An Interview with VP/GM of Kings Dominion, Gary Chadwick
Here at Coaster101, we enjoy taking you behind the scenes and talking with people help who make your favorite theme parks run like clockwork. This interview is no different, as this time, we’re talking to Kings Dominion’s General Manager and Vice President, Gary Chadwick, or “Chad,” as he prefers.
Originally hired as a summer international intern at Kings Dominion in 1999, Chad has served as the GM/VP of the park for just over a year now, and took some time to talk with us about his time working in the theme park industry, his inspirations, and some of his day-to-day life as the GM/VP of Virginia’s Premier Themed Amusement Park.
Gary Chadwick addresses the crowd at the 100th Anniversary of Kings Dominion’s Carousel. Photo: Bo Corbin/@CoasterPhotog
C101: For our readers who might not know, tell us a bit about yourself.
Chad: I’m originally from England, and that’s why I have the strange accent. I came over as part of the International Exchange Program with CIEE [Council on International Educational Exchange], who we still work with today. That was about 15 years ago. I came over to Kings Dominion for a summer experience, and I really loved it. I started as a cashier, and did three summers back to back, kind of working my way up, coming back to do mostly the same area, in retail, different roles each time.
After I graduated college, I went traveling for a year. Took my backpack and some credit cards — filled those up — and had a great time. I saw Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand. I met some lifelong friends and had some pretty amazing experiences. Then, a job opened up here at Kings Dominion as the full-time Merchandise Operations manager. They called to see if I was interested and I told them ‘yes, I have some credit cards to pay off, and I’m definitely interested.’ (laughs). I had my first phone interview while sitting on the floor of a youth hostel in Byron Bay in Australia. And then the rest is history. I came over several months later, and have been in the U.S. ever since.
C101: As someone who started in the inaugural year of Kings Dominion’s international program, what does that program mean to you as it continues today?
Chad: It’s very important to me. We couldn’t operate without all of the international associates that we have now. I think it’s so valuable, not only for our staffing, but for the experience that the international associates get to have, as well as the domestic associates who get to be associated with all of the different cultures and people they perhaps would never meet from countries they would perhaps never get to visit. So, it’s very important for us to remember how much it brings to the park and the experiences that we have.
C101: Do you have any mentors or inspirations in the theme park industry?
Chad: I think Pat Jones has always been one that I worked alongside, as well as Richard Zimmerman. Since my first days at Kings Dominion, Richard was the General Manager of Kings Dominion, and Pat Jones was the Vice President of Retail, and I’ve kind of followed both of their paths very much in my own career. I would say that they’re the ones who I continue to respect, look up to, and look for leadership and being mentors.
C101: What’s the first year as a VP/GM been like for you?
Chad: It’s been so easy! (laughs) It’s a challenge, but its new, and I love a challenge anyway. You have to just change what it is that you’re looking at, to be a wider scope, and try to avoid getting into all of the specific details that I normally would have dealt with. Looking at the bigger picture, looking at the future, trying to keep everybody motivated, as well as developing a culture that is “me.” Not saying that anything was good or bad or wrong before, but there’s always different leadership styles, different management styles, different visions. I think it’s been challenging but very rewarding. It’s a great job.
C101: What’s the biggest difference between living in the Richmond area v. Charlotte area?
Chad: Charlotte was very new, and still developing, and I think that there was a lot of growth for both people and businesses moving into and opening in the area, which is very exciting. There’s a great “unknown” ahead of you, which is exciting, but still unknown. It’s not necessarily something to be excited about because you don’t know what’s going to happen. Here, it feels like home. This is where I moved my life to. I left England to come live in Richmond originally, so this is perhaps more familiar to me and it’s not as rapidly changing. They both have great qualities, but I’m a little bit more established here than I was in Charlotte. With as much time as I spend at the park, the area around me usually doesn’t make that much difference.
— Gary Chadwick (@ChadwickGary) April 16, 2017
C101: What is your favorite “hidden gem” at Kings Dominion?
Chad: The Moon Tree. It’s a small gem. We have a tree at the park, located behind the Eiffel Tower, that was first grown in its infancy on the moon, and then planted here at the park. I didn’t actually find out about it until I came back last year. So, the other five years I was here beforehand, it went completely unknown to me. It is actually a tree that was grown on the moon. We had a plaque made this year so that everyone else can share that gem.
C101: You were a merchandise and games manager at Kings Dominion for a few years. Do you have a favorite theme park game (and strategy to win?)
Chad: Ooh. Bank-A-Ball. And the trick with the Bank-A-Ball is to throw backhanded, with the back of your hand facing up, and you flick your wrist to make the ball go high, and it needs to come down as straight as possible. That’s the trick the win, it’s got to be coming down as straight as possible, and just basically just bounce off that board. Now everyone in the industry is going to hate me! (laughs)
— Gary Chadwick (@ChadwickGary) July 14, 2017
C101: As a General Manager, what’s an average day like for you in-season vs. out-of-season?
Chad: Feet up, kicking back, relaxing (laughter). Generally, it can be anything, and that’s what I love about the job. The day is going to be a few meetings, a couple of conference calls, the planning of potential announcements, as well as some planning for the future, but being in the park with the people today. It’s different from a seasonality, in the winter, we’re definitely more office-based, and focusing more on budgets and capital planning, recruiting, hiring, training, and trying to make ourselves better for the following year. And then it’s about experiencing that, and being in it, and taking care of everything that needs to be taken care of when we’re open.
C101: What’s your vision for the future (2018 and beyond) at Kings Dominion?
Chad: I told a lot of people this year that this is the year for momentum. We are starting something new. It’s not that we’re rebuilding the park, but we’re perhaps changing our focus and putting the foot on the gas. There’s a lot of plans and excitement in my head — as many people will tell you I can think pretty big. But we have to control that with how we execute the plans and how we spend the money. There’s a lot of things that I want to add, perhaps adjust or make better, anything from the entry experience, to the water park and its layout. There’s a lot of things, but at the end of the day, it’s about the people. The first thing that I have to really try to focus on is ‘What is our culture and are we taking care of each other and the guests?’ From there, it’s about the growth in the market and how we present ourselves to the market. And we had a great year, and we’re excited that we’re leading the charge on a lot of new programs a lot of new things next year.
C101: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?
Chad: Working with Katelyn! 😉 [Sherwood, Kings Dominion PR Manager, who joined us for the phone interview] (laughter) – You can put one of those winky faces next to that so everyone knows it’s a joke. [Author’s Note: Winky Face included.]
The most rewarding…it’s changed a little bit over the years, but one of the most constant things is seeing the associates be successful. And then the other part is smiles — I talk a lot about smiles here, so much so that people probably frown (laughs). We’re here to provide smiles — for the guests, for each other, for the associates on the team. That’s what we’re here for. It’s about fun, but fun isn’t always easy, so we just have to keep that in mind.
C101: What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
Chad: The unknown. The things that you can’t plan for. If a guest has an issue in the park, and there’s no way we could have prepared for it or known about, and then having to try to make that better. It’s the most challenging to try to take away any bad interaction or bad experience, but I feel as though we do a very good job of that that. How do we make something right when we couldn’t have foreseen it in the first place? Thinking on our feet, and getting everyone else to plan ahead. That’s hard work.
C101: Do you have any advice for our readers on how to one day become a theme park executive?
Chad: Don’t give up. When things don’t go right, don’t dwell on that, just get back up and think about another way to do it. I get told frequently by my managers that I’m too pushy, and other people say don’t stop pushing. You have to find that fine line of not going too far, but going far enough.
C101: The last question we ask all of our interviewees – what’s your favorite roller coaster at any park, anywhere in the world?
Chad: It’s got to be Volcano. And I will say that Fury 325 is a close second. I will give Carowinds that shout out, and I’m being genuine.
Thanks to Chad for his time. For a behind the scenes look at Kings Dominion, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Instagram! And if you’re not already, be sure to follow Kings Dominion on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!