International Entertainment's His Game
by Andi Stein
It’s a typical day at Hong Kong’s Ocean Park – cable cars whisk patrons up the side of a mountain to the top of the theme park, affording them stunning vistas of the South China Sea along the way. Brightly dressed clowns on stilts beckon giggling children onto a helium balloon ride. A crowd gathers at the sea lion exhibit, as park patrons eagerly await the daily feeding.
This is the scene that greets Ocean Park Chief Executive Tom Mehrmann,’83 (B.A. psychology), as he makes his daily rounds through the Hong Kong-based theme park. Ocean Park is Mehrmann's latest step in a journey that has taken him to five different theme parks on three separate continents.
Mehrmann began his theme park career as a sweeper at Knott’s Berry Farm at age 16 while attending Buena Park High School in the late 1970s. At the time, he couldn’t imagine working in the theme park industry long-term. His plan was to attend college and pursue a career in dentistry or another professional field. But after a brief stint at USC, Mehrmann decided he wanted to be closer to home and transferred to Cal State Fullerton as a psychology major.
“I have good memories of Fullerton,” he says. “I enjoyed the campus very much. It was very convenient – it was easy to get to school, easy to get to work, easy to balance the two.”
While Mehrmann never expected to make a career out of his work at Knott’s, in the years following Walter Knott’s death in 1981, he says, life at the park began to change. Knott’s administrators began identifying employees within the park who had shown the discipline and commitment needed to help the park grow and guide the company into the future. By that time, Mehrmann had been working there for nearly six years and easily fit the bill. He was gradually promoted over the years – from sweeper to guest relations staff member to park services supervisor to manager of ride operations. “Things fit together very nicely,” he explains.
As a result of his hard work, in the early 1990s, Mehrmann was tapped by Knott’s to help the company launch its Camp Snoopy amusement park in the brand new Mall of America shopping center in Bloomington, Minn. The mall was the largest shopping center in the United States, and the Camp Snoopy theme park was to be its centerpiece.
Mehrmann’s three years in Minnesota helped prepare him for the next phase of his career. In 1994, he returned to Southern California as director of park operations and entertainment for Knott’s Berry Farm. At that point, he says, he was “ready to get back into my roots and take on the whole park.” Simultaneously, some of the people he had recruited during his earlier tenure at Knott’s had also moved up into management. Together, he says, “we took the park to new heights.”
But in 1997, the third generation of the Knott family sold the theme park to Ohio-based Cedar Fair L.P., and after 21 years at the park, Mehrmann knew the time had come to move on. At that time, the Six Flags Corporation, another major amusement park chain, was undergoing significant expansion. A phone call from Mehrmann to the Six Flags CEO resulted in his being hired to overhaul what was then the Marine World/Africa USA Park in Vallejo, in 1998.
As vice president and general manager, Mehrmann implemented a $160 million capital improvement project that “literally converted that park overnight from a 700,000-person to a 1.7-million person park.” The park was eventually renamed Six Flags Marine World.
It had become clear that Mehrmann possessed a keen talent for developing new projects and breathing life into old ones. Based on his success at Marine World, Mehrmann was invited by the head honchos at Six Flags to take on his first international venture: a property in Madrid called Warner Bros. Movie World. Mehrmann had studied Spanish in high school and college and felt that the time was right to tackle an international assignment.
“I jumped right in,” he says, spending the next few years supervising the design, construction, and opening of the park. He stayed from 2000-2004 when his contract expired and was getting ready to move to another Six Flags park in San Antonio, Tex., when he got a call from a headhunter about a job opening to head up Ocean Park in Hong Kong. At that point, he and his family had lived abroad for four years, and they weren’t quite ready to return to the U.S. In addition, he says, the nature of the work appealed to his sense of adventure and challenge.
“I was brought in to define a master plan for the park. I couldn’t pass this opportunity up. I had watched this park develop over time. It was a good opportunity to make a shift of companies,” he explains.
Ocean Park is a marine theme park that combines traditional amusement park rides such as roller coasters and Ferris wheels with animal shows and attractions. The park features a dolphin and sea lion show, shark aquarium, jellyfish exhibit, walk-in aviary, and four giant pandas, two of which recently arrived from China. As a nonprofit organization, the park also is known for its animal conservation efforts, Mehrmann says.
What makes the park unique is its location. Ocean Park sits on a mountain overlooking the South China Sea on the outskirts of downtown Hong Kong and is spread out over three levels. A cable car transports patrons from the lower level on one side of the mountain to the core of the park at the top, while a long, winding escalator brings people up from attractions on the other side. It is by far one of the most unusually designed theme parks in the world.
At the time Mehrmann was hired in 2004, Ocean Park had just celebrated its 25th anniversary. One of his challenges was to revamp the park’s offerings to enable it to compete with the Disney Company’s newest venture, Hong Kong Disneyland, which was slated to open in 2005.
Mehrmann was charged with the task of identifying how to make Ocean Park complement the Disney park rather than compete with it. This was a challenge he felt very comfortable with after his 21 years at Knott’s Berry Farm, working down the road from Disney’s Anaheim park. He succeeded in revitalizing the park to the extent that the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland in late 2005 had minimal impact on Ocean Park.
In 1999, when Disney announced that it was coming to Hong Kong, Mehrmann says, some people thought it was over for Ocean Park. Instead, he “gave a vision of the future. The park was in deficit numbers when I came,” he says. Ever since, “we’ve had four years of record-breaking attendance, revenues and surpluses.”
For Mehrmann, working in the theme park industry offers many rewards, both personal and professional.
“What I love about it is that there is no routine. Every day is different. It’s a constantly changing environment. Every day we can make a difference” he says.
Mehrmann walks the park daily to see what is going on beyond his office walls. He likes being out in the park because it gives him a chance to interact with guests and employees. One challenge is that he doesn’t speak the local language – Cantonese – and often relies on staff members to help him out.
Anyone who wants to work in higher management in a foreign environment “has to go into it with a high degree of patience, tolerance for ambiguity, and the ability to communicate in non-verbal ways,” he explains. That is part of what makes him so comfortable on the job – his ability to adapt.
Another factor that has fostered his success has been his commitment to managing change. In the last two years, Mehrmann has overseen the creation of a master redevelopment plan for Ocean Park to the tune of $5.5 billion Hong Kong dollars – the equivalent of $780 million U.S. dollars. The plan involves transforming the park over a six-year period, growing it from 35 to 70 rides, shows, and attractions and doubling the employee base from 1,500-3,000 workers.
Drawing upon the resources of people from within Ocean Park as well as a team of international consultants, Mehrmann spent his first years at the park developing this master plan, presenting it to the Hong Kong government, and securing approval and funding for the park’s expansion. Now, nearly four years later, construction is underway.
Mehrmann’s goal is to get staff involved in the project at every level.
“Everyone is part of the future. We’re developing talent in the park,” he says, trying to identify “who are our star performers to grow in the company? We’re growing our talent from within,” he explains, much as the leadership of Knott’s Berry Farm did in cultivating Mehrmann’s own talents.
“I have a lot of good managers. I try to bring some leadership to the equation and get them to see they can make a difference in the daily work, with the guests, with the animals, with conservation messages.”
Despite the massive expansion planned for Ocean Park, which will bring significant changes to the landscape of the park, Mehrmann steadfastly holds on to a lesson he learned while at Knott’s.
“A park has to be relevant to the culture it serves,” he says. “As communities become more international, theme parks have to make sure their relevance remains intact.”
This approach has helped Ocean Park stay competitive with Hong Kong Disneyland. The opening of Disneyland could easily have led to the end of Ocean Park, he notes. Instead, “We have stood tall in the face of unbelievable competition. I guess you could say we won the battle.”
The theme park industry has grown in leaps and bounds within the field of entertainment in recent years, as technological innovations and a growing emphasis on leisure have enabled the field to expand in many directions. In addition, the development of formalized educational programs such as the entertainment studies program in the CSUF Department of Communications now offer a multitude of opportunities for individuals wanting to pursue management careers in the theme park business and other entertainment venues. For those interested in these careers, Mehrmann offers some advice.
“You can only learn so much in the classroom,” he says. “You’ve got to get out there and do it. Get experience. Take time to work in hotels, theme parks. Be prepared to wash dishes, clean up after animals. Don’t come in as a graduate thinking you’re ready to run the company. Experience means a lot. Learn from the bottom, earn your way up.”
As Mehrmann himself has proven, with the right experience and a lot of hard work, a future in the industry can be a bright one.
Mehrmann’s wife Diana (Hayer) ’84 (B.A. business administration-marketing), and two teenagers, Katelin and Andrew, have enjoyed this multicultural amusement ride along with him and have adapted well to living abroad. Overall, he says, it’s been a great adventure.
“I love what I do,” Mehrmann says. “I like being an agent of change. I enjoy being around people, seeing trends, and applying them in an entertainment environment.”