SeaWorld hires a new CEO, its fourth in five years

SeaWorld Sky Ride gondola
SeaWorld’s San Diego park completed repairs on its Sky Ride gondola in September after a months-long closure.

SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. on Thursday named Sergio “Serge” Rivera, an executive in the hotel and vacation ownership industry, as its new chief executive. He will be the theme park company’s fourth CEO in the last five years.

Rivera, 57, who had been a top executive at Starwood Hotels & Resorts and most recently served as president of a private residential club, will join the company Monday. He succeeds Gustavo “Gus” Antorcha, who left SeaWorld in September, following disagreements with the board, after seven months on the job.

Rivera praised the company during a Thursday earnings call, adding, “There’s a lot more to do to unlock the long-term potential of this business.” SeaWorld had just posted third-quarter declines in attendance and revenue but an increase in profit.

SeaWorld shares jumped 10.9%.


Rivera will earn an annual base salary of $600,000 plus stock options as part of his three-year employment contract, according to a regulatory filing.

Most recently, Rivera worked at the residential Ocean Reef Club for a few months this year. Before that, he was president of the vacation ownership segment of timeshare operator ILG Inc. He also had worked 21 years at Starwood Hotels, where he held a number of positions, including president of the Americas.

Interim CEO Marc Swanson will return to his former role as the company’s chief financial officer.

The company also disclosed Thursday what Swanson described as a “significant overspend” of $9.4 million in marketing expenses. Though he did not elaborate on how the money was spent beyond “creative and media” expenses, Swanson said changes have been made “to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”


Swanson sought to put a positive spin on the disappointing results for the third quarter, which represent a big chunk of SeaWorld’s crucial summer season. In a reversal of past quarters, SeaWorld saw its visitation drop 2.6%, with 221,000 fewer visitors coming to its 12 parks during the July-through-September quarter than in the same quarter last year. Also down was overall revenue, which dropped 2% to $473.7 million. Profit rose 2.1% to $98 million.

SeaWorld blamed the drop in attendance on bad weather, plus a calendar shift that resulted in one fewer peak summer weekend day than a year earlier.

“On days when there were no adverse weather conditions, we performed well,” Swanson said. “In July, we recorded three separate days with near all-time record daily attendance.”

Going forward, Swanson said he expects growth in the low single digits. He pointed to SeaWorld’s ramped-up efforts to bring new thrill rides to its major parks, a move that some analysts say is driving the company’s turnaround following years of declining attendance due to fallout from the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which examined issues of animal captivity.


For 2020, Swanson said, “almost every park will get a new ride or slide.”

In San Diego, construction is underway for next year’s Mako dive coaster. And for the following year, SeaWorld recently announced that its Aquatica water park in Chula Vista will be transformed into a “Sesame Street” theme park.

Weisberg writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.