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New SeaWorld CEO comes with fresh perspective, some say

February 17, 2019 GMT

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — SeaWorld’s new CEO will deal with the challenge of helping the Orlando-based company evolve beyond its iconic killer whales, some theme park analysts say.

Gustavo “Gus” Antorcha, 44, who starts Feb. 18 at the job that pays $600,000 in annual base salary as well as bonus and stock opportunities, is an outsider with no ties to SeaWorld.

Coming from a background at Carnival Cruise Lines, it’s unlikely Antorcha has a life-long love of orcas that a company man might have. That is a good thing if he needs to make tough decisions, said John Gerner, a theme park consultant from Richmond, Virginia, a day after SeaWorld revealed that Antorcha was being put in charge.

“You have someone who can really stay focused on the future without having a strong attachment to the past,” Gerner said Wednesday.

The theme park under former CEO Joel Manby announced in 2016 it was ending its orca breeding program and theatrical shows were to be phased out sometime this year in Orlando to be replaced by more “educational” shows, the nature of which it hasn’t yet elaborated on.

Kayla, a 30-year-old orca, died in late January from unknown causes, which dwindles the numbers of killer whales in the Orlando park to five and 20 companywide.

But the situation is complicated.

Antorcha can’t alienate the park’s core base, many whom adore the animals, Gerner said.

“They get really upset if changes are made,” Gerner said.

Antorcha’s task also will be to keep the company momentum moving, said Rick Munarriz, a senior analyst for Motley Fool, an online investment advisor.

For the first time in five years, SeaWorld, which operates 12 parks across the country, showed growth in 2018. The stock nearly doubled. Attendance was up.

Antorcha must come in and impress investors who were already looking at the company more favorably, Munarriz said.

Another issue for SeaWorld is nearby Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World, which spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new attractions that feature beloved intellectual property. This year, Universal is opening a Harry Potter themed roller coaster and Disney debuts Star Wars land, a 14-acre expansion at Hollywood Studios.

″(SeaWorld) can’t compete directly. It just doesn’t have the financial resources or the brands,” Gerner said, adding SeaWorld has traditionally tried to be a complement to visitors, instead of competing head on with Universal and Disney. “You’re in a challenging situation already.”

Not much is known about Antorcha, the chief operation officer at Carnival Cruise Lines, or his style of leadership.

“Mr. Antorcha does not carry a lot of cache given he is not coming from a role that was highly visible to investors,” said an analyst note published Tuesday from Stifel, a brokerage and investment banking firm that follows SeaWorld. “Executives from Carnival Cruise Lines had nothing but exceptional things to say about Mr. Antorcha, which we view as utterly important.”

Antorcha declined to comment through a SeaWorld spokeswoman.

Antorcha, from Venezuela and bilingual in English and Spanish, comes with an impressive education that includes graduating magna cum laude with a bachelors degree in economics from Duke University and a MBA from Stanford University. He had been living in Miami.

His background will certainly help as the parks try to draw more Latin American visitors — an important tourism demographic to SeaWorld, Munarriz said.

Antorcha comes across as someone young and successful, rising in the ranks, said Munarriz, who added he was still surprised that interim CEO John Reilly was passed up for the job given the company’s recent success.

“It seemed Reilly had done everything to strike interim off the title with the company,” Munarriz said.

Reilly will remain at SeaWorld in his new position of chief operating officer. His salary has not been determined, according to a SEC filing.

Bu Gerner said hiring Antorcha makes sense.

“What SeaWorld is thinking is going beyond the short term,” Gerner said. “Their logic of bring someone from the outside to bring in some new energy and perspective, I can understand and appreciate that.”

Running a theme park also shares commonalities with a cruise line, Gerner and Munarriz agreed.

The two industries both rely on enticing guests — their captivated audience — to spend more money and buy upgrades but they also must be entertained and happy enough to become repeat customers.

Antorcha joined Carnival Cruise Lines in 2010 as Senior Vice PresidentGuest Commerce and also served as Senior Vice President of Hotel Operations, according to a SeaWorld SEC filing. Before that, he was partner and managing director of The Boston Consulting Group, a global management consulting firm he joined in 1996.

SeaWorld’s hiring decision helps the company overcome uncertainty that’s lingered during the year-long hiring search, which Stifel welcomed. But the firm also warned that the stock could fall in the near term because “some shorter-term focused investors believed the delays in naming a permanent CEO were indicative of SEAS’ leadership actively shopping the company.”


Information from: Orlando Sentinel,