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Event Recap - May 2017

Mind-Opening Experiences

Sold-out IAAPA Leadership Conference 2017 brings industry together in Southern California

Reporting by Jeremy Schoolfield

Photography by Robert Benson

Inspiration came in many forms during IAAPA Leadership Conference 2017, held March 8-10 in Southern California. The event drew 196 participants from more than 20 countries, who traveled to one of the hotbeds of the attractions industry to learn from experts in the field—and from one another.

“One of the great things we get from Leadership Conference is the time you have with other operators and suppliers to discuss things you can’t do anywhere else,” said Philip Wilson, executive vice president of Extreme Engineering in Athens, Texas.

The conference’s theme was “Be Inspired,” which played out across keynote presentations from Bob Weis of Walt Disney Imagineering and Mike Konzen of PGAV Destinations. Attendees then visited six attractions in the area, where leaders from each facility shared insights with the group before leading participants on exclusive educational tours. 

“All of the facilities laid out their welcome mats for us,” said 2017 IAAPA Chairman Greg Hale, vice president and chief safety officer for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. “It’s great to spend time with each other and learn from each other as you’re touring these attractions behind the scenes.”

“Coming here has really opened up our minds—not only through the talks, but the practical experience from the tours,” added Stella Khumalo, CEO of uShaka Marine World, Durban, South Africa. “Every leader in any theme park should participate in this event.”

IAAPA Leadership Conference 2018 will travel to Japan (dates and facilities TBD); until then, here is a recap of the sold-out event in Southern California.

Imagineering Inspirations

As president of Walt Disney Imagineering, Bob Weis is inspired by Disneyland itself, one of the hosts for Leadership Conference. “All of what we know of Walt comes from his work here,” he said during his address to open the event. “We at Imagineering are stewards of Disneyland. We don’t own it—the guests do.”

This philosophy was put into practice during the creation of Shanghai Disneyland, which Weis oversaw. That is particularly true in the new “Pirates of the Caribbean” attraction, which is the first of its kind at any Disneyland in the world to be inspired by the entire pirates franchise, rather than the original attraction in California.

“We had to respect the tradition of the attraction, but, in many ways, reinvent everything about it,” Weis said. “It would have been easier to just duplicate ‘Pirates,’ but we ended up with something that helps advance all of our businesses, so we’re excited about that.”

On the flip side is Disneyland Paris, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. For that property, Imagineering is going back and refurbishing existing attractions, adding some special new touches that will make them feel new and, oftentimes, different, “in a completely fresh way.”

“A big part of our challenge is not necessarily always adding new [attractions], but keeping the magic alive all the time,” he said. “The audience notices.”

Speaking of, Weis is continuously inspired while in the parks and seeing how guests respond to the environments. Citing Cars Land at Disney California Adventure as an example, Weis marvels at the way guests just like to stay in that part of the park.

“That is the difference between a great space and not,” Weis said. “Not only do people want to experience the attractions … but they just want to be there. They go there just to be at Disneyland—it’s like going to Central Park. It’s their park, their place.” 

Culture Creation at PGAV

Honoring people was the subject of the second main address during the Leadership Conference, as PGAV Destinations Principal and Chair Mike Konzen shared nine ways his company cultivates a creative culture.

“Curating a creative culture is about leading people’s hearts, understanding what their needs are, and helping them find the passion that drives them forward,” he said.

1.   Let It Happen: “When someone comes to you with an idea, don’t immediately put up your shields.”

2.   Have a Mission: Define what you are about.

3.   Make a Difference in the Community: As one example of this philosophy, PGAV works with children in its hometown of St. Louis to teach them architecture. “You get so much more back than you give,” Konzen said.

4.   Play Together: As an example, PGAV regularly has Nerf-gun wars in its office to help build camaraderie. “We’re in a creative business, so if you’re not playing, you’re probably doing something wrong,” he said.

5.   Be a Family: “Your people spend so much time together, they should care about one another like a family.”

6.   Everybody Can Have Good Ideas: Getting creative work done requires multiple perspectives, and PGAV strives to have no silos when it comes to ideas.

7.   It Takes All Kinds of Leaders: “You can never have too many leaders, and there are an infinite number of ways to lead. All we had to do was encourage that. Everyone feels empowered.”

8.   Share Stories: Every quarter, PGAV employees get together to share stories about their work, to enjoy and encourage the act and art of storytelling.

9.   Life Is a Journey—Encourage Exploration: A PGAV program gives employees $1,800 each year to use for personal growth in any form they choose. “As designers, the best thing you have to work with are your life experiences, so we encourage that,” Konzen said.

Disney California Adventure

Leadership Conference participants received an exclusive look at Disneyland’s sister park, Disney California Adventure, which underwent a massive renovation earlier this decade. The newly defined park now celebrates California as Walt Disney found it when he arrived in the 1920s, while simultaneously honoring Disney’s continuing legacy through new attractions.

“While Walt was a creative genius and a visionary, success did not come easily. I’m inspired by the fact that Walt learned tough lessons along the way, but he never gave up,” said Mary Niven, senior vice president, Disneyland Resort operations. “It is important for us to find the balance between offering new things while also celebrating some great successes of our past. We’re all inspired by Walt’s foresight, passion, and relentless pursuit of quality.”

Attendees had a chance to experience several new attractions during the conference, including “Radiator Springs Racers” and “Soarin’ Around the World.” Participants were also taken into the control room for the park’s nighttime spectacular, “World of Color.” 


Reinforcing one theme of the conference was Knott’s Berry Farm, which over the past five years has sought a balance between innovative new attractions and restoring classic rides. During the Leadership Conference, attendees experienced several classic attractions at Knott’s that have received significant recent refurbishment, including Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant, the “Calico Mine Ride,” and the “Ghost Rider” wooden coaster. Attendees also learned about Knott’s live-entertainment and retail offerings.

“We are constantly looking for ways to evolve experiences for our guests, while improving the attractions our guests have come to cherish,” said Jon Storbeck, vice president and GM of the park. 


Aquarium of the Pacific opened in Long Beach less than 20 years ago, but it’s already reinvented itself as a hybrid tourist attraction and educational facility—and it’s about to undergo yet another massive refurbishment. The aquarium spent $27 million over the past decade expanding its offerings, including new education facilities, an outdoor multipurpose venue, a high-end retail shop, and several new exhibits. These improvements resulted in a 50 percent attendance increase. Now the aquarium is looking to capitalize on that momentum with a 27,000-square-foot expansion that includes completely redoing its front entrance as part of a $53 million project called “Pacific Visions,” set to open in 2019.

During Leadership Conference, attendees were given guided tours of all the new amenities the aquarium has to offer, including a look behind the scenes at the facility’s largest tank.


The Queen Mary, a retired ocean liner docked in Long Beach, California, since 1967, showcased its diverse array of entertainment options during the Leadership Conference, and shared plans for its dynamic future. Attendees learned about the attraction’s education program and hotel operation, and were able to tour a good portion of the ship. They even received a taste of the Queen Mary’s Halloween event in an exclusive just for IAAPA participants.

Hotel Manager Paolo Domingo also shared the Queen Mary’s plans to diversify and extend its entertainment offerings, most notably through on-land event space and attractions, including a Ferris wheel. 


Great Wolf Lodge Southern California opened in 2016 in Garden Grove, just a short drive from Disneyland. Donning wolf ears, Leadership Conference participants received an exclusive tour of the new “cruise ship on land,” including the resort’s massive indoor water park, its retail and food and beverage operations, and the pump room, among others.

“What makes Great Wolf Great Wolf is our culture,” said GM Philip Cunningham, who taught the crowd of attendees how to give a good “howl” to start the day. “We are not afraid to do whatever job we need to do to help our guests.” 


Three executives from different departments at Universal Studios Hollywood provided Leadership Conference attendees with insight into the park’s “epic transformation” over the past five years. These improvements included several new attractions, most notably The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Senior Vice President of Technical Services Glen Connally said it’s been an adjustment growing from “a boutique park”; he said the key is focusing on standard processes, ensuring things like maintenance schedules are as efficient as possible. Sheldon Duncan, vice president of marketing strategy and insights, said the park has also had to find a balance between hyping the Wizarding World and maintaining attention on its backbone attraction, the Studio Tour, because “not everyone comes to the park for the same reason.”

Senior Director of Operations Scot Burklin said the park is extremely choosy when it comes to staffing, even as it drastically increased its employee base during the expansion. Referencing the Wizarding World specifically, he said he looked for a balance between enthusiasm for the Potter brand and aptitude for practical operations: “You can have a beautiful land, but it’s won or lost on the employees.”