New Busch Gardens president promises guest-centered approach

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David Cromwell’s work always has been about people, whether it’s the SeaWorld guest passing through the turnstile, a Water Country patron slipping down Colossal Curl or a community leader in Chula Vista, home of the Aquatica water park he opened in California.

Now, as the president of Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA, Cromwell said he hopes to foster a guest-centered culture at the parks and strengthen their partnerships locally and statewide.

“A great experience can differentiate us from others, and I want to be part of shaping that culture,” Cromwell said.

David Cromwell became president of Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA April 1, 2016. (Kirsten Petersen/ WYDaily)
David Cromwell became president of Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA in April. (Photo by Kirsten Petersen)

Cromwell, 36, was born and raised in San Diego, and has spent his entire career working in theme parks. His first memory of visiting a theme park is from the third grade, when he saw the Shamu killer whale show at SeaWorld.

Parks career began at Sea World

He recalls having a connection with the animals, but he did not set working with animals as a career goal. Rather, he envisioned himself working with people and, “as luck would have it,” Cromwell said, he landed his first job after high school in the show area at SeaWorld.

“That seemed to be a really ideal fit,” he said.

Cromwell worked at SeaWorld throughout his college years, later transitioning to work in park operations. He envisioned working for the company long term and making an impact as a leader, but it was an IT internship in 2003 that sealed the deal.

During the internship, Cromwell acted as the operations and guest “voice” for technology that would be used for a new guest-arrival system at SeaWorld. He said it was rewarding to see the technology deployed when he served as a supervisor and later as a manager of guest arrival at the park.

He quickly climbed the ladder at SeaWorld, being promoted to vice president of operations in 2008. But after 13 years on the “SeaWorld side,” Cromwell said he was ready to dive into a different element of the theme park business – water parks.

Specifically, he wanted to become more of a generalist, as his focus had been on guest-facing services and park operations. He wanted to do more work with hands-on experiences that could be shared by guests, as opposed to “passive” experiences like watching a show.

“The interactive element is what appealed to me and got me into water parks,” Cromwell said.

First stint in Williamsburg began in 2010

He applied for an opening in Williamsburg and became vice president of Water Country USA in 2010. He worked at the park for three seasons before returning to San Diego to open the Aquatica water park.

Witnessing the collaboration between Water Country USA and Busch Gardens was an “invaluable experience,” Cromwell said, adding, “When both parks work together to create a compelling experience for our guests, that to me really stood out.”

Working at Water Country captivated him professionally and personally. Williamsburg “quickly felt like home,” Cromwell said, noting how easy it was for him to relate to residents and how much he enjoyed working with park employees.

When the opportunity came to return, Cromwell took it. He applied for the role of park president, which previously was held by Carl Lum, now the president of SeaWorld San Antonio.

“This feels a lot like coming home,” Cromwell said.

Since starting the job on April 1, Cromwell has focused on outreach with park departments, meeting one-on-one with senior leadership and hosting roundtable breakfasts with frontline leaders.

His philosophy? Take care of the team and they’ll take care of the guests.

“That’s the best way,” Cromwell said. “No meeting or presentation can give you the type of feedback you gain from talking to team members and talking to guests.”

Cromwell describes himself as a collaborative leader who aims to surround himself with people who can provide good input. He called himself an “avid listener” who focuses on the parks’ past and present to “craft where we’re going.”

At Busch Gardens, events will be the “key to success” going forward, Cromwell said. He touted the park’s strong event lineup this season, which includes kid-friendly programming, the Food & Wine Festival and a new stage show, “All For One,” inspired by The Three Musketeers.

“There’s not a new coaster every year, but events are a strong component of our success going forward,” Cromwell said.

Cromwell confident he’s not too young to lead

Water Country USA  is “poised for success,” he said, adding that he will focus on “smart investments” at both parks in the near term.

Cromwell doesn’t plan to limit his work to the parks. He said he will reach out locally, as he did in Chula Vista, seeking opportunities to engage the community.

“Carl (Lum) did a wonderful job of being an advocate for the destination and he created great partnerships,” Cromwell said. “I’m looking forward to furthering that, strengthening those relationships locally and at the state level.”

At 36, Cromwell may be perceived as being too young for the top job. But after working in various roles in theme parks for half of his life, he believes his track record of leadership shows he is prepared for the responsibility.

“The age piece just fades away if you can demonstrate strong leadership skills,” Cromwell said.

And youth in a park president has its perks – Cromwell is the father of two young children who, he said, offer unbiased feedback and help him experience the parks “as a dad.”

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