David McKillips serves as President and CEO of CEC (Chuck E. Cheese) Entertainment, overseeing locations in 47 states across the U.S. and 17 countries and territories around the world.
By Kendall Wolf
David McKillips began his career as the Associate Publisher of Mad Magazine and DC Comics before joining Six Flags Entertainment Corporation, where he worked for over 13 years. As Vice President of International Operations, he was responsible for managing all properties outside the United States, including parks in Mexico and Canada and new parks planned in China and Saudi Arabia. McKillips joined CEC Entertainment in 2020.
What theme park souvenir might we be surprised to find on your shelf? What’s the story behind it?
We have hundreds of different merchandise items on our prize wall; we also have a gift shop online at shop.chuckecheese.com. One of the most interesting things you will find is apparel based on a collaboration between Chuck E. Cheese and Hendrick Motorsports – the sport’s most successful NASCAR race team.
What theme park have you always wanted to visit but have never been to?
I’ve always wanted to visit Europa Park in Germany; it’s on my bucket list.
Was there a theme park, ride, or attraction that made you want to be in this industry? How did it inspire you?
My first date in high school was to Six Flags Over Mid-America (now Called Six Flags St. Louis). I used a Sprite can to get 50% off, had a great time, and won a huge teddy bear for my date. I thought this could be a great place to work, but I ended up at a local pizza restaurant.
So, my first job in the industry was working in operations around the dolphin community pool area at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. I thought it was so incredible to see all the families interacting with the dolphins and having so much fun together; it was at that moment I decided I wanted to be in the family entertainment industry forever.
What was your favorite ride or attraction as a child, and why?
I was never a huge roller coaster fan growing up, so I would typically opt for going to see the shows, and I loved everything from stunt shows at Six Flags and Universal Studios to the spectacular fireworks celebrations that I’ve seen so many times around the country at various parks on July 4th.
Was there a ride, attraction, or character that frightened you as a child?
No characters, but my first roller coaster was the Screaming Eagle in St. Louis. It was a historic old woody, but it was rough.
What was your oddest or coolest job in a theme park or your company?
A memorable position at SeaWorld in Orlando was working the sound operations booth for the Chinese Golden Acrobats at the Nautilus Showplace (now the Nautilus Theater) and Hotel Clyde and Seamore’s sea lion show. But my most memorable experience was working with our International Team at Six Flags to develop Six Flags Qiddiya, which is planned to open in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in October 2024.
What ride/attraction do you think everyone needs to experience and why?
It’s in development now, but I think Falcon’s Flight at Six Flags Qiddiya will be the most spectacular ride on Earth – planned to be the tallest, fastest, and longest coaster in the world (it may also be the hottest).
If you were tasked with creating a new theme park or CEC food, what would it be?
This is a fun one because I’ve actually had the opportunity to do this — many times. I’ve worked with great chefs to create innovation around funnel cakes, desserts, appetizers, and now at Chuck E. Cheese, an entire line of “slime” treats, including Slime Cupcakes and Cookies. I’d really like to create a Chuck E. Cheese frozen novelty ice cream bar.
You’re a walk-around character for a day – who do you choose?
This is easy since I have had the opportunity to be an entertainer for Big Bird, Cookie Monster, and Batman, to name a few. But my favorite character is, who else? Charles Entertainment Cheese.
There’s nothing more amazing than listening to the countdown clock wind down and little kids chanting, “Chuck E. Cheese, Chuck E. Cheese!” Then you arrive on the scene, and everyone’s clapping and screaming – kids and parents. You’d think it was Taylor Swift coming on stage with everyone going so crazy.
What types of attractions would you like to see more of and why?
For destination parks, I enjoy an immersive, interactive experience with a great narrative and participatory play that allows you to step inside another world. I think the experience is much different at the regional parks, and I enjoy the hybrid roller coasters that lay a steel track over a wooden frame, giving you the best ride experience.
Do you have any interesting theme park or CEC pandemic stories?
I started as the new CEO of Chuck E. Cheese in January 2020, and within 60 days, we were closing the doors to over 500 locations due to the pandemic. However, we were able to reopen, and the company and brand are doing great. What I appreciate the most about the entire time during the pandemic is how well industry leaders worked together to help each other; we shared best practices that ensured we all provided a safe environment for employees and guests. And now, the entire industry is stronger than ever.
Can you talk about what you are working on these days?
This is the most exciting time for the Chuck E. Cheese brand in its 46-year history! We are in the midst of a complete brand transformation, rebuilding and reimagining Chuck E. Cheese through the eyes of today’s five-year-olds.
At the moment, we’re on pace to have 75% of all of our domestic locations completely remodeled, to now include a digital interactive dance floor, a jumbotron video wall, pick-up windows for our guests, and a brighter, cleaner new design for each location. We have new entertainment and a new menu, and we are preparing a new Chuck E. Cheese app for mobile technology to help our guests and loyalty reward members have a more efficient and entertaining experience.
You are going to your favorite theme park or attraction – which industry people (dead or alive) are you taking with you?
I’d have to get a bus because there are so many great people in this industry that I have worked with, for, and alongside for the last 25 years. I’ll forget more than I remember, but starting as an intern at SeaWorld, we had such a fun team led by Shannon Rodriguez, Harry Stiff, Marcy Miles, Mish Tucker, Marcelle Wainwright-Stiff, Keith Stiff, Kim Salter, Sean Belgrade, and then we had a fantastic team up at Sesame Place and Busch Gardens with Diane Oaks, Diane Benedict, and Brenda Magnetti. At Six Flags, we had such an amazing team, and I was able to work in several different departments with Bonnie Weber, Al Weber, Brett Petit, Tom Iven, Marshall Barber, Melissa McLeanas, Mario Centola, Peter Fisk, and Doug Hemphill, just to name a few.
It would also be great to sit with Walt Disney for an hour and just talk MICE.
Writer Kendall Wolf is a long-time consultant in the themed entertainment industry. She has worked with designers, producers, and fabricators to help developers create unique and successful projects around the world. In 2017, she introduced Merlin Entertainments to a development group in Sichuan province for the first Legoland park in China. Kendall continues to consult for the developer to open more themed resorts in China.