09 April 2016 // JRA Culture

Keith James – Tales from an Unbelievable Life

“Who could have written this script?”

Forty-five years ago, JRA CEO Keith James took a summer job at Kings Island theme park with his friend and mentor, Jack Rouse. He could have never known the adventures, experiences and friendships that would follow, and the lives he would touch along the way.

Last weekend at the Disneyland Hotel, Keith James received one of the industry’s highest honors – the 2016 Buzz Price Thea Award for a Lifetime of Distinguished Achievements.

This week, you’ve heard Jack Rouse and others recount the history and celebrate the character of Keith James. Today, in excerpts from his Summit Keynote address and Thea Award acceptance speech, Keith offers his lessons learned and thanks all those responsible for his “unbelievable life.”

On the Wisdom Gained from His Mother

  • “Work hard.”
  • “Be fair.”
  • “Give credit where credit is due.”
  • “Don’t lie, because then you have to remember what you said.”
  • “Always say ‘yes’.”

On Lessons Learned from His Years as an Elite Swimmer in the 1960s

  • “You’d better prop yourself up with people who are better than you. Give them credit when things go right, and fiercely defend them when things go wrong.”
  • “I was the anchor, but if the other three guys weren’t good, we wouldn’t win.”

Keith shares his story with Season Pass Podcast.

On Education and the Early Influence of Jack Rouse

  • “I was a great athlete and a terrible student.”
  • “I had no future. No ideas. No desires.”
  • “I didn’t want to go to Vietnam, so I went to college instead.”
  •  “My mother was Jack’s secretary. Jack decided to put together a theatre program at UC. I joined the program for technical theater as the guinea pig student and went from almost failing out to the Dean’s List.”
  • “Jack taught me how to ride a motorcycle. In 1970, I spent 10 weeks riding through the country and sleeping in tents. I left with $650 and didn’t even use all of it. Those of you who know me know that I will spend $650 on a dinner, probably with some of you.”
  • “In the autumn of 1971, before the park opened, I joined Jack at Kings Island as a production stage manager. I just needed a summer job to pay for college.”
  • “My 45th anniversary in the business is this November, and I still have the letter from Jack Rouse offering me the job at Kings Island.”

Jack Rouse

On Flying by the Seat of Your Pants

  • “In 1987, I was asked by Mike Bartlett to come to Florida and work on this park called Universal Orlando. I asked him what I would be doing, and he said ‘I have no idea.’ I asked him when he needed me, and he said, ‘tomorrow.’ I moved to Orlando from Sydney two weeks later.”
  • “Jack started JRA in 1987. In 1991, he and his partner Amy decided they wanted to get back into the theme park world from the corporate world. Jack asked me if I wanted to come back to Cincinnati. My contract with Universal was up, so I said yes. I became a partner in 1992.”
  • “I was in the room a lot when people asked, ‘can you do this,’ and my answer was always ‘yes’.”

Keith shows what’s under his famous hat.

On Providing a Great Guest Experience

  • “You can see things; you can hear things; you can smell things; but you can’t always feel things. We need to make people feel things.”
  • “Second guess everything – not from the standpoint of being negative, but from a standpoint of ‘what if.’ Always have a contingency plan and ask questions.”
  • “I don’t think in terms of ‘American’ or ‘international’. I think of the guests. People just want to be entertained.”
  • “People know I’m an American because of my passports.”
  • “Body language is the same everywhere. The smile tells the story.”
  • “We use what we’ve learned as tech support to tell the guest’s story. It’s not our story – it’s their story.”

On Friendships

  • “I have been the beneficiary of unbelievable experiences, unbelievable friendships.”
  • “I have spent most of my life relying upon my friends.”

Keith’s many friends sum him up in one word.

On Family

  • “When I was at Kings Island as a production stage manager, a beautiful dancer auditioned. Her name was Patti. I eventually got the nerve to propose, and we married 7 years later.”
  • “My family said to me, ‘we’re never going to try to talk you out of it.’”
  • “My daughters asked me, ‘are you taking a car or a plane for work?’ If I was taking a car, that meant I’d be home for dinner. If I was taking a plane, then I was probably home for the weekend.”
  • “I’ve tried to never miss one of Chloe’s soccer games, one of Lexi’s football game performances or one of Patti’s shows in 45 years.”
  • “Yes, I have flown nine and a half million miles, but [Patti] has flown every one of them with me.”

The James Family

On Receiving the Buzz Price Thea Award for a Lifetime of Distinguished Achievements

  • “I was overwhelmed by this. I was in the Salt Lake City Airport when I got the call from Bob Ward [third from right in the photo below] saying I was going to receive this award. I was a weeping mess in the airport. I was traveling with Chloe, and she, not knowing what had happened, asked ‘do we need to go home?’ Getting this award was the furthest thing from my mind.”
  • “There’s something unfair about receiving this award. I’ve had an unbelievable life because of all of you, not me. This award is for you, not me. But you can’t take home the statue.”

From left: Keith James, Shawn McCoy, Jack Rouse, Bob Ward, Nick Winslow, Chloe James Hausfeld

On Luck and Gratitude

  • “I am the last person to expect to have had such a lucky life.”
  • “I traveled to the Grand Canyon on my motorcycle trip. As I was gazing out at it, I noticed a father describing the canyon to his son. His son was blind. I learned at that moment never to take anything for granted. It is a moment that has stayed with me my entire life.”
  • “Forty-five years ago I needed a summer job, and I still have it. I’ve been lucky that the industry has grown up around me.”
  •  “This business has allowed me to see the world, meet my wife, meet my business partners. My daughters [Alexis and Chloe] have been born in interesting places [Vancouver and Sydney, respectively].”
  • “I support IAAPA and the TEA because I feel an obligation. I owe you – look at what you’ve let me do.”
  •  “I have loved every minute of every day.”

On the Future

  • “I’ve had a wonderful career. I hope it’s not over.”
  • “Let’s go chase another windmill.”

“That’s my story. Patti thought you all would be interested to hear it.”

Patti and Keith James

JRA congratulates all of the 2016 Thea Award recipients and thanks the TEA for a wonderful weekend of events.

About the Thea Awards and the Buzz Price Thea Award for a Lifetime of Distinguished Achievements
The Thea Awards began in 1994 with a single Lifetime Achievement Award, and the first recipient was Harrison “Buzz” Price, pioneer in economic feasibility for entertainment projects. After Buzz passed away in 2010, the award was renamed in his honor.

To view the video of Keith’s Summit Day One Keynote Address, visit TEA TV. For JRA’s photos and videos from the TEA Summit Weekend and Thea Awards, visit our Facebook page