For months a backlash has been growing against the theme park’s treatment of captive orcas, much of it inspired by the documentary Blackfish, so the ouster of Atchison, a lifelong employee of the 11-park company, seemed to prove that the critics had finally been heard. Yet, as much as animal rights activists are eager to take the credit for Atchison’s dive, SeaWorld’s business problems run deeper than the controversy over its show animals. “It just comes down to execution,” says Robert Niles of Theme Park Insider. “They can survive the killer whale controversy. They have parks in great locations, great infrastructure, but they haven’t come up with signature moments to rival Disney or Universal.”
Flat attendance since 2008 and poor revenues—down again, 8 percent, last quarter—led the board and SeaWorld’s largest shareholder, Blackstone Group, to make the change at the top. Atchison’s not gone, however; he’s being kicked upstairs to vice chairman of the board. Serving as interim CEO while a suitable replacement is arranged will be Chairman of the Board David D’Alessandro. He is a familiar figure to Blackstone, having served on the board of the majority Blackstone-owned Vivint Solar.
According to a statement from SeaWorld, Atchison won’t be the last to be repositioned, either: A “restructuring program across its entire 11-park enterprise” will seek to “reduce duplication of functions and increase efficiencies” and surely “result in the loss of some positions.”
Merely cutting costs won’t turn SeaWorld around. While Disney and Universal have been adding attractions built around mega-franchises such as Star Wars and Harry Potter, SeaWorld has largely stuck by its maligned orca shows. In 2013 it opened Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, which executives had hoped would be the “penguin Harry Potter,” as SeaWorld corporate communications executive Aimee Jeansonne-Becka described it to me during a visit a few weeks ago. It turned out that an attraction recreating the most inhospitable place on earth (the penguin habitat is kept at a frigid 30 degrees) may not lure vacationing families who are fleeing winter weather.
When I met with Atchison for a Bloomberg Businessweek feature, he was relentlessly optimistic about SeaWorld’s future, even as he readily acknowledged that building more parks based around Orca attractions in the United States and Europe would be difficult. “There is this broad sentiment toward prohibiting, banning, and outlawing zoos and aquariums—a lot of sensitivity around marine mammals in particular,” he said. He pointed to Russia and the Middle East as fertile ground for expansion and cited a deal already in place with Australian partner Village Roadshow Limited to expand in Asia. The new CEO will likely stay that course because expansion abroad, and more orca breeding, may the clearest way to shore up SeaWorld’s share price—now half what it was before Blackfish first appeared.
Here is where the animal rights activists have an idea that could help SeaWorld’s business. Many marine biologists who study orcas concede that releasing domestically bred orcas back into the wild is not realistic. The whales are highly social animals, and domestically bred orcas are unlikely to be taken into a wild pod. Instead, activists advocate sea pens, coves, and channels cordoned off from the ocean, while still connected to it, in which the orcas can be fed, examined by veterinarians, and—more important for Sea World—observed by paying spectators. “They close Shamu stadium,” says Naomi Rose, a Animal Welfare Institute marine biologist, of the large swimming pools where Orcas currently perform at three Sea World parks, “and, I don’t know, put a roller coaster there. And you let the whales live in large sea enclosures, free, there are plenty of people who will pay to see these things.”
It would be a striking turn if the solution to SeaWorld’s business woes were the very thing it has resisted from the start: Freeing Willy. What’s more, marine biologists might find themselves working alongside Atchison to improve the retirement of SeaWorld’s orcas. See, he’s also been appointed to serve as the chairman of the not-for-profit SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund.