at least in Orlando, is that Sea World has no on-site hotels. Not that you'd need one at this point, but if you go to Universal or Disney, there are hotel choices that get and keep you on property, but the location of Sea World and Busch Gardens aren't the best, and nobody is likely to stay at the Sheraton or Ramada across the street for a "Sea World Parks Vacation".

I'm not sure they'll survive, but if they want a chance, I say they need to really put their animated movie characters to use and not just as a show here or there. Kids (and adults) need name characters to bond with and look forward to seeing. Otherwise it's just animals and roller coasters, which is fine. Except attendance says it's not fine.

December 12, 2014 at 6:18 AM · I think the SeaWorld parks fall into the Amusement park category much more than the Theme park category. I don't really think of them as including immersive IP environments more than I fell they have rides that I enjoy for their thrills or scenery. Even when I went to SeaWorld parks as a kid I never cared about the "characters", it was always about the rides.

I guess my question is, does SeaWorld have to compete with theme parks? Why can it be compared to Six Flags? I really don't see how SeaWorld can truly fit into the theme park category without major, sweeping changes to their entire vision for the parks.

December 12, 2014 at 6:41 AM · Sea World's days of relevance in the industry really is over. In the brilliant HBO show Boardwalk Empire one character tells a local city boss that he has to make up his mind on whether to be legitimate or a criminal, "You can't be half a gangster." That's what Sea World's dilemma is, they want to be both a zoo and an amusement park and it just isn't working now. It confuses the public who already have a lot of choices on how to spend their tourism dollars. My wife and I head down to Florida about once every other year or so for a week and have yet to spend a day at Sea World. We look at it as a day wasted not spent at Universal or Disney. For that matter, our vacations to Orlando have changed over the years...
2002....8 days at WDW
2005....7 Days at WDW
2008....7 Days at WDW, 1 at Universal
2010....5 Days at WDW, 3 at Universal
2013....5 days at WDW, 2 at Universal
2014....2 days at WDW, 2 at Universal
The industry is shifting and Shamu is getting squeezed out by the boy wizard and the mouse.
December 12, 2014 at 7:34 AM · I will give Sea World credit for Discovery Cove. It is beautiful and very well done. However charging $250.00 (or more) per person is more than the average person can afford and a lot of people do not want to be in a water park from November to Feburary. I think SeaWorld needs to either get some huge IP's that will get peoples attention or do something so original (Lost City of Atlantis-themed area and attractions??) that will generate positive buzz. It's not hard to look down the road at what Universal is doing and well.....copy it in some form.
December 12, 2014 at 7:50 AM · The prime problem with this company is that it's owned by Blackstone. They are an investment company that sucks the profits out of their acquisitions. In this case, cutting staff, entertainment, food choices, closing rides during slow periods & not investing much into the parks. In Bev,after purchasing Busch, was also neglecting the parks, so there's been a real downward spiral since the excellent Busch management days. Blackstone was doing the same with Universal, and the best thing is that Comcast bought out their share completely. Blackstone likes to blame their problems on Blackfish, but BGW & Tampa have had similar problems & they don't have Orcas. This company will not come back until they sell to a company that's actually interested in running theme parks in a proper manner. Their new CEO won't make a difference since he was part of the problem in his position on the Board of Directors. Seaworld is in a world of trouble and has not reached the bottom. In fact, their new CEO has promised more cuts. Without a good satisfying experience, guest attendance will continue to slide. Blackstone must go!
December 12, 2014 at 7:58 AM · This just makes me sad. I remember SeaWorld Orlando, fondly, in the days before it had ANY attractions other than the animals themselves. For years I dreamed of becoming an orca trainer. I loved to go to the park to see the animals, period. When Atlantis and Kraken (a coaster I’ve never really liked, by the way -- too rough!) went in, I considered them fun additions, sure, but they didn’t distract from the real reason I was there.

I’m probably in the minority when I say that I really dislike the idea of IPs being added to SeaWorld. (I’ll take the two Busch parks out of this discussion -- the Tampa park has always had a mix of animals and rides {well, ever since it grew from mainly a brewery tour, at any rate} and I don’t have any problem with the idea of adding IPs to either of those parks, as long as they’re done well.) I wish SeaWorld didn’t feel like it HAS to compete with Disney and Universal. I get it -- these days it’s all about who has the newest, biggest and flashiest “whatever” to attract the crowds. And I’ve been right there enjoying Diagon Alley with everyone else. But for me SeaWorld will always be something special.

I understand the argument that zoos don’t compete in the big leagues with theme parks, and that SeaWorld needs to figure out what it is. Unfortunately, I really believe that it IS an educational park, but that’s not where the money is. And if they continue to try to compete with more attractions, I’m afraid they’re going to lose sight of the animals and run the risk of having the animal rights/PETA nuts on their backs even more than they already are.

And that’s the bigger picture here that we can’t forget -- for good or ill, SeaWorld has all these animals in its care that need to REMAIN in its care. The worst of the animal rights folks would rather release the animals to fend for themselves, ostracized from their own kind, and eventually die than see them in captivity (see exhibit A - Keiko). That’s not humane. I understand trying to dial back the number of marine mammals in captivity -- don’t add any more (obviously), reduce or end captive breeding, whatever -- but we have to take responsibility for the ones that are already there. And having at least SOME available for kids to see, interact with and begin to UNDERSTAND really does help to expose kids to the wider world, to give them a new perspective on the world they live in and how everything is interconnected and needs to be preserved. I’m a poster child for that ;-).

I know there’s no easy answer to this. SeaWorld’s gonna have to figure it out on their own… I wish them well.

P.S. -- Wrote this before I saw the more recent comments....I really think Rob is on to something with his argument about Blackstone. That really was the beginning of the downward spiral…..

December 12, 2014 at 8:15 AM · First, SeaWorld is a theme park. Its admission fees at close to Disney prices proves it can command theme park pricing.

Second, while its attendance is flat, it is within its historical range. It appears to be within a zoo and an amusement park while commanding theme park pricing. Knott's can charge much less to built attendance, while SeaWorld must charge to support its animals.

The CEO didn't handle the scandal of Blackfish correctly, but people are a fickle bunch and they can respond to new attraction offerings. They should diversify towards a 50-50 mix of animal and non-animal attractions. They must build capacity as their current parks are low in capacity. Animal attractions are less interesting to adults since the educational element is "been there done that". Adults without kids might not have a reason to go, but offer something thrilling or immersive.

SeaWorld isn't a zoo or aquarium as it is and can be more. It also can't just be about Shamus.

December 12, 2014 at 8:46 AM · I personally think it is a reflection of the shift in people's perception of the treatment of animals - the success of the Documentary Blackfish (fully accurate or not) is a symptom, not the cause of this shift. You can track it back to before Free Willy.
Killer Whales are huge, beautiful, creatures, and they're brought out for our amusement to perform. You can try to spin it any way you want, but when your main attraction is making intelligent creatures do tricks, you are going to alienate a certain population of 21st century audiences - especially modern children.
My kids don't want to go to Sea World (which I loved at their ages) because of the Killer Whales being kept in tanks. Plain and simple. Sharks, dolphins, penguins, fish, manatees; they REALLY want to see those, but they refuse to go because of the whale show.
Is it a zoo or a theme park? It can be both. But when your biggest theme park entertainment show and zoological animal exhibit makes children uncomfortable, there will be no growth.
December 12, 2014 at 9:33 AM · They have dolphin, sea lion, dog and cat, and bird shows. Will your kids avoid them too?

It seems like give a pass to domesticated animals, but this means trained dogs and cats are fine. Birds, Dolphins, and sea lions are still wild animals.

December 12, 2014 at 9:48 AM · http://dreamworksdragonslive.com/show.html
Build this in Busch Gardens.
Boom marquee attraction.
December 12, 2014 at 10:30 AM · For what it's worth my wife and I have always rated Seaworld as one of our favourite parks during each visit to Orlando. There's just something delightful about the ambience and the whole 'feel' of the place, plus it has two of our favourite coasters on the planet...

For me something of the magic was lost when they were forced to stop interacting with the whales in the water. I don't see anything sinister in the drop in figures though. I just think it's down to the fact that they have been out-spent by Universal who have gone from a 'lets do it because it's there' destination to a 'have to do it - priority' destination. I suspect that until and unless Seaworld spends some serious money and creates several world-class new attractions the figures will remain lower than they would like...

December 12, 2014 at 5:32 PM · In a perfect world, there would be no wild animals in captivity. But this world is far from perfect and we have to make sure that the ones that are are well cared for. And, unfortunately, with the state of the planet, captivity may someday be the only safe place left for some species .... Rhinos, polar bears, the list goes on.

I applaud the fact that the younger generations seem to be developing an early sense of right and wrong when it comes to this issue. That being said, we also need to help them realize that their compassion can also extend to supporting the zoos, aquariums and parks that do things RIGHT. 'Cause you can't just toss all their animals out on the street, and they need to earn the funds to care for them via entrance fees, souvenirs, etc. Boycotting them doesn't help the animals.

December 12, 2014 at 10:47 AM · To me, Seaworld went in the wrong direction from the start of it's coaster inclusion. IT'S SEAWORLD!! Why not make it the best water park in the world? That's a natural connection. Instead, it seems like they have (sort of) attempted to compete with Disney and Universal. That's a battle they will always lose.
December 12, 2014 at 10:59 AM · I think Seaworld is going to have to do a lot to change... they're finally being hit with the change in community attitudes towards performing animals. Circuses with performing animals are becoming rarer (and many jurisdictions ban them on principle), Zoos no longer have animal performances but seek to recreate the natural habitat in a shortened form.

Its a bit hard to do that with something like an Orca, as the space you'd need for it would be huge... and I'm not sure it would have the same kind of pulling power.

December 12, 2014 at 1:45 PM · How has the San Antonio park being doing?
December 12, 2014 at 3:10 PM · I appreciate that this thread has actually made me reconsider my feelings not just about theme parks, but about life.

Why is there such a backlash against performing animals when there is not a similar backlash against humanity's imprisonment and slaughter of billions of animals each year? Imagine if SeaWorld said, "We're discontinuing our trained animal shows. Instead we're going to do the right thing and eat all of our animal performers." I have a feeling people would scream bloody murder just as soon as they finished their pork sandwiches.

But back to theme parks. I do not believe that theme parks have to be based on IP to be successful. My favorite attractions at Disneyland, even in my youth, were usually not the ones simply based on films, but those that most successfully transported me to an exciting place and time. Throwing in cartoon characters often takes away from that fantasy rather than adding to it.

That said, I obviously realize how much people love these animated movies, and I'm not arguing that it's unwise for SeaWorld or Busch Gardens to add them to their parks. I just hope that if they make Madagascar-land, they immerse me in an amazing world, and don't just have Chris Rock talk at me through a puppet. And if they aren't able to create a fully realized theme park, then please don't charge as much as a fully realized theme park.

Also, I don't remember How to Train Your Dragon very well, but isn't it about mythical flying creatures? How does that obviously fit the theme of SeaWorld? The vaguely Norse background seems a better fit for Busch Gardens Williamsburg. But I suppose it's like Cars Land. No one knows why an animated film seemingly set in Arizona should be a cornerstone area of a park called California Adventure, but if they're going to charge me the same as Disneyland, then I'd rather they have some richly themed area than nothing at all.

December 12, 2014 at 6:23 PM · I think SeaWorld just needs to decide which direction they want to go and commit to it. As of right now, they promote themselves as theme parks and charge competitively, but the focus seems to be almost exclusively on animals. This just doesn't work, as those expecting a traditional theme park experience will wind up disappointed and those who enjoy zoos and aquariums are not as likely to visit. The parks either need to focus on the animals and promote themselves simply as animal parks (with a few rides) or focus on the rides and promote themselves as theme parks (with animal attractions). Simply adding IP to the parks may help short term, but it will not save the chain.

More than once, I've wondered if SeaWorld should relocate their noteworthy thrill rides to the two Busch Gardens parks and have SeaWorld be completely animal focused and Busch Gardens completely ride focused. It would be okay to have a few rides in SeaWorld (like Wild Arctic or Antarctica) or a few animals in Busch Gardens (like the bald eagles at BGW), but no park attempts to focus on both. I know it is highly unlikely that this would happen (especially at this point), but if it did it would probably put the chain in a better spot than they are in now. When a new coaster for one of your major parks is little more than a low capacity clone, there's something behind the scenes that isn't working right.

December 12, 2014 at 8:06 PM · I dunno... their attendance numbers look pretty good to me and they are probably the envy of a lot of parks not owned by Disney or Universal. And in reality it is only in Florida that the parks are down a bit, largely because of the continued growth of the aforementioned Disney and Universal parks, as well as Legoland stealing some of their crowds. While I agree changes need to be made, I think this leadership move has more to do with the mishandling of the Blackfish documentary (I use the term "documentary" very loosely in this case) than anything else.

Personally I would like to see the SeaWorld and Busch parks focus on world class coasters instead of live animal exhibits, but that's just because their coasters are all pretty stellar, not because I have anything against zoo-type experiences.

Let Brian Morrow run the show, he seems to know what he is doing most of the time!

December 14, 2014 at 8:58 AM · The attendance numbers are actually more grim than the above, since 2014 has so far been a disaster. They've been down in every quarter. The third quarter alone showed a 5.6% loss in attendance. The bloodletting has already started, 311 layoffs on Friday, many of them upper management people, and most of the other's, fulltimers. They released all of their HR directors, and the head of Tampa Creative, who has a good rep in the industry for his very excellent Tampa horror nights, was released also. Orlando Sentinel reported it was a very sloppy Black Friday, with many of the employees only finding out when their employee badges wouldn't work for entrance in the workplace.
December 14, 2014 at 7:12 PM · Yep, sounds awful, especially around Christmas time... but the numbers in the article above, imho, are not grim. However, it does sound like 2014 has been a disaster, so we'll have to wait and see when those numbers come out next year.

Another thing SWO and BGW should do is lower basic admission prices. They really are not on the level with Disney/Universal and should not be charging similar prices. To me they are $50/day parks.

December 16, 2014 at 10:33 PM · I think that Busch fell for the oldest mistake in the business book: They did not watch the competition and didn't strive to make the parks better. I think Harry Potter, New Fanasyland, and the start of special events at Universal and Disney really did the parks in.

I really do not think Blackfish can really take credit (they are trying). I am not sure anybody's mind was really changed.

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