This offseason, Coaster101 wants to take you behind the scenes of the theme park industry and talk to some key personnel at various parks around the country, not only to find out a little more about their respective parks, but about them as well.
We’re starting this series with Mike Fehnel, General Manager and Vice President of Carowinds. Fehnel assumed his post at Carowinds this past July, after over 20 years in various roles at Dorney Park, where he was most recently the GM and Vice President.
While working at Dorney Park as a teenager, he met his wife, Tinsley, who he has been married to for 12 years. They have two sons, Carter, 7, and Thomas, 4, who Fehnel refers to as “the luckiest kids in the world.”
The Fehnel Family
C101: Tell us how you got your start in the theme park industry?
MF: When I was growing up I always felt I would be a teacher. The ironic truth is having summers off appealed to me… When I was 14 years old I applied to work in the Games department at Dorney Park because I always like playing the games at the park and my sister was working in the gift shops, thus I had a ride to work. This industry has an ability to really get into your blood, and after a few years in supervision at the park my career goal changed to wanting to be in management at the park, however I never in my wildest dreams thought my career would wind down the path it has. I’ve been very fortunate to have had the experiences and opportunities in my career.
C101: Can you talk about your time at Dorney Park, and how you worked your way from a Games Operator to GM?
MF: Working in management at the park, I was focused on growing my department, being innovative and continuous improvement. The department’s success stems from well trained and motivated employees, strong facilities and a product or service that interests the guest. I was always focused on improvement, and the departments grew. Over time I was selected to oversee additional responsibilities such as merchandise, food and admissions. Staying current on trends and improving guest and employee satisfaction helped me to be identified as a candidate to be a GM, and I was became focused on learning from my mentors within the organization. Working at Dorney Park I had the opportunity to work for a number of great general managers, such as John Albino, Larry MacKenzie, H. John Hildebrandt, Greg, Scheid, Jim Yeager and Jason McClure. Everyone has to develop their own style, and I’ve been blessed with great mentors to hone my own.
C101: Has there been any “culture shock” from moving to North Carolina from Pennsylvania?
MF: The first thing I did when I learned I was moving to the Charlotte area was to sell my snow blower! The Charlotte area is simply beautiful and my children will miss the snow, but are looking forward to year round outdoor activities.
Supervising Fury 325 Construction
C101: What’s an average day for you like in-season vs. the off-season?
MF: In season I like to arrive at the park early and make my rounds prior to the park opening. I feel it is important to check on the cleanliness and pre-opening maintenance in the park. Once the park is open the adventure is off and running. Hopefully my day isn’t full of too many meetings and I can spend time with our guests and associates.
The off season is full of meetings. We need to move on tasks for the next season earlier than I think anyone realizes. The off season is a very short window at Carowinds and we need to turn the page between seasons quickly.
C101: As Carowinds moves in 2015 and beyond, what is your vision for the park?
MF: With the launch of FURY325, Carowinds will be the thrill capital of the southeast. As we develop the park, we will continue to add attractions and experiences that will meet all of our guests needs. I also want Carowinds to become an incubator to develop future talent that can serve the amusement industry. We are partnering with local hospitality and tourism programs to provide internships to give real world experience to the future leaders of our industry.
C101: Cedar Fair recently opened a regional corporate office in Charlotte, and is bringing the tallest, fastest Giga Coaster in the world to Carowinds next year. What do you feel this says about Cedar Fair’s commitment to the Charlotte area and Carowinds specifically?
MF: The growth that Charlotte has experienced has made it a very important market for our company. The mild weather lengthens the season and helps to extend the ROI for projects. Charlotte is located in the sweet spot of the south, with proximity to the mountains and ocean. This makes Charlotte an appealing location for a corporate office as the location can be an attractive selling point.
C101: What do you feel is the most rewarding part of your job?
MF: I think the most rewarding thing in the industry is being a part of making memories. You never know when it will be a guest’s birthday or very first roller coaster. The memories made at our park daily will be relived for decades to come. I still remember being 3 or 4 years old and riding the whale boats, the scooter boats and the Whip at Dorney Park. It is a very important part of what we do.
Addressing the Crowd at the Fury 325 Announcement.
C101: What is the most challenging part of your job?
MF: The hardest thing is achieving work/life balance. This is not a Monday through Friday, 9-5 job. In the summer between the park and the campground there is constant activity at the park. It is easy to lose track of time but it is critical to get away.
C101: Do you have any advice for our readers on how to one day become a theme park executive?
MF: Regardless of your occupation, the most important part of moving up is to be indispensable to your manager. When you have a tough decision to make, go with your gut. You can always convince yourself to go right or left, but that feeling in your stomach is your body’s way signaling that you are going the wrong way. Do the right thing!
C101: One last question, what’s your favorite roller coaster, at any park anywhere in the world?
MF: This is an easy one! Millennium Force is hands down my favorite… as least for a few more months… 😉
Be sure to stay tuned to Coaster101 for our next profile!