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SeaWorld is looking to boost its image after almost 5 years of declining revenue. Angeli Kakade has the story.
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Visitors are finally returning to SeaWorld, but it’s not because of the amusement park’s famous killer whales.

After nearly five years of declining attendance and revenue following accusations that it mistreated orcas and their trainers, SeaWorld Entertainment is gaining ground with new attractions and rides that have nothing to do with the black-and-white sea creatures that defined its identity for decades.

It might be too early to call it a comeback, but it certainly qualifies as a hopeful sign for SeaWorld after its total attendance last year hit the lowest point since at least 2010. 

Under new management led by John Reilly, interim CEO and chief parks operations officer, the company is focused on new attractions, deals, conservation and cost cuts. While SeaWorld still has killer whales on display, the company decided in 2016 to stop breeding and featuring them in theatrical shows at its parks, including locations in San Diego; Orlando, Florida; and San Antonio, Texas.

The turnaround strategy, which started under Reilly’s predecessor, is impressing investors and analysts. SeaWorld’s stock has nearly doubled this year.

Reilly attributed the improvement to “better execution on our strategic initiatives” and a positive response by visitors to new rides and attractions.

“We also believe there’s significant opportunity ahead,” Reilly told USA TODAY. 

Reilly said the company’s plan is to introduce at least one new attraction for “almost every park” annually. That requires meticulous planning to minimize downtime and market the new features to guests.

A steady stream of new rides and attractions reflects SeaWorld’s response to the social media age.

“People want experiences,” Reilly said. “We believe we can put more attractions in our parks and do it more frequently and do it much more efficiently.”

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After almost three years at the helm of SeaWorld Entertainment, CEO Joel Manby will step down following declines in attendance and revenues.
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Coming attractions for SeaWorld’s 12 parks include:

• A new Sesame Street-themed area at SeaWorld Orlando with six new rides, characters and a parade.

• A Screamin’ Swing ride named Finnegan’s Flyer and a Cutback Water Coaster at SeaWorld’s Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA in Williamsburg, Virginia.

• A new tiger conservation-themed steel roller coaster called Tigris at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay (Florida) and an ocean-conservation-themed dueling roller coaster called Tidal Twister at SeaWorld San Diego.

A new sea-turtle exhibit called Turtle Reef, along with themed family rides at SeaWorld San Antonio.

Life after orcas

None of the new attractions or rides feature orcas, which are also gone from the home page of SeaWorld’s website and hard to find in marketing materials. The company has 21 orcas remaining at its U.S. parks, according to charity group Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

After the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” raised concerns about SeaWorld’s treatment of orca whales and trainers, the negative publicity contributed to an 11 percent decline in attendance over the next four years.

The company’s management at the time initially denied that the controversy was hurting attendance. Earlier this year, SeaWorld reached a $5 million settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission over what the watchdog agency called “untrue and misleading statements or omissions” about the controversy’s impact. SeaWorld did not admit wrongdoing.

The rocky years following “Blackfish” forced SeaWorld to rethink its identity. The company appointed an outsider, theme-park veteran Joel Manby, as CEO in spring 2015, and he ultimately made the call to end orca breeding and theatrical shows. Manby also started the process of investing in alternative rides and attractions.

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But the company’s attendance continued to fall under his tenure, and he left the company abruptly in February 2018. That’s when Reilly was installed as the interim chief. Asked whether he expects to get the permanent job, he said he’s focused on delivering results in his current role.

SeaWorld Entertainment’s total attendance in the first nine months of 2018 rose 8.7 percent from a year earlier to 18 million visitors. Revenue was up 9.5 percent to $1.09 billion.

“It’s fair to say that John Reilly has more or less steadied the ship by any number of indicators,” said Tuna Amobi, an analyst at CFRA Research who tracks SeaWorld. “The attendance numbers don’t lie.”

Amobi said he “always had some skepticism” about the company’s belief that new attractions and rides would deliver a turnaround. So he’s been “positively surprised” that “they seem to be gradually turning the corner,” in part because “the receptiveness of customers to the new attractions seems to have exceeded our expectations.”

Reilly said the improved attendance and revenue this year stem partly from a new season pass plan that allows customers to make monthly payments, as well as sharp marketing and “an intense focus on cost” management and cuts.

Asked for an example of where SeaWorld has cut spending, he said the company went “line by line to look through every vendor expense,” including slashing corporate consulting.

Activists apply pressure

To be sure, animal-rights activists continue to criticize SeaWorld over its decision to keep animals that live for decades at its parks, including orcas.

John Di Leonardo, animals-in-entertainment outreach manager for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said PETA “has suggested all along” that SeaWorld replace live animals with rides and attractions.

But he said SeaWorld needs to move all of its orcas to seaside sanctuaries “where they can heal and enjoy the enrichment and diversity of the sea while still receiving care, feeding and veterinary support.”

He said that SeaWorld may ultimately face the same fate as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which closed in 2017.

“SeaWorld knows that people no longer support the abuse of animals in entertainment,” Di Leonardo said. But “unless it ends the exploitation of animals in its parks, it’s never going to fully recover.”

Reilly said SeaWorld is devoted to animal conservation and care, including rescuing injured sea life and educating visitors about its efforts to care for its creatures.

At SeaWorld San Diego, the company has launched a event called “Inside Look,” where “visitors for the first time get to go behind the scenes” and see animal conservation in action, Reilly said.

He said SeaWorld will continue to increase its emphasis on conservation.

“We want to work productively with others to help with the plight of animals in the wild,” he said.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.

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