On Episode 19 of the ITPS I’M4FUN podcast, Dennis Speigel takes a step back in time to take a unique and insightful look into the foundations of the industry, and the important milestones that make it great. Two longtime industry veterans join Dennis for this entertaining conversation about how the industry emerged, what it has endured, and what achievements and accomplishments have given it the foundation it stands on today. Jim Futrell, historian, author, and recipient of IAAPA’s Outstanding Service Award, and Tim O’Brien, award-winning photo-journalist and the only journalist inducted into the IAAPA Hall of Fame, join Dennis to share their insights on the industry’s history and its bright future.
How did you get your start in this industry? What was your first job, and why did you end up choosing this industry?
Tim O’Brien: My first real job in the industry was as Managing Editor of Amusement Business (AB) magazine in 1985. I had always been excited about the kinetic energy, the colors and the smells of the carnival and park industries and had written several stories and taken hundreds of photos of both before I started AB.
Jim Futrell: I am a little different in that I never took a regular paycheck from the industry, rather I best describe it as a hobby run amuck. But my involvement really started when I moved to Pittsburgh. I had a passion for amusement parks and Kennywood was and is one of my favorites. I started to get to know the people in management, who appreciated my passion, in particular Carl Hughes. In 1992, Harry Henninger and Carl Hughes hired me as a historical consultant for their new Lost Kennywood area. That was my first paying gig. Around that time, I also got to know Tim O'Brien, who was actually referred by Kennywood. That got me into freelance writing, the occasional consulting assignment and my involvement in IAAPA.
What would you say was the single biggest change you have seen in the attractions industry during your career?
Tim O’Brien: The loss of mom and pop laid back properties to the corporate, bottom-line oriented parks. It was inevitable but sadly executed by a couple of the big park chains.
Jim Futrell: For me, it’s the rise of the investment banker. They looked at the attractions as investment vehicles first and the special businesses we know them to be second. I think most of them agree, by and large, it has been a negative thing.
What was your immediate reaction when Covid hit the industry, and what do you feel the long-term impact will be in terms of impact to attendance and perception of our attractions?
Tim O’Brien: I don’t think the perception of our attractions will change. They shut down “on the top” with no issues and a good run of safety and fun so as they reopen, people will still feel good about them and have a pent-up desire to visit. My immediate reaction when all the parks were told to close down was sorrow in that some of the smaller ones may never be able to gain the momentum again and suffer drastic financial losses.
Jim Futrell: As it was spreading, I was looking at Disney as I figured the rest of the industry would follow their lead. So when I heard Shanghai Disney was closing I thought this was pretty big. Once the entire industry shut down and slowly began reopening, I was concerned about the attractions that were not able to reopen and if we would lose any attractions. I think we are lucky that the industry was in such good shape going into the pandemic or else the damage could have been much worse.
What did you miss most in 2020?
Tim O’Brien: Carnival and park food.
Jim Futrell: The IAAPA Expo.
What advice would you give a young person who wanted to make this industry their career?
Tim O’Brien: Get a good general education and while you are doing that, get into a major park’s intern and/or management program and learn from them. With a good all around education and some good, strong park knowledge and experience, you should be able to pick the park you want to work for.
Jim Futrell: When I first became interested in the industry in the 1980s, pretty much everyone I spoke with told me they only way to get a career in the industry was to get a seasonal job at an attraction and work your way up the ladder. There really wasn't that large and robust supply chain at the time. Today there are hundreds of companies supporting the industry and IAAPA has career development programs. So look for opportunities beyond the attractions. And what I would offer to someone looking to break into the industry is follow your passion, be willing to make sacrifices and consider the broader industry and its supply chain for opportunities.
Jim, where do you see the hot spots globally for the attractions industry’s continued development?
Jim Futrell: I think there will always be opportunities around the globe for well capitalized operators who find a niche in the market. But as far as hot spots you want to look at the emerging economies with a growing middle class that will have disposable income. The Persian Gulf region is something as an outlier as there is a concerted effort to build a global tourist destination. But I look to Eastern Europe, and there is some fascinating stuff going on in Poland, India, and Vietnam.
Tim, you have covered not only the permanent industry, but also the OABA and showmen’s associations. How do these differ in terms of how you covered their activities?
Tim O’Brien: The showmen are very family oriented and remain so to this day. The whole showman community, even as competitors stuck up for each other and shared the delight of owning a business whose main purpose was to bring smiles to people’s faces.
International Theme Park Services, Inc.
2195 Victory Parkway
Cincinnati, Ohio 45206
United States of America