Kings Dominion general manager to retire
Tony Johnson started his career at the amusement park in 1974
Growing up on a tobacco farm outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, Tony Johnson learned the meaning of hard work early on. At a time when his local school system had a later start to the academic year to allow for the picking season, Johnson would get up at 4 a.m. to work the fields.
“It was how we made a living, and it was hard work,” says the 70-year-old. “It made me want to get a college education, I’ll tell you that.”
It also led to Johnson climbing the career ladder at Kings Dominion. The amusement park’s vice president and general manager will be retiring on Jan. 3, 2021, nearly half a century after he began his national career in amusement parks working summers at the longtime tourist attraction in Hanover County.
Johnson became Kings Dominion’s seventh vice president and general manager in February 2018, working for Ohio-based Cedar Fair Entertainment Co., which acquired the park in 2006.
Under his tenure, the park launched its first hybrid roller coaster, Twisted Timbers, its holiday immersive entertainment experience WinterFest, and family festivals such as Grand Carnivale.
Johnson started his career at Kings Dominion in 1974 atop the guard tower at Lion Country Safari, a drive-thru preview attraction that launched a year prior to the park’s official opening in 1975. It was up to Johnson and another tower guard to pull ropes that operated the gates keeping the lions from dining on their fellow attractions.
“Our job was to be sure that the cars cleared before the lions got to the ‘hoofstock,’” he says, referring to the safari’s antelope and wildebeests.
Johnson took the job to supplement his income during the summers in between his full-time job as a teacher, coach and athletic director for Hanover County Public Schools. In 1975, he transferred over to Kings Dominion’s security department and special police department, which included conservators of the peace who had been deputized by the sheriff to make arrests.
In his 10th year as a teacher, Johnson decided his heart was no longer in education, and took a full-time job with the amusement park’s loss prevention unit in 1984; he was promoted to vice president of operations in 1992. After Paramount Parks acquired Kings Dominion in 1993, Johnson joined Cedar Fair, working at amusement parks such as California’s Great America in Santa Clara, California, and Carowinds in Charlotte, North Carolina. Johnson was named Cedar Fair’s corporate vice president of operations in 2012.
“It is a great business, and I tell people I’m certainly going to miss the business, but I’m not going to miss [working] the weekends and nights,” says Johnson of retiring. “There’s never a dull moment.”
Johnson will be succeeded by Bridgette Bywater, Cedar Fair’s corporate director of operations. Bywater got her start with the company as a seasonal associate for Cedar Fair in 1992 at the Worlds of Fun amusement park in Kansas City, Missouri. Since then, she has held numerous roles in many departments with the company, and currently oversees and coordinates efforts that include strategic planning, new attraction planning and development, best practices and standardization.
Johnson speaks highly of Bywater, who also succeeded him in his previous role as Cedar Fair’s corporate director of operations.
“She brings the passion and the knowledge, and we’ve got good bones,” he says.
The management change comes after a tough year for Kings Dominion, which didn’t open to the public this year for the first time in the amusement park’s 45-year history. In early August, the park announced it would remain closed this year due to pandemic-driven state health orders that limited its capacity to 1,000 guests, as well as the “diminishing number of calendar days left in the 2020 operating season.” Kings Dominion had expected to debut an expanded, refreshed Soak City water park, with a multilevel play structure and children’s wave pool, during its 2020 season.
In August, Linwood Thomas IV, director of economic development for Hanover County, told Virginia Business that the economic impact of keeping the Doswell-based amusement park closed was “huge,” as it has traditionally been one of the county’s top five taxpayers. Visitors to the park spent $258 million in the county on tourism in 2018, generating more than $5 million in tax revenue.
“We’d rather be open,” Johnson says. “When we open up next year, whenever that is, we’ll be ready to go.”
Together, Kings Dominion and Soak City offer more than 60 rides, shows and attractions, including 12 roller coasters.
Cedar Fair is a publicly traded partnership that owns and operates 11 amusement parks, four outdoor water parks, an indoor water park and resort accommodations totaling more than 2,300 rooms and more than 600 luxury RV sites.