David McKillips answers the phone from Texas, where he’s on-site at one of Six Flags’ eighteen theme parks across North America. He’s more than one thousand miles away from his New York office, but his tour is just kicking off. For the next thirty days, the senior vice president of in-park services is on the road with the entire management team to address many of Six Flags’ forty-five thousand employees face-to-face at annual town hall meetings throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico. “We really enjoy spending time in our parks and meeting with the full-time and seasonal leadership team members to get their feedback and ensure that we are fired up and ready to go for the upcoming season,” McKillips says. The excitement in his voice is tangible.
His team does indeed have a lot to be excited about this year. After emerging from bankruptcy in 2010, Six Flags entered a high-growth period under new management that ushered in a new phase of the company’s fifty-six-year evolution—a blossoming of creativity and expansion that continues to this day. “The current management group brought a whole new level of focus, thinking, and innovation,” McKillips says. “It’s incredible. We have had seven consecutive years of record growth.”
Part of this transformation is thanks to McKillips, who now oversees four divisions for all theme parks on the continent: culinary, retail, games and attractions, and procurement and purchasing. He’s currently trying to ramp up Six Flags’ brand loyalty by providing unique park experiences. For example, his team is launching a signature candy shop with the Coaster Candy brand, starting with the flagship Atlanta location. “This will be a fantastic guest experience,” he says. “We are going to bring theater to the candy experience, making our homemade caramel apples, fudge, and treats right in front of you.”
Another project that thrills the leader of in-park services is the implementation of an interactive imaging program at the theme parks. “Having a picture or a memory from your day’s visit is so important right now, and our guests want to share these memories quickly and easily,” McKillips says. “Our guests are always taking their own selfies in the park, and we wanted to complement—not compete with—their smartphones.”
Now, Six Flags will self-operate the traditional front gate, character, seasonal, and ride photos that, in four parks currently, are seamlessly integrated into the Six Flags app. Guests can scan a code on the spot to download selfie borders and post to social media. An imaging innovation center will also include green-screen technology, augmented reality, and shareable video experiences. By increasing investment in innovation, McKillips aims to include self-serve kiosks in restaurants and mobile ordering technology, too.
McKillips says insight is the motivating force behind these positive changes. “Our senior leadership makes it a point to listen to our guests and our employees,” he says. “We talk to them face-to-face, we exchange e-mails, and we do extensive research to stay abreast of what is happening in each of our parks. It really helps me stay in touch with what they are thinking and feeling about the business.”
McKillips is conscious of each rung in the industry not only because of that constant communication, but also because of his personal experience. Twenty-five years ago, he started working in the operations department at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, cleaning up trash around the dolphin community pool area. “I really enjoyed being in an environment that is focused on making people happy,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is absolutely what I want to do. I want to work in entertainment.’” He moved around into sound engineering, catering, promotions, and
marketing until he had pretty much done every job at the park.
So he transitioned to Sesame Place in Pennsylvania, where he promoted the Sesame Street-themed park for two years before what McKillips describes as his big moment. When he attended the promotional expo in Chicago, he heard a presentation about the power of superheroes given by DC Comics senior vice president of promotions Joel Ehrlich. McKillips—who cites Batman and Plastic Man as his superhero favorites—knew he wanted to work for him. So, McKillips introduced himself and said he’d love to work there someday. Ehrlich called him and said they had a sales position. Although he never thought he would be in sales, he leapt at the opportunity.
For nearly a decade, McKillips worked in advertising and promotions for the comic book juggernaut in New York City. DC Comics—known for its iconic characters, including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and the Green Lantern—offered McKillips the chance to move up the ranks. He became the associate publisher of the company’s humor title, Mad magazine, and then ultimately was promoted to the position of vice president of advertising and promotions for all of DC Comics.
His full-circle moment occurred in 2000, when McKillips developed a comic book map for Six Flags in partnership with DC Comics, since the parks feature thrill rides titled after characters in the DC Universe. He sold advertising and promotions within the comic book map and established a great relationship with Six Flags. Then, the management team changed in 2007, and the company asked McKillips to join Six Flags to help form a new partnership group. “I thought it was an incredible, exciting opportunity to combine both facets of my career,” he says. “I had theme park experience, which I loved, and I had experience working with the DC superheroes properties, which I loved, and now I could do both.”
McKillips jumped aboard and created the Six Flags media networks, the sponsorship arm of the new management team that would introduce a new era of company growth. “We have a lot of fun,” he says. “We created incredible corporate alliances with great brands such as Coca-Cola, Cartoon Network, and M&M’s. We also worked with all the movie studios. I was involved with all of the negotiations and partnership discussions related to intellectual property incorporation and creating the programming that aired on Six Flags’ in-park TV network.” McKillips’s team has also brought in retail brands and in-park restaurants, such as Johnny Rockets and Cold Stone Creamery.
For eight years, McKillips expanded the partnership group to drive revenue and promotions. Then this past year, he switched from the sponsorship sales team to his current role heading in-park services. “My job is to complement that incredible experience our guests have on our award-winning rides with a great experience in our restaurants, retail locations, and games,” he says. “I’m looking at trends throughout all of entertainment, dining, and retail, and thinking about how we can approach the business dynamically in each one of those areas.”
In terms of the number of outlets and meals served, Six Flags is more or less a top one hundred restaurant in the United States, according to McKillips. That means that food and beverage innovation is key at the biggest regional theme park company in the world. He considers all the details, from line speed to menu management, to build strategic efficiencies. “We also make every effort to regionalize our concepts, especially around food, because the flavor profiles are a little bit different depending on what market you are in,” McKillips says. “For example, if you live in Northern California, you may have a burger with avocado and bean sprouts, while in New Jersey your burger is topped with bacon and cheese and even Taylor Ham.”
Six Flags expands its operating season past the primary summertime season with year-round events, featuring specialty menus and themed attractions. Mardi Gras
celebrations are taking place this spring at Six Flags Fiesta Texas and Six Flags Mexico. The company also is home to the largest
Halloween event in the theme park industry, Fright Fest. The company is expanding its footprint even further with its Holiday in the Park program, an immersive wintertime experience currently in nine parks with millions of twinkling lights, snow hills for sledding, holiday-themed shows, and seasonal flavors such as red velvet funnel cake.
“These signature events are so much fun not only for our guests, but for our employees as well because we get to play in all four seasons. We want to introduce new treats and experiences each spring, summer, fall, and winter,” McKillips says. “We want people to get excited about coming to our parks. Come for the rides, but stay for the total in-park experience.”