Saturday, July 13, 2024

Exec shifts at Disney, Universal, other theme park chains reflect new cultural and business models

by Joe Kleiman

Twenty years ago, in 2001, a migration began within the themed entertainment industry as Universal Creative moved its headquarters from Los Angeles to Orlando. This was followed in 2007 by Busch Entertainment Group, now known as SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, relocating to Orlando from St. Louis and IAAPA in 2019 from the Washington DC area. Today, most major themed entertainment companies have either moved their headquarters to or opened auxiliary offices within the Orlando market. The most recent of these migrations is two thousand positions within Disney Parks, Products and Experiences, including Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), relocating from Glendale, CA to a new headquarters at Lake Nona, FL, adjacent to Orlando International Airport.

The architects of Imagineering

WDI’s relocation to Orlando will be overseen in part by Barbara Bouza, who was named President, Walt Disney Imagineering in November, 2021. In her new role, she heads the global creative, design and development teams behind Disney’s theme parks, attractions, resort hotels, cruise ships, and retail, dining and entertainment centers. She also leads a multidisciplinary team tasked with exploring, developing and bringing to market groundbreaking ideas that enhance and expand Disney’s global portfolio of experiences.

Barbara Bouza celebrates Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary. Photo: Barbara Bouza on LinkedIn.

Bouza is the first woman and the first African-American to head Imagineering in the organization’s sixty-eight year history. Bouza joined WDI in 2020 as President, Business Operations. Prior to that, Bouza served as co-managing director, principal, of Gensler Los Angeles. In this collaborative leadership role, she brought strategic design management to highly innovative clients such as Netflix, Amgen, JPL/NASA, Debbie Allen, and City of Hope. A fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), she was the 2019 AIA Los Angeles president, and also served on the board of the Southern California chapter of the International Interior Design Association.

As Bouza takes on the role of President, Bob Weis is transitioning from President, Walt Disney Imagineering – Creative and New Experience Development to Global Imagineering Ambassador, a role previously held by one of his mentors, the late Marty Sklar. Before becoming president of Imagineering, Weis was the overall creative executive for Shanghai Disney Resort. Prior to that, Weis completed a five-year transformation and expansion of Disney California Adventure Park. His previous projects include creative leadership over the original concepts for Disney’s Hollywood Studios and The Walt Disney Studios Paris, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror™ attraction, conceptual design for Tokyo DisneySea, and work on the first international Disney theme park, Tokyo Disneyland. Weis also led the design team on the never built Disney’s America theme park that was planned for Manassas, Virginia. Through his company, Bob Weis Design Island, Weis oversaw the planning and design for a number of major museum exhibits and branded experiences.

Nancy Seruto and Bob Weis at Walt Disney Imagineering. Courtesy Walt Disney Imagineering

Weis is the 2021 recipient of the prestigious Buzz Price Thea Award – Recognizing a Lifetime of Distinguished Achievements from the Themed Entertainment Association. Fellow Imagineer Nancy Seruto, recipient of the 2020 Buzz Price Award, said of Weis: “Bob has an ability to balance all of it. The complexities of the project, the needs of the team, the vision of the organization, the daily challenges and frustrations – and through it all he never loses his love of it. His steady approach allows him to take on intimate projects or scale up to something massive without losing sight of his leadership role and the vision the team is working toward. He takes his work seriously, but also has an amazing sense of humor – dry, insightful and super funny – that comes out when you least expect it and always comes from a place of keen observation. He is inspirational, the best of the best in this business, but also so humble and just lovely to work with.”

InPark Magazine will feature exclusive content regarding Weis’ new role in the coming weeks.

Both Bouza and Weis are trained architects, both having graduated from the California State Polytechnic University – Pomona College of Environmental Design, five years apart.

A new Chair

Bouza will soon be working under new corporate leadership. Robert Iger is scheduled to step down as Disney’s Executive Chairman on December 31, 2021, a role he assumed in 2020 after retiring as the company’s CEO and President. As CEO, Iger greatly expanded Disney’s library of IP with the acquisitions of Pixar (2006), Marvel (2009), Lucasfilm (2012) and 21st Century Fox (2019), and fostered the 2016 opening of Disney’s first theme park and resort in Mainland China, Shanghai Disney Resort. Embracing new technology, Iger has positioned Disney as a leader in both the commercial cinema and the home cinema markets with subsequent record-breaking theatrical releases and the highly successful launch of the Disney+ streaming service in November 2019 and ESPN+ in 2018.

Taking the reins from Iger will be Susan Arnold, a long-time Board member, with fourteen years of service. Arnold was formerly an operating executive of the equity investment firm The Carlyle Group, where she served from 2013 to 2021. Previously, she served as President—Global Business Units of Procter & Gamble from 2007 to 2009. Prior to that at Procter & Gamble, Arnold was Vice Chair—Beauty & Health from 2006, Vice Chair—Beauty from 2004, and President—Global Personal Beauty Care & Global Feminine Care from 2002. She was a Director of McDonald’s Corp. from 2008 to 2016, and a Director of NBTY, Inc. from 2013 to 2017. Arnold’s expertise in retail sales will come into use in this new position, as the company merged its consumer goods and theme park division in 2018. As a result of the merger, the company has integrated retail seamlessly into the guest experience through theming and physical proximity. The retail and dining options at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge are exemplary of this approach. This speaks to the company’s emphasis on increasing per cap sales.

Creatives at the helm
(L to R): Universal Creative’s Steve Blum, Justin Schwarz and Mike Hightower accept the Thea Award for the wand technology at Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, Universal Studios Florida, 2015. Photo by Gary Choppé for the Themed Entertainment Association

Universal Parks & Resorts is undergoing a structural change with a major shuffling of executive management and the creation of two new positions. With the announcement that Mark Woodbury will be promoted from President of Universal Creative to Chair and CEO of Universal Parks & Resorts on January 1, 2022, the company announced that he will be succeeded by Michael Hightower, who has served with Universal Creative since 1995, most recently as Senior VP, Executive Project Director. Hightower has been involved in Universal projects around the world, including the openings of Universal Studios Beijing, Universal Studios Japan, Universal Studios Singapore, Islands of Adventure, and the two Wizarding World of Harry Potter campuses at the Universal Orlando Resort.

Epic changes

On the park operations side, after fifteen years as President of the Universal Orlando Resort, Bill Davis is retiring. During his tenure the resort expanded with the addition of Wizarding World of Harry Potter campuses at both of its theme parks, the addition of a water-based theme park, Volcano Bay, new hotels, and the announcement and start of construction of the resort’s southern campus, centered around the Universal’s Epic Universe theme park. He will be replaced by Karen Irwin, current President and COO of Universal Studios Hollywood, whose more than two decades with the company began at Universal Studios Florida in 1990. Irwin has headed Universal Studios Hollywood since 2016, during which time she opened new blockbuster attractions such as Jurassic World: The Ride and The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash. Over the last two years, she has worked with state and local officials to navigate continually changing COVID regulations and a successful reopening after a year-long closure of the park. On June 15, 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom and other state officials participated in the state’s official “full reopening” ceremony at the gates to Universal Studios Hollywood.

California Governor Gavin Newsom announces the state fully open for business, June 15, 2021, at Universal Studios Hollywood. Courtesy Office of the Governor

Under Woodbury and Irwin, Orlando will become its own operational unit, as construction continues on Universal’s Epic Universe. In 2019, the company announced that it would build a new Universal Creative headquarters building at the Orlando resort’s south campus to place its creative teams adjacent to the new park.

Universal’s Pacific Rim

On the other side of the world, another new operating unit is being formed. Tom Mehrmann, who recently opened the Universal Beijing Resort, will take on the newly created role of President, Pacific Rim, Universal Parks & Resorts, which will oversee parks and resorts in China, Japan, and California (Universal Studios Singapore is owned and operated by Genting under the Resorts World label). Prior to joining Universal, Mehrmann, an expert at openings and expansions of amusement parks, held executive roles at Ocean Park Hong Kong, Six Flags, and Knott’s Berry Farm. Mehrmann, like Irwin and Hightower, will report to Woodbury.

Mehrmann has managed major theme parks on three continents. During a panel discussion at the 2018 IAAPA Expo, he shared that a key to his continued success is his determination to “seek first to understand – to understand the why, the how, the cultural nuances. Understand what’s different, what the cultural values are. People don’t plan to fail. They fail to plan, and when all is said and done, all IS said and done.” Mehrmann’s new role positions him to oversee three distinct theme park and resort operations that are similar in many ways, yet culturally different in others.

Tom Mehrmann speaks at the signing ceremony for the Universal Beijing Resort. Courtesy Universal Beijing Resort

Reporting to Mehrmann will be Universal Studios Hollywood’s Senior Vice President of Operations, Scott Strobl, who will become the new President and General Manager of Universal Studios Hollywood. Rounding out the Pacific Rim leadership team will be J.L. Bonnier, CEO of Universal Studios Japan and Joe Hoskin, GM of the Universal Beijing Resort.

Expanding the universe

Another new unit is also being established at Universal, reporting directly to Woodbury. Page Thompson, who as President and COO, Universal Parks & Resorts – International was on the leadership team for the launch of the Universal Beijing Resort and the expansion of Universal Studios Florida, will become President, UPR New Ventures. In this role, he will “identify new opportunities for Universal to expand the concept of theme park entertainment and bring the brand to life for new audiences.”

All Universal Parks & Resorts executive changes will take effect on January 1, 2022.

Other major operators

2021 saw a number of executive changes at North American theme park and attraction operators. Here are a few:

  • Mark Swanson, a 20-year veteran of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, was named CEO in May after having served in the position on an interim basis and Elizabeth Gulacsy was named as Swanson’s replacement as SeaWorld CFO. In June, the company announced it had appointed Tom Iven, previously Senior Vice President of Park Operations for Six Flags, as Chief Operating Officer.  
  • In November, Six Flags Entertainment Corporation announced that Salim Bassoul would step down as the Non-Executive Chairman of the Board to become the chain’s newest CEO. Ben Baldanza took over the Non-Executive Chair position.
  • In March, Seenu Sarma joined Cedar Fair Entertainment Company as Chief Procurement Officer. In this role, he is responsible for centralizing procurement across all of the company’s theme park, waterpark, and resort properties. September saw Ty Tastepe joining the Cedar Fair team as Chief Information Officer. Tastepe previously worked on technology-based initiatives for Disney and Universal theme parks and resorts. In November, the company welcomed a new Chief Legal Officer, Brian Nurse, who previously held a similar position for World Wrestling Entertainment.
  • In February, with the acquisition of Kentucky Kingdom, Craig Ross, COO of the Herschend Growth and Opportunity Group, was named interim General Manager of the Louisville, KY theme park. In September, Ross became President of the park, with long-time Herschend Family Entertainment human resources executive Sarah Worrell taking over as GM.
Joe Kleiman
Joe Kleiman
Raised in San Diego on theme parks, zoos, and IMAX films, InPark's Senior Correspondent Joe Kleiman would expand his childhood loves into two decades as a projectionist and theater director within the giant screen industry. In addition to his work in commercial and museum operations, Joe has volunteered his time to animal husbandry at leading facilities in California and Texas and has played a leading management role for a number of performing arts companies. Joe previously served as News Editor and has remained a contributing author to InPark Magazine since 2011. HIs writing has also appeared in Sound & Communications, LF Examiner, Jim Hill Media, The Planetarian, Behind the Thrills, and MiceChat His blog, takes an unconventional look at the attractions industry. Follow on twitter @ThemesRenewed Joe lives in Sacramento, California with his wife, dog, and a ghost.

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