There are plenty of changes afoot at Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa. • Blackstone Group's SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment is the third owner of the former Anheuser-Busch Cos. park in three years. • It recently opened a new Sesame Safari kids play area, and the Katonga stage show closes this fall after an eight-year run. Now construction is under way on a kangaroo exhibit and the waterfall part of Rhino Rally was closed without fanfare to make way for a new thrill ride in 2011. • The Times talked about all the changes last week with Jim Dean, 52, who recently took over as the park's new general manager.
You recently acquired the park's first collection of baby Australian kangaroos and wallabies for a new animal encounter. Is a themed home for them what's being built in the bird garden?
Yes. It's going to be something we do very well: create immersive and interactive experiences with animals. It's part of refreshing the oldest part of Busch Gardens to make it more appealing to young families like we did nearby with Sesame Safari. We're keeping the bird show. We'll have more details before the new attraction opens this summer.
You're due in 2011 to launch your first new thrill ride since SheiKra opened five years ago. Is that the reason you're relocating pathways to create a back-door entrance to Edge of Africa and rebuilding the railroad track at Nairobi Junction?
A thrill ride is next in the cycle, but we're still working out the final details, so we'll be able to talk more about it later in the summer. We're famous for creating combinations of animals with one-of-a-kind rides like the Manta Coaster at SeaWorld, but I'm not going to comment on all the speculation.
We also improving access to give more exposure to Edge of Africa, with more pathways that will open up that side of the park. One thing leads to another in these sorts of projects, so to be ADA compliant we had to raise the railroad track by 4 inches. We'll have the train running again by June.
What's the first month's response to Sesame Street Safari and your offering free admission to Florida kids as old as 5 if registered online?
We distributed tens of thousands of tickets already. Every Sesame Street character show is packed, and the kids' reactions to Big Bird, Elmo and Cookie Monster are priceless. We had to go back and fashion a stroller parking lot. It fills to 70 fast.
You grew up in a working-class family in Memphis, working through high school and college at Sears. How did you get here?
After getting an industrial engineering degree, I moved to St. Louis to work in aerospace at McDonnell Douglas. I went to Anheuser-Busch after getting an MBA in finance because I figured theme parks would be a lot more fun and I'd probably progress quicker.
After working as executive assistant to the CEO of what were then two Busch theme parks, I moved to finance at Busch Gardens in Tampa, then as chief financial officer at Sesame Place near Philadelphia. It was a small park, so I could do a little bit of everything and learn how a theme park works. I headed finance at Busch Gardens in Tampa.
How about the five years you were chief financial officer on the beer side of AB's European operations?
We really loved living in London, and I got to work a lot with August Busch III (who headed the fourth generation of the Busch family brewing dynasty). But representing Anheuser-Busch in 44 countries as far away as Dubai required a ton of travel. This was before the euro, so think of accounting in all those currencies. Budweiser had less than 3 percent of the European market, so it was tough; we sold one case at a time, one barrel at a time, one pub at a time.
How did you get back to the theme parks?
After two years as controller of the U.S. beer division, I volunteered when I heard they were moving the theme park headquarters to Orlando and it was apparent AB was being sold. I oversaw finance and retail/culinary for all the parks until I was offered my dream job in Tampa. It's our eighth move in 25 years.
So, has anyone asked if you were named after James Dean?
You are hardly the first. I was born about the time Rebel without Cause came out, so I asked my mother. She said there was no connection. It was just the first name to come up.
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.