By: Eric Wright
“Our parks appeal to multiple generations. That memory, that shared experience, is what this business is all about, which is why I got into it to begin with and what keeps me motivated to ensure it happens again and again.” – Bill Davis
On a typical Saturday morning, after finishing administrative duties in his office, Bill Davis visits the parks dressed typically in a golf shirt and shorts to see how things are working. For the president and chief operating officer of Universal Orlando Resort, that does not necessarily pertain to the rides running smoothly, transportation arriving on time, the lines moving at a predictable pace, or the retail venues bustling with activity.
Of course he is monitoring those things, but the real question is: Are people having experiences they will share and remember for a lifetime? Davis usually does not survey guests; instead, he watches faces and family interactions. “Our parks appeal to multiple generations,” he said. “It’s a common bond and experience people of all ages can share together. That memory, that shared experience, is what this business is all about, which is why I got into it to begin with and what keeps me motivated to ensure it happens again and again.”
Davis reflects on one of Universal’s most ambitious and successful additions, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
“We were creating an immersive experience for people who had read one or all of J.K. Rowling’s books. Many grew up right along with the characters or had seen them in the movies. I’ll never forget watching people when it opened back in 2010. They started arriving at 5 a.m., and the line stretched back through CityWalk. It was remarkable. Some had tears in their eyes; others were just overcome with emotion. We wanted to take people into a place that existed only in their imagination, and I think we’ve done that.” Their newest venture, Volcano Bay, is the next iteration of this creative approach.
He points to an experience he had visiting Sea World in San Diego in the 1960s with his girlfriend (now wife), Becky. During that visit he thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to work in a business like this?” Of the millions who ponder that idea every year, Davis actually went to work at that same attraction eight years later. It began a career that would take him to the epicenter of the theme park universe and the pinnacle of one of the most innovative and fastest-growing destinations of its kind in the world.
Memories that Last a Lifetime
Universal Orlando Resort, the marquee theme park and resort, is part of a network of destinations with locations in California, Japan and Singapore, with plans for a new location in Beijing. Universal Theme Parks, a part of NBCUniversal, which, in turn, is a division of Comcast, is headquartered in Orlando and operates its theme parks and resort properties around the world. It all started as a studio tour back in 1916, where people could go behind the scenes to see how movies were made. In 2014, the global company hosted more than 40 million visitors.
In spite of the size and scope of the resort, Davis is still inspired by what drew him into the theme park industry in the first place. “One of the things I discovered when I first went to work in this industry, which has been repeated on a much larger scale here at Universal, is the ability this industry has to make a connection with people and provide memories that last a lifetime. To see the wonder on kids’ faces when they first see Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley for the first time, and to watch their parents experience it with them is priceless. To be a part of the incredible team that makes that happen is very special,” he explained. “When families share experiences together, it gives them a frame of reference and connection I’ve had with my own kids and grandkids.”
The industry started with attractions that featured a variety of rides, shows and specialty stores. It has evolved into the creation of mesmerizing lands that people interact with, moving them from simply being the audience to providing a new level of meaning and engagement.
Taking it to the Next Level
When Davis came to Universal in 2006, the theme park was already on the journey towards more immersive experiences. Chairman Tom Williams and the creative team led by Mark Woodbury had a vision for creating The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. He believes he was fortunate to be there as the idea moved from vision to reality.
“Some thought it was inevitable,” he said, “but they don’t realize just how groundbreaking this concept was. Potter was the perfect intellectual property to be the prototype for making this captivating new reality. The environment, the rides, the retail items, the planning and detail staggers the imagination. It was a creative tour de force.”
Davis said they have a history of taking things to the next level. The leadership at NBCU and Comcast not only support Davis and his team, but they also keep encouraging them to move forward, which has made for a great relationship.
The latest example is taking the water park genre and propelling it into the stratosphere with Volcano Bay. At the center of this new park, which opened this year, is the 200-foot Krakatau Volcano. It can be seen from Interstate 4, complete with cascading waterfalls that plunge into the Waturi Beach wave pool.
“I’ll never forget watching people when it opened back in 2010. It was remarkable. Some had tears in their eyes; others were just overcome with emotion. We wanted to take people into a place that existed only in their imagination, and I think we’ve done that.” – Bill Davis
The way Universal has accelerated their development Davis compares to an experience he had while in the Air Force and having the opportunity to fly in a fighter aircraft. He remembers cruising along and the pilot saying, “How about if I kick in the afterburner?” He did, and their speed doubled in about a second. That is the only way he can describe what has happened since 2010 when they opened Harry Potter, and there is no slowdown in sight.
“We went from one theme park when we opened in 1990 to an integrated resort with 5,600 hotel rooms, with more being planned and by our count, 25 new experiences in recent years, including attractions like Skull Island, Reign of Kong and Race through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, along with themed restaurants and hotels,” Davis said. “Our aim is to encourage people to not just visit, but to spend a wonderful week’s vacation.
Beyond the Boarders
Amazingly, Davis not only takes the time to provide management by influence at Universal every Saturday, he is also deeply involved in the community, having served as the former chair of Visit Orlando and continuing today on their executive committee.
“We have a great company, but there’s a larger world out there called the hospitality and tourism industry, which is bigger than all of us. George Aguel has done a fantastic job, and we all have to participate because making this the premier destination it is can’t be accomplished by any single one of us. The competition is just too great,” he emphasized. “We’re the largest employer and taxpayer in Orlando, so we have to be involved.”
However, his affinity and enthusiasm for Universal shines through. Describing the interaction he had with students at the University of Central Florida Rosen School of Hospitality, he said, “If you’re young and you like this business, you want to be in the United States. You also want to be in Florida, not California, New York or Nevada. Though there’s nothing wrong with those locations, but this is where you want to be. Being in Florida, you want to be in Orlando, and if you’re in Orlando, you want to be with Universal. Nothing wrong with the other guys, it’s just that we’re on the cutting edge, we’re growing fast and we’re attracting some really talented young people in every sector. That’s what makes it fun to come to work every day.
“One of the things I discovered when I first went to work in this industry is the ability it has to make a connection with people and provide memories that last a lifetime”