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Wednesday, June 9, 2021

SeaWorld's new CEO has big plans for Orlando parks

Posted By on Wed, Jun 9, 2021 at 10:09 AM

click to enlarge Manta at SeaWorld Orlando. This photo was taken prior to the pandemic. - PHOTO VIA VISIT ORLANDO
  • Photo via Visit Orlando
  • Manta at SeaWorld Orlando. This photo was taken prior to the pandemic.
After having the "interim" dropped from his title last month, SeaWorld’s new CEO, Marc Swanson, wasted no time on laying out his plans.

Swanson, who has been with SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment since 2004, had two terms as the company’s interim leader, with the most recent lasting a year before the company tapped him to take over permanently.



The one-two punch of the Blackfish documentary and the Wizarding World opening at Islands of Adventure caused the Orlando-based company to go into a tailspin. Major attendance declines paired with quickly shifting public sentiment forced out then-CEO Jim Atchison, who had led the company for half a decade.

Joel Manby, best known for his book on "servant leadership" and his appearance on Undercover Boss while serving at Herschend Entertainment, came in after Atchison. Manby’s tenure didn’t last long but was filled with controversial decisions, including ending the breeding program of the company’s orcas. He also announced plans to shift the company into a more thrills-based chain of resorts with plans to add hotels to multiple properties.

click image A slide from a 2015 investor presentation showing potential development sites on SeaWorld's Park Orlando resort.
  • A slide from a 2015 investor presentation showing potential development sites on SeaWorld's Park Orlando resort.

Manby’s abrupt departure sent the company into another era of rough seas with a revolving door of top leaders. By the time Swanson was tapped as the interim leader in 2020, the company had gone through four CEOs in six years. The last two both cited disagreements with the Board of Directors in leaving.

Throughout this time, the Board has reportedly been running all major decisions, with some complaints of micromanagement affecting even lower-ranking leaders. In a private speech to industry leaders last year, then interim CEO Swanson confirmed the board was in "constant communication" with company leadership. Some fans have taken to social media to express their disdain for the board-led changes at the company.
click image A slide from a 2015 investor presentation showing potential development sites on SeaWorld's Park Tampa resort. - IMAGE VIA SEAWORLD
  • Image via SeaWorld
  • A slide from a 2015 investor presentation showing potential development sites on SeaWorld's Park Tampa resort.

With the board in charge, it comes as no surprise that Swanson’s plans mirror those of his predecessors. In a wide-ranging interview with the Orlando Sentinel’s Gabrielle Russon, Swanson confirmed many of the initiatives that had begun under Manby’s reign are still moving forward at the company.

click to enlarge Concept art of a now-canceled plan to redo SeaWorld Orlando's entrance - IMAGE VIA HETZEL DESIGN
  • Image via Hetzel Design
  • Concept art of a now-canceled plan to redo SeaWorld Orlando's entrance
At the top of that list are plans to make the company’s resorts into multi-day destinations. Across the three SeaWorld resorts, two Busch Gardens resorts, and the Sesame Place park in Pennsylvania, the company owns hundreds of acres of underdeveloped property. All of the company’s parks currently rely on surface parking. Swanson confirmed the company was dusting off the plans to add hotels, adding that Orlando and Tampa both have good potential for hotels.

click image A previously proposed Africa-themed hotel at Busch Gardens Tampa. The concept was developed by Hetzel Design. - IMAGE VIA EXPEDITION THEME PARK | TWITTER
  • Image via Expedition Theme Park | Twitter
  • A previously proposed Africa-themed hotel at Busch Gardens Tampa. The concept was developed by Hetzel Design.

It’s unclear if the plan would involve third-party operators or if SeaWorld itself would undertake the day-to-day operations. Previous plans called for at least some of the hotels to be operated by a third party, but that agreement has since expired. Also unclear is how the hotels would interact with the parks. Previous unrealized projects saw an Africa-themed hotel overlooking the savannah at Busch Gardens Tampa and a modern, wave-shaped hotel acting as the front gate to SeaWorld Orlando.

click image A previously proposed Africa-themed hotel at Busch Gardens Tampa. The concept was developed by Hetzel Design. - IMAGE VIA EXPEDITION THEME PARK | TWITTER
  • Image via Expedition Theme Park | Twitter
  • A previously proposed Africa-themed hotel at Busch Gardens Tampa. The concept was developed by Hetzel Design.
While SeaWorld has seen success with targeting locals, multi-day visitors typically have higher per-person spending. This has caused multiple theme parks to shift or to their strategies to target multi-day visitors. Legoland Florida recently opened its third on-site hotel, and Dollywood, which opened its first on-site hotel in 2015, announced plans earlier this month to add four more hotels and a campground to the resort. Cedar Fair has on-site hotels at numerous parks, including Cedar Point in Ohio and Knott’s Berry Farm in California. SeaWorld Parks is the largest theme park operator in the nation to not offer on-site accommodations.

Swanson also confirmed the plan to add a new attraction at each park every year despite many of the attractions that had planned for 2020 yet to open. These include a new family thrill coaster at SeaWorld Orlando and a hybrid wooden coaster at Busch Gardens Tampa, both expected to open sometime this year.

The focus on new attractions has worked for SeaWorld. It’s also the primary growth plan at competitors, such as Six Flags and Universal Studios. Last month, Universal Orlando opened the third major roller coaster at Islands of Adventure. The move by Universal to add more roller coasters to their parks comes as SeaWorld Orlando was positioning itself as Central Florida’s premier thrill park. In addition, new roller coasters are under construction at Epcot and the Magic Kingdom.

Despite upholding the breeding ban, Swanson noted orcas will remain a part of SeaWorld for decades as many of those in its care are quite young.

His familiarity with the Board and his ability to keep the previously working plans mean Swanson may finally be the anchor SeaWorld was looking for. So far, he has aligned himself with the projects already proven successful at the company and looks to be taking safe bets by following a roadmap the company’s main competitors have already proven works. Fortunately for SeaWorld, few of those competitors offer the unique mix of thrills, animals, and themed environments that SeaWorld Parks provide.

But after years of false starts and unrealized plans, it's still too early to know if Swanson will usher in a new chapter for SeaWorld or if he will jump ship like so many CEOs before him.



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