York County Local Pursues Passion and Becomes a Leader in the Amusement Park Industry
YORK COUNTY — There are children who visit Busch Gardens Williamsburg and find themselves immensely captivated by its attractions.
They see Clydesdales for the first time, admire the European-inspired buildings and gardens, hear the sounds the park presents to its guests, eat special foods and create memories with the rides that have given them the greatest thrill of their young life. These captivated children return home and dream of everything they have been through.
Brandon Thom, who grew up in York County, was one such child. What started as a childhood inspiration has blossomed into his career as he is now Vice President of Adventure Island, a property of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment and Water Country USA’s sister water park.
Growing up, he visited Busch Gardens with his mother, sister, and friends.
“I went there every weekend. My mom would take me, or I would go with friends, or my sister and I would go,” Thom said in an interview with WYDaily. “I just loved it. We always went there on a Sunday, and sometimes we didn’t choose the best weather days, but the days when I knew the lightning wasn’t there. I was already a parks nerd themed and I already knew the rides would be open and there would be no lines.
Thom grew up with Busch Gardens. He used to build roller coasters out of model trains his mother bought him, and he got hooked on a computer game named Roller Coaster Tycoon. The first roller coaster he experienced was Big Bad Wolf, and he even remembers going on dates at the park in Williamsburg.
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“It’s such a beloved property, and I’m probably one of the millions of people who have a special memory of this place,” Thom said. “So I love how much people care about it. There’s enough history that even in a publicly traded corporate environment, they still give credence to that history and keep this place special.
Throughout elementary, middle and high school, he developed an admiration for the amusement park industry. However, the road he took to get to where he is today was something of a personal journey within the industry.
Thom eventually earned a degree in finance from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, followed by a career in oil and gas loan banking.
“It was pretty miserable. Although I worked with good people, sure, but the job itself just wasn’t the fulfillment I thought I would get in adult life,” said Thom: “I kind of survived this for two years and was like, ‘What’s obsessing me?’, like what’s my nerd obsession? Everyone has one. Sometimes you can make it a job, but sometimes not. Sometimes you can make it a hobby, but I thought whenever I’m at work or taking a lunch break, I’m on a theme park blog or a mountain database website Russians, just looking at pictures. So I thought, ‘Maybe there’s something there?’
Thom eventually decided to quit his professional banking job and enroll at the College of William & Mary (W&M) to earn a graduate degree. At the same time, he landed a part-time job at Busch-Gardens Williamsburg as the team leader of the park’s children’s section, Land of the Dragons.
“My very first experience was operating the little ladybug carousel,” Thom said. “I loved it. I had so much fun on the first day. Probably more fun than the combined two years of banking. I thought to myself, ‘I have to stick around and see if I can make it here.’ »
In 2013, Thom discovered the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) after being recommended by his advisor at W&M to look into industry conventions that would provide networking opportunities.
“IAAPA has an International Expo every year in Orlando,” Thom said. “For many people, this is their first exposure to the industry.”
IAAPA gave Thom the opportunity to meet people, build professional relationships, and learn more about how the industry works.
“I went to this show and met someone at the show who worked for Universal [Studios] Orlando and we struck up a conversation, and he became a mentor,” Thom said. “I stayed in touch with him and had these conversations with him just to catch up and ask him about Universal and what they were doing. Finally, this full-time version of what I was doing at Busch Gardens opened up to Universal.
This was Thom’s big break into the Florida amusement park industry. After being involved with that gig, he landed his first salaried position at Merlin Entertainments working with Legoland, and he later took a salaried position at Universal Studios Orlando working in the Harry Potter area before jumping at the chance to join SeaWorld.
“My last shot was with SeaWorld,” Thom said. “My heart was with SeaWorld parks because that’s how I started in the industry and I had all these great memories.”
Since joining Seaworld, he has worked with Busch Gardens Tampa and Sesame Place in Langhorn, Penn.
“All of a sudden I was in the management team and it was intimidating. I was young. It felt like everything was going fast, but I learned, I asked questions and I stayed as humble as possible,” Thom said.
The young executive ended up at Adventure Island about two and a half years ago. He is currently in the middle of his third season with the property.
“Be the best at everything you do. When I was at Busch Gardens, I wanted to be the best dragon land boss that ever existed,” Thom said. “Then when I went to Universal, I wanted to be the best lead that attraction ever had. Eventually, I started overseeing an area. People just notice you when you’re focused on your team and improving. just the area you are impacting.
Thom’s tasks differ from day to day. Several days a week, he does park management shifts when the park is very busy.
“I am called for all the high situations that occur with one of the eight or nine departments that we have. So if there’s a kitchen equipment problem in a kitchen and we can’t make fries, I have to figure out how to make it happen,” Thom said. “On the other hand, if there is a problem with driving on the water, like if a check valve fails, I have to figure out how to find a replacement part, how we communicate to customers that we let’s close and how to pay for it. This kind of everyday stuff happens.
The day the water park closes for the off season is the day Thom begins to help organize park improvement projects and Adventure Island capital projects, including concrete work, fencing work , painting and building new rides.
Thom admits the best way to learn the industry is to get a “front line job”. Whether in the food and drink, the quality of the park or the rides.
As the warm season resumes, Thom has already made plans to attend this year’s IAAPA conference in Orlando, Florida.