SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby stepped down today, as attendance continues its nearly decade-long slide at what was Disney's strongest challenger in the U.S. theme park industry.
Manby took the SeaWorld job nearly three years ago, coming over from Herschend, where he had enjoyed success overseeing Dollywood and Silver Dollar City, among other properties. But the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks failed to score any hits during Manby's tenure, during which time the CEO burned bridges with many of the company's fans by caving to anti-animal-captivity activists and scuttling SeaWorld's orca breeding program.
Under Manby, SeaWorld failed to deliver on several announced plans that might have appealed to theme park fans, including the addition of on-site hotels at its theme parks. An announced Sea Rescue dark ride at SeaWorld San Diego got downsized into an unimpressive kiddie ride that didn't include any animal exhibits. Most crucially, SeaWorld failed to secure any compelling intellectual property that might have allowed it to compete with Universal's Harry Potter, which started SeaWorld Orlando's attendance decline in 2010. SeaWorld lost its license for DreamWorks Animation IP, which eventually went to Universal, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer doesn't exactly move the needle for anyone under the age of 40.
The addition of an Antarctica land at SeaWorld Orlando in 2013 left the company reeling before Manby took over. Billed as the largest investment in company history, the land — which was intended to be SeaWorld's response to Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter — opened to poor reviews and failed to reverse the park's attendance trend. Without a deep-pocketed corporate parent like rivals Disney and Universal, SeaWorld can't afford such expensive misses, and the company has struggled to deliver new attractions that don't come across as cut-rate since.
SeaWorld has attempted to silence criticism from anti-animal-captivity activists by stripping its iconic orca shows of much of their entertainment value in favor of crafting a more educational experience. But PETA never will embrace SeaWorld so long as it can make money and get attention by beating up on it, no matter what SeaWorld does. And while San Diego's new Orca Encounter show is fascinating for long-time SeaWorld fans, it feels more like a behind-the-scenes DVD feature on SeaWorld's old orca shows than a headline act that would win a new generation of SeaWorld fans. SeaWorld also has made no attempt to take advantage of the most pro-business and anti-regulation administration in U.S. history to get OSHA to overturn its decision that keeps trainers out of the water during orca shows, allowing the return of some of their iconic entertainment value.
All that leaves fans wondering... now that SeaWorld no longer has free beer and trainers flying off Shamu's nose, what does it offer fans that is any different or better than its competitors? Manby never delivered a convincing answer to that question. Former SeaWorld San Diego park president John Reilly now takes over as interim CEO.Tweet
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