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#98165
http://www.orlandosentinel.com/business/tourism/os-bz-seaworld-earnings-20180227-story.html

After promising a rebound but struggling to overcome declining attendance, SeaWorld Entertainment CEO Joel Manby is leaving the company after less than three years on the job.

The leadership change was announced Tuesday as the company announced fourth-quarter earnings figure — including an attendance drop of nearly 3 percent year-over-year. Attendance for the entire 2017 dropped to 20.8 million, down 5.5 percent year-over-year.

SeaWorld’s total revenues fell to $1.26 billion, a 6 percent drop from the prior year.

Chief Parks Operations Officer John T. Reilly, 49, will serve as interim CEO. Reilly’s career includes working as park president of SeaWorld San Diego from 2010 until April 2016. His new compensation will include a $30,000 raise, according to Tuesday’s SEC filing.

During a call with investors, Reilly said he believes in the business plan that Manby had started. He highlighted several ongoing initiatives, such as opening new rides and using a marketing campaign to tell about the company’s conversation efforts as it faces continued criticism over its handling of animals.

Reilly also kept a positive tone that Manby maintained often when speaking to shareholders and promising a turnaround.

“We’re enthusiastic about our 2018 year,” Reilly said as the company pointed to hopeful signs, such as new rides set to open across the company in March and April and admission attendance in Orlando up so far this year as well as season passes at the parks.

As SeaWorld undergoes a hiring search to replace Manby, the company will look for someone who has theme-park or leisure-industry experience and also has a “focus on maximizing shareholder value,” said Yoshikazu Maruyama, who is stepping in as interim Executive Chairman until a permanent CEO is appointed by the board of trustee.

Reilly is a candidate for the top post, Maruyama added.

When an investor pushed back about selling the company, Maruyama declined to comment on “rumors or speculation” about a transaction but went on to elaborate, “The voice of shareholders as well as the drive to maximize shareholder value is louder than ever in the board room.”

Manby took over as SeaWorld’s CEO in April 2015. Under his leadership, the company announced in 2016 it would end killer-whale breeding. Manby called phasing out SeaWorld’s signature attraction a “gut-wrenching" decision.

Manby is eligible for severance benefits; the amount was not detailed in a new SEC filing.

Manby and Reilly would not be available for further comment Tuesday, SeaWorld spokesman Travis Claytor said.

Part of SeaWorld’s strategy is investing money on new rides and attractions at its parks. In Orlando, SeaWorld will open a raft ride, Infinity Falls this year along with a new water slide, Ray Rush, at the water park Aquatica. No opening dates were given Tuesday.

“We have one of the most compelling line-ups of new rides, attractions or events across our parks that we have ever had,” Reilly said in a statement Tuesday.

But SeaWorld faces the challenge of competing for visitors with Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort, which are both expanding and adding new attractions. Coming off attendance records last quarter, Disney will open Toy Story Land June 30 at Hollywood Studios and looks to debut Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in 2019. Meanwhile, Universal has added a nighttime show at the Hogwarts Castle in the popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter and will open a new ride based on the Fast & Furious franchise later this year.

Disney World and Universal Orlando parks also raised their prices this month.

SeaWorld is also facing a criminal investigation. Last year, U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission subpoenaed the theme-park company as part of a investigation into “disclosures and public statements” that were made by company leaders over the impact of “Blackfish.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which became a SeaWorld shareholder in 2013, continues to call for SeaWorld to end all its breeding programs and release its animals.

“The company tries to ignore mounting public pressure to change its ways, while its earnings plummet ...” Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman in a statement Tuesday.

SeaWorld has in recent months expressed an ongoing commitment to animal-rescue and education efforts while saying it plans to rely less on animals to entertain parkgoers. The company rescued and rehabilitated more than 2,100 animals last year.

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