SeaWorld CEO steps down as head of theme park company; Plans job cuts as park attendance drops

SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. said Thursday that its CEO is stepping down as head of the company and named its chairman as interim leader.

Attendance at its theme parks has been weak since the recession and has dropped in three of the past four quarters. SeaWorld has also been battling negative publicity since the release of "Blackfish" last year, a documentary that suggested its treatment of animals may have led to the death of trainers.

SeaWorld has been trying to combat the decline with a turnaround effort. It said Thursday that it will eliminate an unspecified number of jobs as part of previously announced cost cuts, which are expected to save $50 million annually. The company would not say how many jobs it planned to cut.

Jim Atchison has served as CEO and president since 2009. He will become vice chairman and will be nominated to the board of its independent nonprofit conservation fund.

Chairman David D'Alessandro will take over as interim CEO Jan. 15 and serve until a permanent replacement is found.

The company on Thursday also appointed two new directors to its board: Ellen Tauscher, a former congresswoman from California, and former advertising executive William Gray. Gray has also been a senior adviser to Blackstone, an investment firm and minority shareholder in SeaWorld.

Shares of SeaWorld, which operates 11 theme parks across the country, rose 16 cents in extended trading. Its stock closed Thursday up 45 cents to $16.09. The Orlando, Florida-based company's shares have lost about 45 percent in the past year.