People of the Attractions: Rising Through the Ranks to Design Thrills
Like many Central Florida high school students, Mike Denninger got a summer job at a theme park. It turned out to be a life-altering experience. More than 33 years later, he’s still working for the same company.
“What I get to do is remarkable and amazing,” Denninger says, explaining his long tenure. “It’s hard not to love it.”
The executive VP of attractions and capital development began on the front lines in Winter Haven, Florida, as a Cypress Gardens host for four years. In the early 1990s, the venerable park was part of Busch Entertainment Corporation, the forerunner of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. Shy as a child, Denninger says that the job captivated him and brought him out of his shell. In addition to setting him on his career path, he met his wife at Cypress Gardens.
Adept in math and science, Denninger pursued engineering in college. As luck would have it, he was able to land a student internship in the drafting department at sister park Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Fate intervened again when a position opened in the park’s design and engineering department as Denninger was wrapping up his degree. He had a hand in projects such as the inverted coaster Montu and the Edge of Africa animal exhibit, along with less glamorous assignments such as gift shop updates and infrastructure improvements.
Denninger says he later became the company’s “corporate ride guy,” managing projects such as the development of the original Aquatica in Orlando and SeaWorld San Diego’s Sesame Street-themed land.
I first met Denninger in 2016 when I got to ride SeaWorld Orlando’s rollicking hyper coaster, Mako, with him just before it opened to the public. Like me, he was clearly thrilled to be riding the airtime-filled beast, but the engineer in him was also eager to share the track layout details that help make the ride so compelling.
Now overseeing future development at the chain’s parks, Denninger says that Mako illustrates the company’s process.
“You see the sharks, you learn about the sharks,” he says about SeaWorld’s Shark Encounter. Then you become the shark, furiously racing over the water aboard the coaster. “The truly great attractions are the ones that engage you and tug on your emotions. That’s what our guests expect–and what they deserve.”
With a strategy of opening something new at every park each year, Denninger and his team stay busy with major rollouts such as B&M’s new Pipeline: The Surf Coaster at SeaWorld Orlando and DarKoaster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, one of three Intamin-designed rides Denninger will open in 2023. He hints that there are additional compelling attractions in the pipeline. And, more than three decades after first donning a nametag, he loves the industry more than ever.
“Come on,” Denninger enthuses. “It’s roller coasters, right?”