Donnie Mills, 51, is executive vice president and general manager of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, which is operated by Orlando-based Busch Entertainment Corp. and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. He spoke last week with Sentinel staff writer Jason Garcia.
CFB: Busch Gardens has a big promotional push this summer in the Orlando area. How do you make your park stand out from the bigger theme parks here?
Well, we've always thought that one of the things that makes our park special, and to some degree — unique might be an overused, an incorrectly used word in a lot of cases — but that makes it somewhat unique is that 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.
CFB: How do you think the summer is going so far?
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 a little bit of change in mix — with the term that's been coined in the media, with "staycations," which I think is an accurate term in this case. 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. But overall, with these market conditions, volume hasn't been bad. And when we look forward ... Busch Gardens and Adventure Island, we're on track to meet our targets this year.
CFB: There are plans to add a new Sesame Street area to the park. What can people expect?
We're not ready to make any formal announcements. And part of that is, we have to pay homage to our internal processes. But like a lot of theme parks, I'm happy to tell you that there's always things in the hopper — concepts, ideas. Some of them are going to come to fruition, some are not. But I can assure you that Busch Gardens, and the Busch Entertainment family of parks, we're going to remain competitive. And one of the ways you do that in our industry is you have to refresh your products, you have to add new products. 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.
CFB: You got your start at BEC as a high-school student. What did you do?
I am 51 years old. I started when I was 16. I was a junior at King High School here in Tampa, and my first job was a weekend job parking cars in the parking lot. Since then, I'll celebrate 35 years with the company this October. But nearly 35 years later, 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.
CFB: Did you learn anything then that still helps you today?
I think 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.