Joel Manby quits as SeaWorld CEO

February 27, 2018, 10:36 AM · 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.

Replies (26)

February 27, 2018 at 10:53 AM ·

It still kills me that they cite the movie blackfish as the reason for seaworld's downward trend. It was already doing that before that movie came out. Universal really upped their game. Disney followed. Seaworld came out with crap like the Antarctica exhibit. I mean, really, it's just terrible. the signature ride has graphics that look like something a nintendo 64 could generate.

I've been a passholder to seaworld since 2000, and I'll keep renewing it because they never raise the rates as long as you keep it current, but if I were new to the theme park world, the other parks in orlando have more interesting stuff to do.

I hadn't thought about what you said with trying to get the trainers back in the water with the whales. That would bring back some of the magic. They really should look into that.

February 27, 2018 at 11:12 AM ·

It's also worth noting that SeaWorld's creative team is out of gas. Who greenlit Antarctica and why did they consider it a compelling idea worth funding when the presentation is so poor compared to its immediate competitors down the street? I suggest there needs to be a big shake-up of the creative department. Bring in outside experts who have proven experience in crafting winning new rides, exhibits and presentations, please.

- Brian from Florida

February 27, 2018 at 11:13 AM ·

PETA will never be satisfied, but SeaWorld won't get any relief from the general public with it's Orca program. The best thing is just remove them or relegate them as another exhibit. Unfortunately, they eat a lot and cost a lot of maintain.

Offering new and larger roller coasters is the wrong approach. The market for educational sea creature attractions is limited. Disney went away from corporate sponsorships, animal exhibits, and education. So SeaWorld must be less about the sea and move towards an entirely new brand.

February 27, 2018 at 11:33 AM ·

He was a disaster. Sea World Orlando is a shadow of its former self - park is in horrendous shape.

Question is though - how do you save a park without any investment?

February 27, 2018 at 11:38 AM ·

Bring back the broadway style dolphin show and put the trainers back in the water! SeaWorld was always known for its unique entertainment, they should never veer from that!!

February 27, 2018 at 11:49 AM ·

They're done. Outside of a few very good but not blow-away B&M roller coasters, there is zero reason to visit SeaWorld. I can't see a way forward for them, and I think Universal or someone else will absorb the SeaWorld chain by the end of next decade.

February 27, 2018 at 12:02 PM ·

......but who will take over? It needs somebody with a creative vision to give it a new identity and a new lease of life to attract the new but to retain the loyalty of the old. Not easy when the world's super powers are next door and down the road.

Streamline the offering and invest creatively in what is left.

1. Sell Busch Gardens Tampa & Williamsburg
2. Sell Adventure Island and Water Country USA water parks
3. Sell SeaWorld and Aquatica San Antonio
4. Knock on the head any thought of building outside of America
5. Invest the money from the sales of the above in making SeaWorld, Aquatica and Discovery Cove a must do 3-park combo ticket experience in Orlando
6. Invest in 2 aquatic themed hotels in Orlando and 1 in San Diego
7. Pay top-dollar for the best creative minds to redesign, rebrand and re-launch SeaWorld

February 27, 2018 at 12:05 PM ·

It's really a shame. But yeah, I don't entirely blame Blackfish. The last time I went I was disappointed at the upkeep and what it had become, and that was before Blackfish. That's why I haven't been back. It would take someone investing a lot of money to make Seaworld San Diego feel and look up to date. Honestly, I'd rather go to the Long Beach Aquarium.

February 27, 2018 at 12:20 PM ·

It seems that SeaWorld is doomed no matter what it does at this point. Just like with Sears-Roebuck, it used to be a respected brand but once the decline began and competition rose, it can nickel and dime itself until it just fades away. Yet one could argue that the CEO changes at Disney helped turn things around so why can't it here?

Perhaps the future does lie in acquiring another IP...like for instance....maybe....Hard Rock Cafe?? ;)

February 27, 2018 at 12:27 PM ·

Hard Rock Cafe?? ;)

Like the failed Hard Rock theme park?

February 27, 2018 at 12:55 PM ·

It's not surprising Manby has gone, pass holders have been calling for his head for many years. I agree with Tracy, the rot had set in before Blackfish, but the movie helped slide the park into a darker abyss much quicker than it might have done. I too have been 'locked in' with a platinum pass for 15 years, and $12/month is worth keeping. New generations are less tolerant of animals in captivity and zoos have had to change drastically to keep afloat, and those that don't have fallen by the wayside. Sea World needs to do the same, but where is the money going to come from and who is going to be brave enough to take on that challenge and restore it to its former glory (if that is at all possible ?) I still go into the park once, maybe twice, a week for my walks (better than the streets around where I live :) ... but there's more and more a feeling of "Oh well, who cares any more" Cost cutting (apart from food prices) is so very evident, and as said many times I just don't see Infinity Falls 'making the grade' It's a little busier at the moment with the spring breakers, but the days of a packed Shamu stadium every show are long gone, and will never return.
Antarctica is a joke, as is the awful penguin ride. Kraken is no more unleashed. All 3 coasters at the moment are only running 1 train. Who knows where the baby walruses are in the Arctic area ? No polar bear(s). Atlantis is more down than up (although it was working last week). The helicopter simulator ride was down for weeks last month .... the list goes on and on.
Personally ....... I'd like to see a Busch Gardens, Orlando. Let the Sea World name die a death, and move on with a park brand that will (hopefully) get people excited again.
The switch next year to the Orca Encounter could be the straw that breaks the proverbial camels back.

February 27, 2018 at 1:00 PM ·

"Like the failed Hard Rock theme park?"

To be fair, Hard Rock Park failed for a litany of reasons, but the IPs (Hard Rock and the individual music IPs) were not anywhere near the top of the list.

It's definitely a turning point for a company twisting in the wind. They lost their sugar daddy that allowed them to experiment and create without the confines of the imagination-killing corporate process. Sea World is no longer a creative company, they're an operator subcontracting creative companies to do their bidding for cut-rate prices. Joel Manby was forced to pivot the company away from its icon with no creative team to develop alternatives and little guidance to provide for a successful and profitable future. Manby was destined to fail, and Sea World looks like it may be on life support unless an angel investor comes along to put them on level footing.

February 27, 2018 at 2:38 PM ·

I'm an AP for Sea World San Diego and for the most part the park is substantially full when I visit during the week. It seems the local population really supports and enjoys Sea World and I really think the blackfish people do not represent anywhere near the majority. I think Sea World needs to keep appealing to their local support with annual special events/festivals, special AP offers and benefits. They're doing great already with Christmas, Lunar new year, 7 seas and I think they should continue that aggressively with maybe 5 De Mayo, St. Patricks or other cultural festivals. Their attendance has decreased but it's not like the parks are empty. I think calls for Sea Worlds end are premature. I think they'll be around for a long while. People (especially families) don't get tired of rides and animals.

February 27, 2018 at 3:00 PM ·

Daniel, it may actually be a worse sign if the park has decent attendance and is still putting out these financials. It seems then that they're not monetizing their AP holders and loyal visitors as well as is ideal. If the only way forward is A. Get more money out of the loyal fans B. Get more from out-of-town visitors and "disloyal" customers which would require a ton more investment to compete with Uni, Disney, and Lego or C. Cut operating costs even more,I don't see a winning formula. If there were a way to get more $ out AP loyalists without pricing them out that'd be great but I'm not sure how realistic that is.

February 27, 2018 at 3:19 PM ·

I don't see a path fixing Seaworld, unfortunately. I do enjoy it as an add-on to an Orlando vacation, but it still doesn't stand on its own very well. I can't imagine that Disney or Universal would have an interest in an acquisition. Perhaps it if was a bit closer and more contiguous with the land Universal recently purchased?

Too bad though -- more theme parks is always better for us fans!

February 27, 2018 at 4:44 PM ·

It's sad to say, but I agree with the majority - this company is doomed. Building on-site hotels in Orlando would have been a great investment...had they built quality attractions and acquired IPs that would bring in customers. No sense in having on-site hotels at a half-day park.

As it is, I think one of the major drawbacks to Sea World Orlando (never been to any others) is the infrastructure surrounding the place. I always feel lost when I'm going to, and leaving from the park. Perhaps they could sell one of the Busch Gardens parks and relocate one of the better roller coasters. Just go all-out and turn SWO into an aquatic-themed thrill park.

Sadly, it is not big enough to stand on its own, and it's not convenient enough to be absorbed by Universal or Disney, unless there's enough land nearby for one of the big guys to buy the park AND additional land, and completely rebrand it in their own image. **by land, I also mean cheap motels that could be razed**

It'll be interesting to see how this plays out, but the writing is on the wall, and I think it's going to be a sad, depressing end.

February 27, 2018 at 4:47 PM ·

I feel like we were saying similar things about Six Flags ten years ago when they were selling parks and going bankrupt. I love both Busch Gardens parks but think Six Flags would be better owners at this point and are in appealing regions

February 27, 2018 at 7:05 PM ·

i have stated in the past, and will state again. for seaworld to survive, they need to ditch the sea animals, get a new name, and market themselves as a sea themed theme park. the animals are doing nothing but hurting the brand, and they take up a tremendous amount of space. tear down the tanks and go for a knotts berry farm style park that has little kids and thrill with some theming and great food mixed in. also, sell seaworld san antonio and use the funds to invest in BGW (as they're the only park that hasn't gotten destroyed by this) and BGT. also, nobody says "I'm going to Florida to go to seaworld", they only go for Disney or Universal, so figure out a way to make it more appealing for visitors to tack 2 days onto their vacation and visit both SWO and BGT

February 27, 2018 at 9:35 PM ·

Sea World Orlando is still the best Theme Park at xmas and lots of locals I know agree

February 27, 2018 at 10:36 PM ·

The trouble, Kenny, is how could SeaWorld possibly get rid of its animals? Who would take them? SeaWorld is the refuge when other companies want to or need to find a new home for their animals. But who backstops SeaWorld? No one.

Release them into the wild? That is a death sentence for animals born in captivity. I suspect PETA has an anti-SeaWorld campaign ready to go to blame the company for the inevitable death of any animal it releases into the wild, because SeaWorld failed to do it the "right" way.

SeaWorld's best hope was for its Chinese investors to pump the company with some cash then take a bunch of animals off their hands to populate SeaWorlds in China. But the Chinese investors appear to have much less actual cash on hand than many were led to believe when they bought into SeaWorld.

The company is stuck right now. Maybe it should play the Trump administration to get the trainers back into the water and start breeding orcas again. I don't know. But I don't see a sugar daddy on the horizon that will pay for SeaWorld's animal care and research while offering enough for the company to develop some Disney- or Universal-class attractions. Somewhere between these extremes lies the only path for SeaWorld. But who has the insight and experience to find it?

February 27, 2018 at 11:38 PM ·

I'm not ready to declare it the end of SeaWorld, but this is a very ominous sign. The fact that an executive with a history in the themed entertainment business was unable to fix (or at least lessen) the problems plaguing the chain and is leaving it in a worse state is very telling of how poor the company's position is now. They are in an extremely precarious position, and without a really smart strategy to turn things around quickly I wouldn't be surprised to see the chain broken apart in the next few years. The chance of any of the parks closing is slim to none...they all still see fairly good attendance numbers, and if purchased individually they may be attractive prospects for other operators. The best path forward is simple: Focus on what makes SeaWorld unique rather than trying to go head-to-head with the competition, and find a way to build a loyal base of regular visitors rather than going after the tourist market. The complication is that this must be achieved with a very tight budget, and for some parks in the chain to survive, others may need to be cut loose.

February 28, 2018 at 6:20 AM ·

The Orlando market always has been tough. But Disney taking care of their neglected parks and Universal opening more rides too and added a waterpark and has a third dry park in the works it'll be an uphill battle. Maybe there is no place anymore for an aquatic circus park with coasters.

February 28, 2018 at 10:53 AM ·

So, because Sea World doesn't have a ready avenue to divest itself of its animals it should continue to hold them indefinitely, or, shudder, ship them to countries where they don't have animal abuse concerns?

How callous are you? You don't have any sympathy for these animals? You think the MAJORITY view that they are being treated unfairly is wrong, and think the best way around that is to cater to markets that are less compassionate?

I notice you're not posting my responses, presumably because you can't address them. The truth of the matter is that you are exposing yourself to be an extremely cruel person who would openly advocate for the continued torture of innocent animals. You and your site deserve the same disapprobation as Sea World, it's reprehensible.

February 28, 2018 at 11:37 AM ·

If you're an amusement park enthusiast and have experienced Manta and Mako then you know that those two rides are fantastic. The issue, Kraken is still trash and what else do they actually have to offer?

The shows have gone downhill because of the restrictions of trainers being in the water and the push towards educational shows. They need to work to make the shows a performance that attracts an audience. Education is great, but if the shows boring then the educational factors are irrelevant since nobody will want to sit through them.

March 1, 2018 at 2:06 PM ·

@64

Well since you're so judgmental of others then we can assume you've never had a pet, visited a zoo, eaten a burger, hot dog or fried chicken right?

March 1, 2018 at 10:18 PM ·

Going to toot my own horn here, i've been saying for 10 years that Sea World is headed for bankruptcy. Things really started to go downhill when Busch was bought out by the Europeans and Blackfish was the final nail in the coffin. The company is in deep sh*t for a variety of reasons and nothing is working to get out of it. I think the Busch Gardens parks will get bought out by another operator and the Sea World Parks will become some other commercial or residential developments. Maybe Sea World in Orlando will be bought out by Universal or Six Flags at a deeply discounted price. I definitely don't think the "Sea World" branding is going to stay regardless.

Also to the people that say "the strategy is working, he shouldve stayed longer, etc"...you are a bunch of morons. I was running some errands next to SWO earlier today and watched Mako operate for a few cycles. It was running one train and THREE PEOPLE were on the train. Granted its a weekday in a slower time of year, but.. that's their big new $20+ million B&M and its got 3 people on the train with 1 train op!

Jim Atchison was a terrible job as CEO and Manby was too slow and not drastic enough. The company is practically out of money now there's really not much they can do at this point, it would be a miracle for them to come out of this as the same company they are now.

...and I don't feel bad for Manby. He willingly left a great job with a company that was growing to take a crappy one with a company that was dying. He didn't know sh*t about the zoological industry and didn't know sh*t about competing in Florida and California. What he did with Herschend was common sense, "hey lets take these empty nest parks and add more marketable rides to draw more people."

Sorry for the rant I just am mad that i've been saying this for literally a decade and it seemed like no one in the "community" seriously believed this could happen

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