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Tim's Turn - September 2016

An Unexpected Escort

Have you ever thought of something and wondered, “Where in the world did that memory come from?” An event, a song, or a news item often triggers a memory, and once it comes back, it usually leads you down a path you probably had warehoused somewhere in the back of your mind. That’s what happened to me this summer.

The first memory jog was a report about the Shamu issues and policy changes at SeaWorld. Flashback to 2004 sitting at a desk in San Diego. The second was the news about the long lines at TSA checkpoints that transported me back to the airport on Feb. 9, 2006. Confused? Read on, because those two random thoughts do lead to a very wonderful, somewhat bittersweet moment in time for me.

In 2004, I spent a great deal of the summer in San Diego interviewing SeaWorld founder George Millay, the only person who is in both the IAAPA Hall of Fame and the World Waterpark Association Hall of Fame. Those interviews with a very complex man resulted in his in-depth biography, “The Wave Maker.” He told me how he had negotiated terms to bring the original Shamu to SeaWorld and took a big part in naming her. George fought many battles during his lifetime, winning most, but the war with the cancer that plagued him for years was lost in February 2006.

The other spark of memory came from the stories about TSA and how strict the agency had become and how that caused long lines. (Here’s where the story starts to make sense.)

On that day in February 2006 as I was boarding my Southwest flight to San Diego for George’s funeral, I looked out the window and saw something that sent shivers up my spine. It appeared that George had sent Shamu to pick me up. The plane I was about to board was one of Southwest’s first themed aircraft. It was painted black and white to resemble an Orca. “Shamu” was emblazoned on its side.

As I boarded, I showed the flight attendant a copy of “The Wave Maker” and informed him of why I was going to San Diego, noting how serendipitous this was. I sat down and about 10 minutes later, I heard my name called over the plane’s speaker system with the request to come forward. As I approached, I saw a TSA agent standing there, and he pulled me aside. “Would you like to have your photo next to the plane?” he asked. “I have permission to take you down on the tarmac for a couple minutes and take your photo.”

Now I knew for sure George was involved. Who else could convince a TSA agent into letting me leave the plane, walk down the steps to the ground and under the plane, all while the airport was in full operation? The agent took the photo and I returned to my seat as the flight attendant told the rest of the passengers what just took place. We headed to San Diego.

I was asked to speak at his funeral service, and as I relayed this story, his wife, Anne, along with all those gathered, smiled and shook their heads. They understood. And yes, I truly believe it was George the entrepreneur who assisted me on that journey. He was always promoting the book. He sold three that day for me on that flight alone. 

Tim O’Brien is a veteran industry journalist and former vice president of Ripley Entertainment. A longtime Funworld contributor, he is author of several books chronicling the industry’s attractions and personalities.