SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby steps down amid declining attendance

By Ashley Carter, Attractions Insider
Last Updated: Tuesday, February 27, 2018, 5:15 PM EST

SeaWorld Entertainment CEO Joel Manby is stepping down amid declining attendance at the company’s theme parks.

  • John T. Reilly, chief parks operations officer, to become interim CEO
  • Attendance dropped at 2.7 percent in 4th quarter
  • SeaWorld reported a net loss of $20.4 million

The announcement was made Tuesday as the company released its fourth-quarter earnings for 2017.

Replacing Manby as interim CEO is John T. Reilly, chief parks operations officer. Reilly previously worked as president of SeaWorld San Diego from 2010 to 2016. In addition, current chairman of the board Yoshikazu Maruyama has become interim executive chairman until a permanent CEO has been appointed.

“Manby has agreed that this is the right time to identify a new CEO as the company enters its next phase of intensified focus on execution and growth,” SeaWorld said in a news release.

Manby has been CEO of the company since 2015.

Joel Manby (SeaWorld)

The leadership change comes as SeaWorld continues to struggle with declining revenue and public backlash following the release of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish.”

In SeaWorld’s latest earnings report, attendance dropped 2.7 percent in the fourth quarter, compared with the same time in 2016. For the year, attendance was down 5.5 percent to 20.8 million. However, SeaWorld said attendance during the first part its 2018 fiscal year is up.

Revenue also declined in the fourth quarter to $265.5 million. SeaWorld also reported a net loss of $20.4 million.  

Manby’s departure comes three years after he was brought in to get the company back on track following “Blackfish.”  

Under Manby’s leadership, SeaWorld announced the end of its killer whale breeding program. The company also shifted its focus to conservation and animal rescue efforts.

SeaWorld rescued 2,100 animals last year, the company said during the earnings call. Executives also said they remain optimistic about 2018.

Part of SeaWorld’s strategy to increase attendance and revenue is to invest money on new attractions at its parks. Each of the company’s theme parks will get a new ride or attraction this year, Reilly said.

In Orlando, SeaWorld will open Infinity Falls, a family-friendly raft ride, this spring. Ray Rush, a new water slide, will debut at Aquatica. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s water park, Adventure Island, is getting a new drop slide called Vanish Point.

SeaWorld is facing many challenges as it works to increase revenue and attendance.

SeaWorld is under a federal investigation over statements the company made about the impact of "Blackfish."

The company is also competing with Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando for visitors. Both theme parks have ramped up expansion efforts, adding new lands and attractions each year.

Disney is set to open Toy Story Land at Hollywood Studios this summer. Next year, the park will debut Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a 14-acre “Star Wars”-themed land. Meanwhile, Universal has continued to benefit from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Shares of SeaWorld fell 5.21 percent by market close on Tuesday.

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