It’s been a big couple of weeks for news in the theme park business. The largest annual convention in the industry – the IAAPA Expo – returned to Orlando earlier this month after going virtual last year due to the pandemic. Six Flags kept its CEO carousel spinning, replacing its chief executive after just two years. Disney Parks, Experiences and Products Chairman Josh D’Amaro dropped a bunch of announcements at the Destination D23 fan event at the Walt Disney World Resort, including more Downtown Disney changes at the Disneyland Resort.
But the most significant change came at Universal, where Universal Parks & Resorts President Tom Williams announced that he will retire early next year.
Williams is an industry legend. During his more than 22 years running the Universal parks, Williams has overseen the expansion of Universal’s Orlando property into a world-class resort, the opening of Universal parks in Japan, Singapore and China, and, perhaps most importantly, the acquisition of theme park rights to the Harry Potter franchise, which has driven record attendance and revenue for Universal.
He did all this while Universal was being passed through four different corporate owners: Seagram, Vivendi, General Electric and now Comcast. Williams provided the steady leadership that allowed the parks division to make smart decisions that laid a strong foundation for Universal’s current and future success in the theme park business.
Heck, during the time that Williams was running the show at Universal, Disney has had half a dozen different leaders running its theme park segment.
In addition to securing the rights to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, under Williams Universal also obtained theme park rights to Nintendo. The Mario franchise is the biggest video game franchise of all time and ranks among the top entertainment intellectual properties in the world. The pandemic has kept international visitors from experiencing the Super Nintendo World land that Universal Studios Japan opened earlier this year, but a version of that land is under construction now on the Lower Lot at Universal Studios Hollywood.
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But Universal has not just been amassing outside IP. The company leaned into original storytelling with its Volcano Bay water theme park in Orlando, which also pioneered the use of virtual queuing for all of its attractions.
Though he is based in Orlando now, Williams’ roots lie in California. A graduate of Cal State Fresno, Williams started with what was then known as the Universal Studios Recreation Group more than 50 years ago as the Vice President of Hotels and Restaurants for the Yosemite Park & Curry Company. From there, he moved over to the theme parks to run the new Universal Studios Florida. He worked as President for the Universal Orlando Resort before taking over at what is now Universal Parks & Resorts in 1999.
IAAPA enshrined Williams into its theme park industry Hall of Fame in 2015. He will be succeeded by Universal Creative President Mark Woodbury, as Universal looks to continue its well-earned success.