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Leadership vs management in theme park operations: Donnie Mills of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

By Chad Emechad emerson theme park interviewsrson

Donnie Mills (right), General Manager for Busch Gardens Tampa Bay worked his way up to his current position in the company from parking cars as a teenager to running various theme park  departments and then various parks throughout the system of 10 parks run by the former Busch Entertainment Corp. Blooloop’s Chad Emerson recently interviewed Mills.
donnie mills busch gardens tampa bay

(Note: Blackstone Group acquired the company on 1 December 2009 and renamed it SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. However,
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and sister park Busch Gardens Williamsburg are licensed to keep their names as part of the transaction terms.)

Chad Emerson:  You’ve held a wide variety of front-line and leadership positions while working with Busch and Worlds of Discovery parks. What about the early days?

Donnie Mills: I was living in Tampa as a junior in high school. Busch Gardens in the ‘70s served as a rite of passage for teenagers in the Bay area. Like many before me, I applied for a job and began working in the parking lots in October, 1974. The job was fun, but also I quickly became part of something larger than a weekend job. Within a few years, I was fortunate to become a full-time employee, and joined the salaried team in the early ‘80s. I worked a variety of positions, but spent the majority of my career in the operations area. Subsequent opportunities to relocate to San Diego and then Williamsburg enabled me to build my leadership skills and help others improve their own work for the company.

Emerson:  What have been some rewarding high points of your amusement industry career?

Mills: There have been many. I credit my years in the Productivity Improvement discipline for developing my financial knowledge and skills. I also had the opportunity in the early ‘90s to serve as the manager for Adventure Island. Four years running a water park required me to become competent in a variety of disciplines, including revenue, marketing and capital planning.

Our customers–both internal and external–have very high expectations, and the ability to effectively respond to both sets of customers is a challenge that requires me to evolve myself and is often full of surprises. It is often the most rewarding part of the business as well.

Emerson: Can you give an example of something that was important in shaping your philosophy of a great theme park experience?

Mills: In the early ‘90s, while I was working as the manager of Adventure Island, we had an evening chamber of commerce event after a long Saturday. I remember I was helping to pull trash when I was called on the radio that some guests wanted to see the park manager. I made the assumption that I was going to meet with people whose expectations had not been met. I was wrong. Two sets of parents wanted to share with me the positive impact I had on their children, who were both Adventure Island team members. Needless to say, it was a highlight of my career and reinforced the reason that it’s important to lead and not manage.

Emerson: What would be an example of leadership vs management?

Mills: Let’s say it is a typical summer day at Busch Gardens Tampa. You will find me in the field helping the team serve our guests whether it’s with a pan and broom or some other capacity. Relationships are critical to being an effective member of a team that has such diversity. The best way I have found is to not ask anyone to do anything that you are not willing to do yourself.

Images: kind courtesy Busch Gardens.

See also:
Alan and the Whales: Theme park design & animal attractions for Busch Entertainment

Theme Parks: Busch Gardens Tampa, an Interview with Bill Street, Director of Education and Conservation
Theme Park Design and Project Interruptus – David and Linda Smith of Smithink, former Busch Entertainment execs, carry on
Amusement Parks: Busch Corp.’s Themed Entertainment Legacy in St. Louis

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