Position: Vice President of Park Operations, Universal Studios Singapore
I sidestep Frankenstein, and navigate my way around a rowdy group of excited kids, taking a moment to gaze at a perfect replica of a Hollywood set before making my way to the Celebrity Café and Bakery to meet a man with one of the coolest jobs in the world. John Hallenbeck runs operations for Universal Studios Singapore.
It’s probably not surprising that John is a ball of positive, can-do energy. The fact that’s he’s only just got back from the US does little to dampen his upbeat nature – one of America’s greatest exports. I’m amazed to see that John puts his Blackberry face down on the table, pushes it to the side and manages not to touch it for the entire 50-minute interview. An achievement for most people, never mind a man who receives between 300 and 400 emails a day and is entirely responsible for the smooth operation of Southeast Asia’s largest theme park.
From broadcasting to ticket selling
Despite having a university education and a specialist qualification in sports broadcasting, John started his career with Universal Studios as a ticket seller in 1992. “My wife finished her elementary education degree and we thought let’s get out of the freezing cold of Wisconsin and move to Orlando, Florida. Unfortunately the year we moved, Florida put a freeze on all teaching jobs so she started working in the mall and I started working at Universal Studios as a ticket seller. My first day was February 29, a leap day, so even though I’ve worked in the business for 20 years, officially only been in it for five!”
Within three months John had progressed to car parking, and by 1993 he was the supervisor of the Hanna-Barbera show. “I was doing the schedule for the staff, taking care of any facility issues and getting in maintenance if needed.” After stints on a few other attractions, John was made Area Three Manager, looking after rides like Back to the Future and ET Adventure.
“That role was interesting because I was working with supervisors who were older and had been there longer, so authority could be challenging at times. I grew up in the Midwest so I was inclined to be a team player and it was a little strange being in charge of people who were older than me.”
Back then Universal Studios Orlando didn’t have City Walk or any of the hotels that are there today. In 1994 it was announced that the park was going to be turned into a big resort and a new theme park called Islands of Adventure was going to be added. John beat 95 of his peers to a project coordinator role on the planning development team, based in Los Angeles.
The real Hollywood
“My daughter had just been born and we moved to LA for two years. We lived in Burbank and I got to see the production side of Universal. It really is the glitz and glamour of the business and I think that really helped me later on to portray the movie studios in other theme parks.”
Being a project coordinator wasn’t a glamorous position though. “I was writing up minutes, setting up meetings, schlepping drawings and architectural plans around. I was more of a gopher and it was an entry-level job. But saying that, on one of my first days I was walking down a corridor with a huge stack of papers in my hands and I almost knocked over a gentleman coming out of one of the conference rooms. I manage to swerve out the way but as I looked over my shoulder I realised it was Steven Spielberg. I was pretty star-struck.”
Those two years passed quickly and John returned to Orlando in 1996 to work on the opening of Islands of Adventure. “The building phase started and the park opened in 1999, so it was about a five-year process of going from paper to actually opening the park.”
Islands of Adventure opened with John as the manager of the front gate. In just seven years he’d gone from being a ticket seller to being manager of ticket sellers and guest services in a band new park. John describes the opening as one of the highlights of his career: “When the first guests walked through the turnstiles it was a big moment. It was pretty incredible because my daughter was at an age when she could enjoy it and it felt great to hear her say, ‘This is Daddy’s park’.”
That role lasted three months. “Things were getting underway with the opening of Universal in Osaka, Japan. Quite a few people who I worked with on Islands of Adventure had already moved onto the Japan project. But I was less interested as we were happy back in Orlando and I was happy with the role. On Valentine’s Day, in 1999, we had dinner with five other couples who were all going to Japan; we were the only ones that weren’t. Even though they were encouraging me to go too, I was thinking ‘Hey, I’ve got a great job; I’m charge of the front gate of this new theme park. There’s no way I’m going to Japan.’ Well, I beat every one of them there!
“Our friends were all scheduled to go in September but the gentleman that was in charge of the front gate in Japan ended up leaving the project. I got a call asking me to take on the role. My daughter was five years old and getting ready to go to school but my wife and I thought ‘Why not? Let’s give it a shot’. So after that dinner in February, we were in Japan the following July.”
Japanese common sense
“It was a completely different world, almost as weird as moving to LA,” recounts John. “Being from the Midwest, LA was like experiencing a different country. The hardest thing about Japan was the language barrier and culture. Japanese common sense is 180 degrees different to American. What I considered to be common sense was completely out of the question in Japan and vice-versa. I took the approach that this was their park, I was just there to help and I did what I could to impart my knowledge in a way that was respectful and didn’t cause friction. The area manager of the front gate barely spoke English and I spoke next to zero Japanese but we used to sit at our desk, side-by-side, and he’d speak in Japanese and I’d talk only in English yet somehow we understood each other.”
The planning stage before a theme park opens has fairly normal working hours but as the construction starts things get more hectic because of deadlines and budgets. “Around six months before Osaka opened the hours became 24/7. There was no sleep and my wife became a theme park widow. But that stint in Japan pretty much told me I could work anywhere. Even though there were a lot of hard times, there were a lot of great times too. And taking the family on that journey was really nice.”
Applying for a job
In 2001 when John returned to Orlando there wasn’t an opening in park operations so he had to reapply for a job and ended up as a studio store manager. “I’d never worked in retail for Universal and even though it was step down I didn’t really look at it as a set back. I just thought now I can learn something new; things will happen and it will be OK. I only did that job for two months.
“I was at the studio store when the attacks happened on 9/11 and we ended up evacuating the theme park that day. I went back to operation mode, helping guest services and running the front gate. That’s the only time I’ve ever had to evacuate a park.”
Shortly after that John was personally selected by Bob Gault, the president of Universal Orlando, to be in charge of guest services for both parks: Studios and Island of Adventure. It was his job to combine the teams from Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. “Because they had been separate, processes and attitudes were completely different. It was a hard job and it took a long time for everybody to see that combining the two was for the better.” He clearly did a good job because two years later John became the manager of attractions for Islands of Adventure and by 2006 he was a director running attractions for both parks.
Park number three
“In 2008, I got a call from the gentleman who was the Universal rep here in Singapore and he asked me if I’d like to be in charge of operations for the whole park. If I accepted I was going to have to become a Resorts World employee rather than a Universal employee. With my loyalty that was a hard thing to figure out so I consulted with the team – my daughter and my wife – and asked them what they thought. My wife was for it. And my daughter said ‘When does the flight leave?’ She was 15 and getting ready to start her freshman year in high school but happy to do it. It was really hard to leave Universal; I’d been with them 16 years.
“I’m glad I made the decision; working for Resorts World and Genting has been great. They’ve taken the knowledge that the management team and I have into consideration. They allow us to take risks, obviously with accountability, but these have really paid off. Theme parks aren’t typically the biggest cash cows, they do make money and are great places to come to, but they’re not huge revenue generators given the expense that goes into them.” I later find out that just one carriage for the Transformer ride costs S$1million.
Now the park is up and running, John is investing time in encouraging people to take up a career in theme parks. It’s something he was also involved with back in Florida with the Rosen College at the University of Central Florida. “We helped them develop the curriculum, took on interns and did speaking engagements in a bid to promote theme parks within the hospitality industry.” Here in Singapore he works closely with all the polytechnics but is on the advisory committee for Republic Polytechnic, which is starting new courses that have an emphasis on attractions.
As the interview wraps-up, John gets a gleam in his eye and invites the photographer and I on the Transformer ride. Apparently he goes on the rides every day. “I look at how guests are experiencing them, but I mostly go on Transformers, that’s the best ride in the world!” John loves his job; his passion for theme parks is infectious and after a stroll around his movie set office you can see why.
John’s tips for success in theme park operations
Have a positive attitude. There are days when things can blow up in your face and you’ll need to react fast. Getting upset can fog decision-making so you need to be levelheaded and optimistic
Have good social skills
Maintain a walk the walk philosophy and lead by example
Have a good rapport with every level of team member, because every one is important
Be able to handle stress well because operations people get pulled in many different directions
Be loyal and willing to pay your dues