More than a year ago now, when I started working as a contractor at the SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment corporate office, people were all up in arms and asking, "OMG, Jeff! What do you think about Blackfish?" In case you've been living under a rock, that's the "documentary" about the alleged mistreatment and sadness around the treatment of the orcas. That it's all bullshit has been well-documented around the Internet, but if you choose to live in an echo chamber (willful ignorance seems more prevalent than ever), you probably don't care to know the truth. As best I can tell, the "experts" interviewed are disgruntled former employees, and certainly not marine biologists.
Obviously I can't tell you about everything I learned on the inside, but I can tell you that it's my opinion that there isn't likely another company on the planet that cares more about the animals in its care. To say its people are passionate about that would be an understatement. One might even argue that if it weren't for SeaWorld's 50 years in operation, a lot of these animals may have been hunted to extinction. Sure, these are all self-serving conditions of the company's well-being, but it sure makes sense to me.
Now the word comes that the CEO is stepping down, and they're laying off about 300 people across the chain. That's unfortunate, and I think it's an over-reaction (the company is still profitable), but it's also not surprising. Is it because of Blackfish? I don't think you need insider knowledge to know the answer to that question. As someone who has observed the theme park industry for around 15 years, I think it's obviously not that.
The company has said that it relies heavily on the Orlando park as its flagship, but look at the execution of the last few years. While Walt Disney World built-out the New Fantasyland and Universal built their second Harry Potter zone, SeaWorld Orlando built... nothing. Antarctica opened the year before and it's just, I don't know, bizarre as an attraction. Yet, they still priced the gate like their competitors despite the lack of a marketable new attraction. With all of the discounts, I'm skeptical that people were paying that, but still. There is no universe where you can charge more and not give the guests something new. And if that weren't enough, most of the parks in the chain lacked anything new other than Busch Gardens Tampa, and their ride was down until late in the summer (another fine Intamin product). I have no idea what they were up against in each of their markets in terms of competing attractions, but that you have to sink some cap ex dollars into theme parks to keep attendance up isn't some secret sauce. Disney, Universal, Six Flags, Cedar Fair and even independent parks like Holiday World get it. That's where SEAS is failing.
Do I think SeaWorld is a good company? Fundamentally, yes, I do, and that feeling was reinforced every time I met some of the people at the park level, or anyone who had anything to do with zoological operations. Do I think the company is on the right track? Well, now that the board is seeking out new leadership, yes. I met Atchison once, but I don't know anything about his leadership style or decision making skills. Maybe that in itself is telling. The company hasn't been public for even two years, but I think it's clear that it needs new blood to reimagine itself, and shed its legacy of A-B/InBev leadership and process and be its own company.
I enjoyed the year that I worked there as a contractor. It wasn't perfect, but I think there are good people there and the markets they operate in are full of opportunity.