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King of the thrill

After SheiKra, what's in store for the always-changing theme park?

By MARK ALBRIGHT
Published August 14, 2005


Since Walt Disney Co. opened Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando seven years ago, Busch Gardens' attendance has been mostly flat to down. Confronted with a new rival that also blended animals, shows and rides, Anheuser-Busch Cos. quietly countered with the biggest buildup of remodelings and new shows and attractions in the history of its Tampa park. The construction binge was capped in May by the splashy opening of SheiKra, the first so-called dive coaster in North America.

Now, as the first summer of SheiKra nears its end, staff writer Mark Albright talked last week with Dan Brown, executive vice president and general manager of Busch Gardens, whose 30-year career with Busch Entertainment Corp. began when he was parking cars at the Tampa park as a college kid.

Thrill rides like state-of-the-art coasters can boost theme park attendance as much as 10 percent. Has SheiKra done the job?

It's working. Our attendance is up ... a lot. We had one weekend washed out by the threat of hurricanes in July. But attendance bounced back within a day or two. We are very confident now that the halo of SheiKra will last two or three seasons. The ride is not even on the radar screen in many markets, so we can get a lot more mileage from it.

Do you ride it?

I make a point of riding at least once a week. My favorite spot is the center seats of the back row. You get more air time there and you can see the reactions of other people. You know it's a good ride when people get off the ride and get right back in line. We've had people say they have tried every seat to pick a favorite. That means they've ridden it 23 times.

What's your cutest SheiKra moment?

When (Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach) Jon Gruden, who is one of our passholders, held a preseason press conference in Orlando and said one of his star players had a "SheiKra Day' at practice: "First it was scary. Then it was over the edge. But by the time he actually got into it, it was really great."

Internal rumblings say next on the new attractions agenda is an animal habitat next year, one that includes a home for the orangutans that were displaced by the reconstruction of the Stanleyville area. What is next?

Our planning process has multiple projects being developed at the same time. We have not decided to pull the trigger on what we'll do next year. It could be nothing, but you do need new things in this business to keep people coming back. I want to bring the orangutans back in the park. No question. We are proud of our world-class animal presentations and looking for ways to enhance them. We've got a few people arguing for another coaster, but we strive for a balance of attractions and shows. It's been five years since we redid the Veldt so we may put a ride system there. We want to continue to freshen the park and its infrastructure like we did with SheiKra and Stanleyville.

Any thoughts of ditching the Python? It will be 30 years old next year. Despite the original slogan "I Challenged the Python and Lived!" a lot of people thinks it's pretty lame these days.

You know, when the Python first opened, corkscrew coasters were the latest thing. People had never gone upside down in a coaster. It really shows you how difficult it has become to impress people with rides. Most parks have taken out their corkscrew coasters. Sure, we've thought about getting rid of ours. We're probably not going to expand the footprint of the park anytime soon. So we look at the oldest assets first in choosing what to freshen up.

How about Adventure Island, the water park? You haven't done anything there in many years.

It is time to put something new there. You'll hear more in a couple of months. Stay tuned.

Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World developed fast-pass systems to help people avoid the long lines at top-tier rides. How about Busch Gardens?

A lot of people ask that question, so I think we probably will. We do a manual version of fast pass for Rhino Rally on peak days. But we only have three or four attractions that have really long lines to justify it. The longest are right after the park opens as people rush to the three or four most popular rides. The lines for them are much shorter later in the day.

How did you get in this business?

I didn't really have a life plan when I was 20. Theme parks were an emerging industry back in 1974 when I got a summer job in college running the Gold Rusher coaster at Magic Mountain in Los Angeles. It was a runaway mine train ride. I got the theme park bug because it's a lot of fun. I like to say I work where others vacation. The following summer I moved to Tampa to go to school. I got a job parking cars at Busch Gardens. The part-time job became full time. The school became part time until I got my degree years later. I worked my way up the ranks. I drove the tram, the monorail and Sky Ride and worked in the culinary department. Eventually I became vice president of operations for Busch (Entertainment Corp.) in St. Louis. But I really missed the parks.

What's changed in the past decade?

Since 9/11 we've become more reliant on pass holders and local residents. So we've had to come up with new innovations and events to get them to visit the park more often and in the offseason. Our Howl-o-Scream has grown to an event that goes on for 17 nights. It's almost a year-round planning process now. We do a lot of the work in-house, but we have turned to outside contractors who do nothing but build mazes and haunted houses. You need new ones and a new theme every year. Our popular big band series was a way to get older pass holders to come to the park in cooler weather days. This year we added a pop and country music concert series that runs through May. The Saturday before Halloween now is one of the our biggest attendance days of the year. So the concert series that once covered a few weekends, now will be part of a permanent program that goes from January through May.

The domestic travel market remains vibrant and the British tourist market has rebounded because of a favorable exchange rate. Anything else new on that front?

We saw a nice bounce from Latin America this summer and particularly school groups from Brazil and Argentina. We hope it will grow back to large numbers from those markets that we have not seen here since the mid 1990s. We're investigating now whether to spend more marketing money there.

The theme park industry has generated a lot of publicity in the past two years over park accidents and ride safety. Does the theme park industry have a perception problem with rides' safety?

I don't think so. Tens of millions of people have ridden thrill rides and the industry's safety track record continues to be very good. Theme parks remain one of the safest forms of all entertainment. I cannot speak for other parks. But we do not walk a tightrope between safety and letting our guests put themselves at risk. Safety is first here, bar none.

Sometimes all the computerized safety devices stop these new coasters without explanation. The sensors in Kumba once shut down the train because one rider's pocket change slipped out to become embedded in a plastic wheel. All that means people have to be evacuated, a process that can take a long time. Any thoughts?

It is very important we take our time when we have to evacuate guests. With SheiKra we added a regular stairwell from one brake point and a trolley system people can ride back down the lift hill because it is so steep. The longer we operate a ride we learn its intricacies and adapt our safety procedures.

We've had to evacuate SheiKra a couple of times, but for nothing serious. We run in fail-safe mode. So the sensors shut down the ride if they sense anything less than perfect running condition. Any trains on the track will stop at the next brake point or on the lift hill. We have sensors that know if even one seat harness is not latched. The ride won't start until it's fixed. Some of the proximity sensors can react even to a hard rain or a bird flying by. We don't always discover what caused the computer to shut a ride down. So we run a couple of empty trains through to make sure it was a false read before we let guests ride again.

Some other parks have been quicker to use new technologies to create rides that are faster, taller and take people closer to the edge than the rides at Busch parks. Some use induction motors and accelerators to defy the rules of gravity. Busch's coasters all rely only on gravity. Why has Busch lagged behind in that respect?

We're a family park. So we don't build rides that are so aggressive only a small group of people want to ride them. Some of those technologies like induction motors we really like. But they are like hybrid cars. We want to see a few more years of them before we invest in them.

Did you always think you would be a theme park executive?

No. I dreamed of being a professional golfer. Then I found out I wasn't good enough. One of the things that first brought me back to Florida as a student was the chance to play golf here. Now I only play maybe five times a year.

After SheiKra was up and running you slipped off for a family vacation. What were the highlights?

I took my family back to my old stomping grounds in California. We drove up the Pacific Coast Highway from L.A. to San Francisco, then Napa and Lake Tahoe. It took nine days. My daughter is a huge Jeopardy fan. We saw a taping of the shows that air Oct. 3, 4 and 5.

- Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or 727 893-8252.

[Last modified August 14, 2005, 10:40:41]


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