SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment attendance for 2017 was down by over 5%, the company announced Tuesday. Attendance and revenue both took a nose dive for 2017, as even the busy holiday season saw the parks dip in attendance.
Fourth quarter attendance was down 2.7% from the prior year fourth quarter compared to full year 2017 attendance which was down 5.5% from prior year. However, revenue didn’t suffer as badly for the fourth quarter. Fourth quarter 2017 total revenue per capita was up 2.0% from the prior year fourth quarter compared to full year 2017 total revenue per capita which was down a modest 0.6% from prior year.
While the news isn’t good, it’s not all that shocking. SeaWorld just couldn’t seem to catch a break in 2017, as just about everything backfired on the park. San Diego opened several new attractions, which didn’t click with the fans and guests. The new Orca Encounter show and VR experience seemed to fall flat. Orlando rolled out several new offerings, including Kraken VR, which has since been removed. The bright spots in the chain seem to be Wavebreaker at SeaWorld San Antonio, and Invadr at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.
Other big news from Tuesday is that controversial CEO, Joel Manby is stepping down in an all new leadership transition.
Under the plan, current Chief Parks Operations Officer, John T. Reilly, has become interim CEO succeeding Mr. Manby, who has stepped down. Current Chairman of the Board Yoshikazu Maruyama – a 22-year veteran of the global theme park and entertainment industry – has become interim Executive Chairman until a permanent CEO is appointed by the Board, at which time Mr. Maruyama will resume his position as Chairman of the Board of Directors. These changes are effective immediately. Mr. Manby has agreed to assist the Company to ensure a smooth transition.
Donald C. Robinson, Lead Independent Director, said, “The Board agreed that this transition plan is the right approach to advance the Company’s progress and create value for all our important stakeholders. We know John will be an excellent leader in this new role and we thank Yoshi for taking on this additional interim responsibility to ensure a smooth transition. Finally, we want to express our deep appreciation to Joel for his leadership and contributions as CEO.”
“Over the past three years, Joel has worked tirelessly to strengthen SeaWorld’s position as a company that combines entertainment, education, and its important mission to protect marine life and the oceans. Our improving fourth quarter and positive year-to-date trends give us confidence that the steps we have taken position us well for 2018,” Mr. Maruyama said.
“John Reilly is a highly experienced operator with decades of theme park experience and a demonstrated ability to improve performance and drive growth through disciplined execution. In addition to serving as Chief Parks Operations Officer, John has served as Park President of SeaWorld San Diego and Busch Gardens Williamsburg, among other roles and has been with the Company for over 32 years. He knows SeaWorld well and understands our opportunities. With one of our most compelling lineups of new rides and attractions, new pricing plans, and comprehensive new sales, marketing and communications initiatives, we are confident we will maintain and accelerate our current momentum under John’s experienced direction. The Board and I believe my industry experience complements John’s, and so I will be available to him as a resource in this interim period,” Mr. Maruyama continued.
“I am so proud of this Company and all we have accomplished to position SeaWorld for continued success by providing fun and truly meaningful experiences that connect our guests to the natural world,” said Mr. Manby. “John is an ideal choice to lead the Company, and I feel confident that I leave SeaWorld in incredibly capable hands. I look forward to continuing to work with Yoshi, John, and the entire Board during the transition.”
Manby came in from Dollywood parent company, Herschend Entertainment, and had high hopes. However, he drove attendance down with controversial decisions that seemed to drive the most loyal of SeaWorld fans away. Moves like ending Orca Breeding, announcing the end of the Blue World Project which would have seen a bigger focus on the parks killer whales, and the end of theatrical whale shows in favor of more educational shows that have not been popular with fans of the park yet. The biggest controversy came when Joel Manby announced a partnership with the Humane Society of the United States, an animal activist group that has been strongly against SeaWorld in the past. Many long time fans and supporters of SeaWorld saw this as a huge slap in the face, and as the company trying to appeal to an audience that just wasn’t going to come to the parks anyway. It also seemed like SeaWorld was giving up, and caused many passholders to cancel their passes.
So how will the new leadership team turn the long sinking ship around? It’s unclear right now, but they certainly have their work cut out for them, as the company continues to struggle. We can only hope that the new team can capture the Wonder and magic that SeaWorld once represented and pull in a larger audience to stay afloat.