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SeaWorld Picks Brains at Disney and Universal

By Rick Munarriz - Apr 15, 2016 at 2:57PM

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The marine life park operator's new think tank involves thinking outside the tank.

Image source: SeaWorld Entertainment.

SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS 0.48%) is in the early stages of a turnaround, and it's turning to its larger rivals for inspiration. The theme park operator is shaking up its boardroom, and it's turning to former executives at Disney (DIS -1.11%) and Comcast's (CMCSA -0.26%) (NASDAQ: CMCSK) Universal Studios to expand its brain power.

Former SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison is stepping down from the company's board. His spot is being filled by Ron Benison, who as the former chairman and CEO of MCA/Universal Studios Recreation Group oversaw Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Florida. He currently heads up House of Blues Entertainment.

Benison will be joined on the board by Donald Robinson later this year when Blackstone's Joe Baratta retires from the board following the 2016 annual meeting. SeaWorld is nominating Robinson to fill the position. He served as  Executive Vice President of Hong Kong Disneyland. It's been one of Disney's least successful theme parks, but a little Disney and Comcast infused into the SeaWorld boardroom can only help at this point.

SeaWorld is starting to show signs of life, but it still has a long way to go before getting back to where it used to be. After suffering back-to-back years of 4% attendance declines, turnstile clicks rose 0.3% in 2015. It's welcome stability at SeaWorld, but it still means that attendance is roughly 8% below where it was in 2012.

Attendance peaked in 2012, and revenue peaked at $1.46 billion in 2013. The same can't be said for Disney and Comcast, which continue to post record results for their theme park divisions. Disney and Comcast compete directly with SeaWorld in the markets of its largest parks in Central Florida and Southern California.

It's clear that consumer backlash from 2013's scathing Blackfish documentary has burned SeaWorld. CEO Joel Manby -- who replaced Atchison last year -- finally threw in the towel, announcing an end to its active orca breeding program. The move silenced some of the critics, including the Humane Society of the United States.

With the killer whale shows being phased out in the near future and the orcas gone completely in the distant future SeaWorld is hoping that new rides and attractions will given visitors a reason to visit this summer.

SeaWorld stock moved higher last year, and that's the first time investors have seen that in the park operator's brief tenure as a public company. It remains a broken IPO since going public at $27 in 2013. However, with catalysts in place for a material uptick in attendance this year and a stock that is fairly undervalued even when compared to regional amusement park chains it wouldn't be a surprise if SeaWorld stock rises again in 2016. It's already trading 9% higher year to date. Now armed with some Disney and Comcast thinkers in its boardroom it's time for SeaWorld to realize its potential as a more conventional theme park operator without the controversial baggage.

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Stocks Mentioned

SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. Stock Quote
SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc.
$56.03 (0.48%) $0.27
The Walt Disney Company Stock Quote
The Walt Disney Company
$103.14 (-1.11%) $-1.16
Comcast Corporation Stock Quote
Comcast Corporation
$42.02 (-0.26%) $0.11

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