Saturday, June 15, 2024

2023 Thea Awards: Meet Roland Mack

Europa-Park founder Roland Mack is being honored with the TEA’s Buzz Price Thea Award, recognizing his outstanding entrepreneurial achievements and great commitment to the industry. He shares his story.

by Becci Knowles

The Thea Awards have been presented annually since 1994 by the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) and while they now recognize a wide range of projects, people and technologies, the Theas began with a single award for lifetime achievement, conferred on Harrison “Buzz” Price. After Price’s death in 2010 at age 89, the lifetime award was renamed in his honor. Over the years, recipients of the Buzz Price Thea have included the likes of Mark Woodbury, Nancy Seruto, Jeremy Railton, Phil Hettema and many others. When Roland Mack receives his trophy at the 29th Thea Awards Gala, held in California at Disneyland Resort in April 2023, the visionary leader from Baden who says, “a smile is a smile the world over” will be in great company.

The Thea Awards were created to celebrate excellence in the creation and production of compelling places and experiences and to promote public awareness and respect for the individuals who created them. While the Thea Awards are “specifically not focused” on the owners and operators of attractions who are already well served by IAAPA, “every once in a while, a great lifetime achiever who meets all of the creative criteria also just happens to be an owner,” stated the Thea Awards Judging Committee in their official remarks, adding “there are many reasons why Roland Mack is the unanimous choice as the recipient of the Buzz Price Thea Award – Recognizing a Lifetime of Distinguished Achievements.”

Roland with Europa-Park mascots, Ed Euromaus and Edda at the opening of the new season.

Born into the seventh generation of a now 247-year-old family company that manufactured rides, Roland Mack grew up fascinated by the world of circus and travelling showmen. Until the late 20th century, Mack Rides was famous for trailers and caravans for showmen. But as early as 1921 Mack Rides created its first roller coaster, and later other rides.

Roland recollects, “Our family company Mack produced high-end carriages and caravans for all the large circuses and produced attractions for fun fairs and traveling showmen. I remember many encounters with the big, famous circus directors. It was common for them to be invited to our house, which was on the company premises, to have dinner while they finalized their deals. I was fascinated by this world from a very young age, and the Mack family still has strong ties to some of the circus families and showmen to this day. Theme parks came later, when my father and I began to go on trips to the USA, visiting the Disney parks over there for example.”

Roland conceived the idea of Europa-Park with his father, the late Franz Mack, in 1972 following a tour of the U.S. They wanted it to serve a dual purpose: to provide entertainment for all ages and to act as a space in which to present the different roller coasters in the Mack Rides portfolio to their customers and the public. Just three years later, in 1975, Europa-Park opened its doors in Rust, just 30 minutes away from their factory.

Today, Roland and his brother Jürgen lead a true family business which now involves the eighth generation. Roland’s sons Michael and Thomas have long been part of the management, while his daughter Ann-Kathrin is a qualified architect and authorized signatory.

As a leading manufacturer and operator, the Mack family is in a unique and powerful position, in that it has an insight to and understanding of multiple facets of the industry. To this day Europa-Park is Mack Rides’ show floor, while Mack Media and Mack Animation are creating new ways for visitors to experience Europa-Park’s content, both inside and outside of the park.

Innovation and quality are – and always have been – the Mack family’s motivation and driving force. The Buzz Price Award is, says Roland, “an important signal to decision-makers that value is created not only with production, but also with service providers like us. The fact that we are in Rust, Baden and are one of the best theme parks in the world is mainly due to our consistent implementation of innovation and quality.” The presentation of the award coincided perfectly with – for the first time in its almost-50-year history – Europa-Park exceeding the six million attendance mark. (Europa-Park was in fact honored with the Thea Classic Award in 2013, recognizing an attraction that has stood the test of time.)

Continuous expansion

From its earliest days, Europa-Park had the perfect combination of entertainment, culture, and rides for the whole family – almost all of them constructed by parent company Mack Rides in Waldkirch.

Born into the seventh generation of a now 247-year-old family company that manufactured rides, Roland Mack grew up fascinated by the world of circus and travelling showmen.

Despite the initial reservations of the local press, Europa-Park was a hit with the fun-loving public – 250,000 visitors came in 1975 and the millionth mark was met for the first time in 1978.

A key step in Europa-Park’s journey to international acclaim came with the opening of the Italy themed area in 1982, and the implementation of the European theme concept in collaboration with stage designer and film architect, Ulrich Damrau. Holland, England, France, Scandinavia, Spain and the German Alley were added in 1984, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994 and 1996 respectively, among others, followed by Iceland in 2009. Commenting on the political and social change that has taken place since the European theme was first introduced, Roland says: “Everything has its time. Of course, some attractions and themes are less relevant today than they were when we first built them maybe 30 years ago. That’s why we are constantly developing, changing, building new attractions.”

Over 80% of Europa-Park’s guests are repeat visitors, and Roland and the team want every visit to be as exciting as the last. “As for Europe, I am a strong believer in Europe, which is why we continue to develop this concept. We have a longstanding relationship with our neighbor France, many visitors and employees cross the border every single day. It is part of our DNA, not least because we only live a stone’s throw away from France.”

Roland was very much ahead of his time when he identified the future of Europa-Park as a resort and conference center. A new era began in 1995 with the opening of ‘El Andaluz’ – the first hotel in a German theme park. In addition to lengthening stays for families, the increased range of event and meeting rooms on offer meant corporate business grew too. Founded in 1998, well over 1,000 events a year are now handled by the Mack family company, Confertainment. Europa-Park is also a significant media location, popular as a set for national and international film and TV productions throughout the year.

Roland says that developing Europa-Park into the resort it is today has been the single most challenging task of his life.

Under Roland’s direction, in 2019 Europa-Park resort added Rulantica, a sprawling, indoor and outdoor waterpark, one of the largest in the world. The Europa-Park dark ride themed around the story of Rulantica, Snorri Touren, was honored with a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement and the Thea Judging Committee described Rulantica as “pushing every perceived boundary of what indoor waterparks can be.”

“The development of Europa-Park is, simply put, incredible,” says Roland. “There is no way we could have anticipated this success story when the first construction works started, in this formerly quite poor little fishing village of Rust in South-West Germany. I sometimes wonder if we would have had the courage to start this theme park, had we known what lay ahead. After all, the Europa-Park Resort, together with our six hotels and the Rulantica water world, is one of the largest and most popular theme park resorts in the world now.”

Roland says that developing Europa-Park into the resort it is today has been the single most challenging task of his life. Asked to pick out individual events, the large fire in 2018 comes to mind for him straight away. “It caused damage of around €100 million and destroyed one of our most-loved family attractions, the Pirates in Batavia. Fortunately, no one was hurt.” Europa-Park emerged from the 2018 fire stronger than ever. Roland says that the park’s guests were a guiding light in the reconstruction. “We received incredible amounts of letters, messages, pieces of artwork, all full of positive and encouraging words. Generations have made memories in Pirates in Batavia, and we wanted to make sure that the rebuilt attraction would honor that. So, we rebuilt it as close to the original as possible while making use of all the latest technologies and the highest safety standards.

The official re-opening of Pirates in Batavia, July 28, 2020

“Shortly after that Covid become the number one topic, followed by a war in Ukraine, rising inflation and energy costs. All of that while we had invested over €200 million in our new water world Rulantica, before having to shut down again because of the pandemic only months after opening.”

Leading by example

Is there anything he would have done differently in the early years? “I am sure that there are times and individual moments where maybe with hindsight, we would have gone a different way. But I often remember what my father said: ‘I think we did more right than wrong.’ I guess that’s a fair assessment. Plus, we tend to look forward, to the future, and don’t get stuck in the past too much.”

The mix of rides for young and old, detailed theming and excellent gastronomy are often described as Europa-Park’s greatest strengths. “Absolutely, that’s true,” says Roland. “We have great roller coasters, but we make sure that there is always a nice balance for the whole family. That’s what it is all about at the end, a great day out with the family, often even three generations, and everyone will leave the park with a smile on their face, whether they’re 4, 14, 40 or 84 years old.”

Roland and his pirate alter-ego at Pirates of Batavia. Roland’s children had the wax figure made for him as a surprise – the figure is now in the ride itself.

The overall quality is also incredibly important and much of that is derived from being a family business. “We are out and about every day and we see many things, we pick up the piece of paper that has been dropped, hand in a lost item or point out the lightbulb that needs to be changed. But the interesting thing is, that our employees are as passionate about the quality of our product as we are. It’s true what they say, if you lead by example, you’ll be able to create a team that is equally as invested in providing the best possible service for our guests.”

Asked which of Mack’s technology/ride innovations have had the most impact on the industry, Roland says, “I think and hope that many of our innovations have had a great impact on the industry. It is our aspiration to be among the leading manufacturers in the world, so naturally we will have an impact. If I had to name a few highlights, the blue fire Megacoaster was certainly a game changer for us as a company. Further, our VR Coaster technology has proven incredibly successful and with YULLBE, our VR experiences, we have followed up and kept improving the technology. The most recent highlight is certainly our restaurant world-first Eatrenalin. It truly is a dining experience like nothing I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world.”

(L) Members of the Mack family celebrate the opening of Rulantica. (R) As early as 1921 Mack Rides created its first rollercoaster, and later other rides.

This talented family has built a business with many facets and while there are many benefits to being both a leading ride manufacturer and operator, one wonders if the two ever come into conflict. Reflecting on the irony of business when talking about Time Traveler, Roland once said: “My biggest problem is that it’s one of the best rides Mack Rides created and it’s at Silver Dollar City [Branson, Missouri, USA], not Europa-Park.” So, how do you balance the needs and aspirations of both sides of the business?

“That’s a good point, and I said that of course in a joking manner,” remembers Roland, smiling. “We have a good balance of rides, and it is only natural that, if you develop good rides for your own park, you’ll create interest from other parks to buy something similar. After all, that is the whole idea! With time, rides develop further and so sometimes, a ride, based on something we built for Europa-Park, will turn out even better somewhere else. But I wouldn’t see that as a bad thing. That’s testament to the extremely talented engineers, storytellers, product designers, and so on that work for our company. All things considered; the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages.”

Roland has also spoken previously about having a strategy of continuous expansion. He elaborates: “We have a saying in our family business, and that’s ‘stagnation is regression.’ That’s why we constantly develop our parks and open new attractions every year. We are currently building a new Croatia-themed area at Europa-Park, together with a new roller coaster due to open in 2024. It will be a Big Dipper style ride with a great storyline. In Rulantica, we have recently completed a new slide tower, adding additional seating, food-and-beverage offerings and the largest slide in our water park to date. And finally, we have just opened our new restaurant, Eatrenalin. Here, we combine media technology, storytelling and the highest level of gastronomy, creating a dining experience like nowhere in the world. All rounded off with our floating chairs, the latest development by Mack Rides and patented worldwide.”

With energy costs rising, Europa-Park is investing in a plant that will produce around 25 gigawatt hours of electricity from renewable energies. The total investment amount of the project is around €30 million and it is scheduled to go into operation in 2024. In the long term, Europa-Park will then be able to supply itself with renewable electricity largely independently of other energy sources, particularly in the summer months.

Outside Rulantica, which opened in 2019. This sprawling, indoor and outdoor water park is one of the largest in the world.

Asked whether he ever considered not joining the family business, Roland says: “No, to be honest, that wasn’t really an option for me. I did, however, first join the production company as a mechanical engineer.” Family businesses operate with their own unique culture, and Roland takes great pride in what that means for visitors: “Family companies don’t think in business reports and dividends, they have a much more long-term approach, focusing on the next generation rather than the next shareholder meeting. We also have a much faster decision- making process than large corporations. In addition, and that is another very important factor, we as a family company have a face, we are present at Europa-Park, Rulantica, in our hotels, and our guests can see that. It creates a certain trust between us and our guests, but it is not without challenges. A challenge we love. I wouldn’t be a good CEO of a large corporation, that’s just not our world. I am a family company man with heart and soul, in the seventh generation. Ultimately, it is my job to make sure the company is in the best possible shape to be passed on to the next generation.”

Looking to the future

As a previous IAAPA chair, and inductee to its Hall of Fame, Roland and the family business continue to have a very close relationship with both IAAPA and the TEA, based on mutual trust and many years of working together closely. Europa-Park will host the 2023 TEA SATE Europe (their second time hosting TEA’s signature Experience Design conference), which is just another example of how closely Roland is connected to the associations that represent our industry. “Their work is very important, and we support them where we can,” he says.

Roland’s commitment to the future of the industry also means finding and nurturing young talent. Ten years ago, he created a scholarship for mechanical engineers with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology to support and encourage young engineers to pursue a career in the industry. “We are also involved in a range of initiatives run by IAAPA, and several members of our team hold roles in committees and do their part to promote our industry and pass on the knowledge we gained from decades of running a theme park and manufacturing rides.”

As someone who has long believed that it’s our differences that unite rather than divide us, Roland says: “I believe our industry is a forerunner in the world when it comes to inclusion and equality. We spoke about it often at IAAPA. We can provide an environment that makes it easy to meet people from all over the world. The theme park industry takes a leading role in promoting this important topic. It’s crucial that we keep educating our teams and that we lead by example.

“In over 50 years of my career, I have enjoyed going to work almost every day. It’s our job to put smiles on people’s faces, it doesn’t get better than that! Seeing the joy in our guests, the personal encounters, the internationality, and diversity in our industry, it all makes it a perfect job. There is one international language, and that is laughter. That’s what I love about my job.”

With recipients of the Buzz Price Award automatically eligible to sit on the Thea Awards Judging Committee for life, we have a sneaking suspicion that Roland will still be playing his part in years to come. • • •

Becci Knowles
Becci Knowles
Becci Knowles is a U.K.-based writer and editor with 20 years’ experience in trade and consumer press. Becci’s first taste of the themed attractions industry came in 2015 with a visit to Gothenberg, Sweden, for IAAPA to support the Park World and GlobalAmusements & Play team. She went on to edit Park World from 2018-2022 before deciding to go freelance, making the move into travel and lifestyle before returning to the visitor attractions industry for InPark.

Related Articles

Latest Articles