With the focus on fun and customer experience, a career in theme park management is sure to have some thrills and spills
A theme park manager has a broad remit and is responsible for every aspect of the day-to-day running of a theme park. This includes key functions, such as:
- managing the customer experience
- strategic planning and development
- monitoring health and safety
- overseeing the park's finances
- staff management.
You'll propose and implement strategies to constantly improve customer satisfaction and park development. Additionally, you may also oversee or take sole responsibility for the marketing of the park in order to generate business. You'll be involved in all areas of the park, including rides, retail and food and beverages.
Theme park managers may also be known as guest experience managers, rides and operations managers or attractions managers.
Large theme parks may have departmental or assistant managers, each with their own levels of responsibility. Their work will be overseen by the general theme park manager.
In a small park, the manager may perform a broader range of functions and have fewer assistant managers to delegate work to.
Parks within commercial groups or chains may differ considerably from independent parks. Some theme park managers may also operate hotels, which are based within the grounds of the attraction, as part of their remit.
Tasks vary according to the setting, but typically include:
- planning and implementing strategies to achieve constant improvements in visitor and employee satisfaction
- keeping abreast of developments in the industry, both internal and external, such as changes in legislation
- overseeing the effective application of health and safety regulations and risk assessment to ensure a safe environment for park employees and the public
- setting budgetary and financial strategies
- project managing general park developments, including ride design
- liaising with contractors, e.g. for the installation and integration of facilities
- dealing with human resources and personnel
- understanding local community issues and building relationships with local government and external partners
- maintaining a critical oversight of marketing functions
- monitoring competition.
- Few graduates start in management roles, with most entering at a lower level. As an operations manager, you can expect to achieve a starting salary of around £17,000 to £22,000.
- With experience, and once in a general management role, salaries are in the region of £22,000 to £40,000. This is dependent on the size of the park and location.
Small, family-owned theme parks may offer lower salaries than larger, corporately owned parks. Larger parks may offer additional benefits, such as health insurance, a pension scheme and discounted/free passes to parks.
Income data from the Hospitality Guild. Figures are intended as a guide only.
Your hours of work will regularly include unsocial hours. During opening times, working hours are usually flexible and will include evenings, weekends and bank holidays.
Most parks tend to be open from Easter until October/November and then close for a period during the winter for maintenance work and the installation of new rides and attractions.
What to expect
- The job may be stressful. Managers work under pressure in a busy, noisy, fast-moving and highly-competitive environment. They must ensure that the park is attracting sufficient numbers and achieve consistently high standards of customer service and safety. Tight project management deadlines are a regular feature.
- Managers are accountable for financial performance and the safety of employees and the public. They are tasked with maximising profit with no compromises in safety.
- Most theme parks are located in the countryside or near seaside resorts and can be found throughout the UK and Europe. In many areas of Europe, particularly new or expanding tourist destinations, new theme parks are being developed, especially water parks. Safety regulations vary between countries, so some retraining is needed for work abroad.
- Many UK, European and international parks are corporately owned, often by groups with a chain of parks or facilities, including hotels.
- There may be occasional travel within a working day, for example to other attractions within a group.
- Overnight absence from home and overseas travel are uncommon.
You do not need a degree or HND to become a theme park manager but qualifications in one of the following subjects may be useful:
- facilities management
- hotel and catering or hospitality management
- leisure, travel or tourism management
A postgraduate qualification in leisure and recreation management, marketing, financial management, human resource management or business may improve your chances, although most employers stress the importance of practical work experience over academic qualifications. Search for postgraduate courses in leisure management.
You need to show evidence of the following:
- flexibility in order to cope with the varied demands of the work and the constant need for innovation
- the ability to motivate staff
- sound business acumen
- leadership skills and the ability to delegate
- sound judgement
- commercial initiative
- excellent communication, time management, planning and organisational skills
- marketing skills
- energy and resilience
A high degree of technical competence and computer literacy may be required, as many of the rides are controlled by sophisticated computer programs. Knowledge of engineering can be useful. It is also likely that you will be required to have a first aid qualification.
Having some customer service experience, whether in theme parks or a related area is crucial. Proven management experience, preferably within the leisure industry, is also looked for by employers.
You should learn as much as possible about the industry. Apply for seasonal work, either speculatively or through advertised positions. This experience can be vital; if you make a positive impression and contribution on a short-term seasonal contract, you may be recruited into a permanent position.
Smaller, privately owned parks may recruit seasonal staff for vacancies with greater levels of responsibility, while larger parks sometimes have a variety of positions on offer. Some international parks also offer summer placement schemes specifically for undergraduates. This may involve two to three-month or sandwich placements, offering the opportunity to gain invaluable experience and make contacts in the industry.
It is unlikely that you will get a management position without experience and you will need to start in non-management or assistant/departmental management posts.
The tourism market can be dependent on the general economic situation but the leisure industry has expanded over the past decade.
Considerable diversity and competition exist in the industry with a constant need for innovation and novelty to ensure that visitor levels are maintained and increased.
One of the world's largest leisure groups is Merlin Entertainments Group Ltd . It offers a two-year graduate management programme and manages a portfolio of brands and attractions including:
- Alton Towers
- Chessington World of Adventures
- the Dungeons
- Legoland parks
- the London Eye
- Madame Tussauds
- Sea Life Centres
- Thorpe Park.
It also owns and manages several attractions overseas.
The commercial or private sector is made up of some very large operators, as well as a large number of smaller companies.
Parks may be focused on rides and sideshows or, increasingly, as themed experiences with rides forming only part of a visit. These kind of parks may have a range of on-site attractions including visitor centres, museums and zoos. Many larger parks also incorporate guest accommodation and hotels, often in line with the theme of the park.
As well as the individual theme park websites, look for job vacancies at:
- British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions (BALPPA)
- Hospitality Guild
- Leisure Management
- Leisure Opportunities
Recruitment agencies rarely deal with vacancies, although headhunters may handle senior positions.
There are only a limited number of management posts. Skills from other professions, such as planning, business management, accounting, HR management and marketing, are often highly relevant and create opportunities to cross over into theme park management.
Companies usually provide training in general management techniques and customer care across all areas of the park. Some larger parks also offer their own management development programmes and can provide assistance with further study and continuing professional development (CPD). Once in post, learning curves are often steep and fast-paced.
The schemes often offer quick progression to leadership roles. Check details with individual companies as certain degree subjects or class of degree may be required.
When entering theme park management, you can expect to be trained in the Fairground and Amusement Parks Guidance on Safe Practice, issued by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Other health and safety training is usually offered in order to maintain a legal standard for all visitors, contractors and staff.
Technological training may be offered to help managers involved in the design, installation, operation and integration of new rides.
Training in crisis management and dealing with the media may also be available as managers may be required to act as the company's spokesperson in crisis situations.
Training in skills such as planning, business and financial management and marketing and human resources management may also be available.
Some organisations operate to promote the interests of the industry throughout the UK, Europe and the rest of the world. These include:
Information on relevant qualifications, such as the Level 4 Diploma in Advanced Hospitality and Tourism Management, is available from:
- Hospitality Guild
- Institute of Hospitality.
Once in post, internal progression can be fast if you work in a large theme park. In a smaller park however, you may face a fairly flat management structure, and moving to a more senior level may call for a couple of sideways moves to broaden your experience.
Larger parks often have a team of managers with responsibility for different areas, such as human resources, accommodation and hotels, ride development, technical operations and retail.
Opportunities exist to specialise in such areas and then progress to general park management.
Some companies own several attractions and theme parks both in the UK and worldwide. Opportunities may exist for you to relocate and further your career development at another location within the organisation or to move between functions in group-owned attractions.
Promotion to middle and senior management is dependent upon your ability and, frequently, your geographical mobility.
There are some consultancy opportunities in areas such as ride development or certification.
The experience gained in theme park management will be useful to transfer to management roles in other areas of hospitality and tourism.