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Wednesday, Jun 7, 2023

Chief Thrill Rider

Neal Thurman has a thing for thrills. The Indiana native has spent the entirety of his career at theme park company Six Flags Entertainment Corp., beginning as a ride operator on Bugs Bunny World at Six Flags Over Georgia in 1995. After working his way up to a supervisor position, he headed off to Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom in 2003 to work as park operations manager, then director of park operations. He was transferred in 2007 to Six Flags Magic Mountain & Hurricane Harbor in Valencia, where he remained for seven years. He was then appointed president of Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio, where he also lent his industry expertise as a board member of the San Antonio Area Tourism Council and as commissioner of Visit San Antonio. From there, he moved to Jackson, N.J. to serve as president of Six Flags Great Adventure & Hurricane Harbor. As of January, he’s back in Valencia. Thurman sat down with the Business Journal to talk about his favorite rides, leadership skills and the key to overcoming roller coaster anxiety. QUESTION: How did you get your first job in the theme park industry? Answer: A radio ad. I was looking for a summer job one year and there was an ad on the radio that they were hiring at Six Flags and I thought, “That sounds pretty interesting.” So I went out and applied and interviewed and got hired, and, 23 years later, I’ve traveled all across the country to several parks and here I am at the thrill capital of the world. What did you learn from that early experience that you still use today? It’s really about service – taking care of people and making sure they have an incredible experience. That’s what I focused on as a ride operator, and frankly, I had a good time doing it. The opportunity to see a guest come into the park and have this incredible experience and realize that you were a part of a huge team of people that make that happen every day is pretty spectacular, and that’s what I do every day. It’s really not about me; it’s about the entire group of people that work at this park and throughout our company that make it happen every day. To have that focus on taking care of our guests was really what I took away from that first year. It’s a great thing to make sure that somebody has a spectacular day and walks away with a smile on their face. Did you ever expect to run a theme park? The third day (on the job) I met my supervisor. I asked him, “What do I need to do to get your job?” So to answer your question, I really wanted to move up. I didn’t necessarily think I’d be a park president – I don’t know that I knew enough my first year, but eventually there was a point that I thought this is something I really want to pursue and continue to move up. Right from the first day, I was interested in getting into a leadership role. What draws you to this industry? Easy answer: It’s the people who work in the industry and the guests who come visit us every day. The most extraordinary people I’ve ever met in my life work at Six Flags, and I can say that about a lot of our parks because I’ve worked at quite a few of them. They are just passionate and energy-filled … just the most incredible people. Every single team member that works in the park makes this happen every day, and they’re the reason I’m here. Title: Park President Company: Six Flags Magic Mountain & Hurricane Harbor Born: Election Day in 1976 in Atlanta Education: Webster University and Oglethorpe University Career Turning Point: Being promoted to supervisor at his first job as a ride operator at Six Flags Over Georgia Personal: Single; looking to buy a house in Santa Clarita Valley. Hobbies: Is an instrument-rated licensed pilot and loves to fly. What has changed about theme parks over the past 20 years? Obviously, there’s a big change here in L.A., with us going to 365 days a year. Providing thrills for guests every day is a change, and that’s really driven a lot by international expansion. We’re building parks in lots of parts of the world right now, and our brand has grown in the last few years. How have the parks themselves changed? Now, it’s about a whole brand-new area, like we created with the Steampunk District, Twisted Colossus and the Justice League ride. We create what we call “wow zones,” so you come into the park and it’s everything – it’s the culinary aspect, the retail opportunities, the games, the interactives, the thematic area and the attractions. We also do lots of events throughout the year, so there’s a reason to come visit us all the time. That has become a big driver in the industry. Why do you think parks have changed? A lot of it is driven on tourism, and people want a strong value for their dollar. At Six Flags, we deliver that more than anyone – we have our season pass, our all-season dining opportunities, our all-season flash and photo passes. What are some of the challenges facing the theme park industry? I think the theme park industry is really a very safe industry. A lot can happen in the world, but people still want to have an escape from that reality that’s happening and have this spectacular experience. What kinds of challenges come with a year-round schedule? It was a home run for us. It is a spectacular thing for our theme members – they get more hours and they aren’t having to look for a second job. We now become a career-oriented place. It’s early, and we really have no challenges. Staffing is great, our team members love it, our guests are having a wonderful time. We’re getting huge reviews from being open every day. It’s working very, very well. How do you help Magic Mountain stand out from the competition? We constantly revert back to innovation, and thinking about ways we can go one step further to stay ahead on innovation. For example, we were the first company to deliver virtual reality on a roller coaster and the first to deliver it on a drop ride. There are all kinds of things we’re doing to set the bar so that Six Flags leads the way. How do you expect parks to evolve moving forward? One of the foundations of Six Flags is innovation. We are constantly looking at what’s new, what’s out there, we’re creating those things. I think the sky’s the limit. I think there are a lot of great things coming down the road…we obviously plan years out, so we know there’s a lot of great things coming years from now. There’s lots of innovation happening, and will continue to happen as we grow. What excites you the most? It’s the projects we work on. It’s the ability to take an area of the park and redevelop it to give it new life. We have lots of projects coming down the pipeline that I can’t speak to yet that I’m very, very excited about and that I know our guests will be very excited about. What are you most proud of in your career? I’m lucky to have been part of lots of projects and I’m certainly proud of what we do, but what I’m proud of the most is the collaborative effort that involves so many players here at the park – and at our corporate office – that come together to work on these projects. It’s just an incredible, collaborative effort with some of the most talented people I’ve ever met. What was your favorite project? I have had the privilege of working on some exciting projects at a number of our parks, including the development of Gotham City at Six Flags Over Georgia, a nighttime spectacular show at Six Flags Fiesta Texas, the Justice League: Battle for Metropolis at Six Flags Great Adventure and our record-breaking coasters like Full Throttle right here at Six Flags Magic Mountain. What about seasonal attractions? My favorite time of the year is Fright Fest. One of my favorite projects was the creation and opening of Vault 666 and Red’s Revenge, two haunted attractions at Six Flags Magic Mountain. What made these projects so memorable is what makes all our projects stand out in my mind – it is the collaborative effort of so many of our team members. What was the biggest challenge about that project, and how did you solve it? Developing and opening Red’s Revenge and Vault 666 in the same year did pose some challenges; however, our team was unstoppable. What was the toughest decision of your career so far? There have certainly been tough decisions that any business person has to make. I’ve moved around the country quite a bit; I think leaving groups of people that I’ve worked with has definitely been a tough thing. I’m telling you, something is really special about the people who work at Six Flags. When you leave a group of colleagues to go work with a different group of colleagues, that’s always a tough thing to do, because they’re great people. What was your most memorable day on the job? There are several days that come to mind. But I was working at our park in Kentucky one day when this father and son were exiting the park. We were all at the front gate wishing people a good night, and this kid stops for just a minute and looks up at his dad. He says, “Dad?” And his dad says, “Yeah?” And the kid said, “That was the greatest day of my life.” That kid is going to have a lot of great days in the future, but that always stands out in my mind. What characteristics are most important in a leader? Patience, trust in people and the ability to set the vision, and what I say is “release the potential” – to let people go and do what they’re most talented at doing while giving them the tools to do the job, and to empower them to make a difference. Probably the most important piece of that is following up with “reward and recognize.” It’s not about coming after people who did something wrong – it’s really about identifying those moments where someone delivered something really special and making sure they’re really recognized for that. How many roller coasters have you ridden? Hundreds! A lot of people count, but I lost count a long time ago. What’s your favorite Magic Mountain ride? People ask me that all the time, and my answer is this: It’s hard to pick one. Twisted Colossus is phenomenal; I love to jump on Superman and go hundreds of miles an hour backwards. It is so hard to pick one ride. The beauty of my job is I can go out in the morning and jump on a coaster before we open and get to experience all of them. What would you do if you weren’t a theme park executive? That thought scares me sometimes when I think about it, because I have no idea. I probably would be in some type of service business because I love making sure we’re taking care of people and providing people a unique experience. But I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else. It is by far the best job in the world. Any advice for people who are terrified of roller coasters? Grab a friend and jump on a coaster. It is the most incredible experience – there’s nothing like it.

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