Busch Gardens' Donnie Mills: On staying competitive, hinting of new Sesame Street area
Wake up and good morning. Donnie Mills, 51, runs Tampa's Busch Gardens, part of the Anheuser Busch InBev giant (InBev bought AB) headquartered in Belgium. He's settling back into the job as park general manager after the global economy squeeze put his plans to build Busch theme parks in Dubai on the back burner earlier this year. (Photo: Melissa Lyttle of the St. Petersburg Times.)
Mills spoke recently to the Orlando Sentinel on the park's performance and expansion plans. Here are some highlights:
* On how things are going this summer: Like a lot of theme parks, and just leisure entities, if you will, we're seeing a little bit of softness in volume. Not bad. And more "staycations" -- we're seeing a mix of our guests that's a little bit closer to home. So a few less tourists, domestic and international tourists.
(Venture note: How competitive is the theme park business this summer? General Electric, parent of NBC Universal theme parks including Universal Orlando, says attendance dropped in double digits in the second quarter.)
* On plans to add a new Sesame Street area to the park: We're not ready to make any formal announcements on Sesame or anything else, but you're correct in assuming that there are things in the hopper and announcements to come in the not too distant future.
* On making Busch Gardens stand out from bigger theme parks in Orlando: We have such a wonderful mix here. We're a world-class zoo with great animal habitats and fun but also educational experiences for our guests. As you know, we consider ourselves to be the place for roller coasters in the state of Florida. We're not the only ones who have them, but we think we have the best grouping, the best inventory of coasters — led by SheiKra, of course. And then on top of that we have some wonderful, wonderful world-class shows. So a combination of those three things and — like a lot of theme parks do, particularly in the state of Florida — we think we package them real well in a wonderful, safe, quality environment.
* On starting at Busch Entertainment Corp. in high school 35 years ago: I was 16 and a junior at King High School here in Tampa. My first job was a weekend job parking cars in the parking lot. I'll celebrate 35 years with the company this October. I've had the opportunity to be assigned to and work six of our 10 parks, and this is my second opportunity to work here in Tampa.
* On sharing career tips: Relocation is a wonderful learning tool. I went from Tampa to San Diego to Williamsburg back to Tampa, in the process working for six of our parks. Every time you relocate, I think it's a great opportunity to inventory yourself. And we all have things we do well and things we need to do better. Each time I've relocated, I've tried to leave behind some of the things that I don't do so well and go forward with my strengths. So I think relocation is a great tool. Every time, I've learned valuable, valuable lessons.
* On having a favorite park: Well, Tampa’s home. So Tampa is certainly a soft spot. But my time in Williamsburg for two reasons: I met my wife Norene and that’s where I was fortunate enough to become a general manager some seven years ago at this point.
-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist