Driving Dollywood Forward
More than three decades into a successful career in the theme park business, Eugene Naughton decided to enroll in the Executive MBA–Strategic Leadership (EMBA-SL) program at the Haslam College of Business.
Currently president of The Dollywood Company, Naughton says the decision reflects his commitment to lifelong learning and leading by example. Dollywood recently introduced Grow U, a program that pays 100 percent of employees’ tuition costs and includes more than 100 different degree options. “I thought, ‘what a great opportunity to show our team that even the company’s president is willing to go back to school,’” says Naughton. “It’s allowed people to get comfortable with the idea, and I’m proud to say more than 36% on a staff of 3,800 are now enrolled in academic programs.”
Naughton started his career at Paramount Parks, owned by Paramount Pictures, which operated five theme parks in the US and Canada. Over a period of 19 years, he rose through the ranks from operating a funnel cake stand to serving as vice president of in-park services. Naughton then moved to Six Flags Entertainment Corporation, where he was responsible for all revenue operations at the company’s 28 properties across North America. “That gave me experience dealing with a big company in many locations and regions,” he says. “I learned how to filter a lot of information inside of that role.” Naughton also enjoyed overseeing international development for the company, giving him a chance to travel extensively in Asia and the Middle East.
In 2019, Naughton joined The Dollywood Company just a few months before the pandemic hit. Naughton took the unforeseen pause in operations as an opportunity to develop strategic long-term plans for the parks and resorts. “People always ask if I really talk to Dolly Parton, and the answer is yes,” Naughton says, laughing. “She’s very genuine and has big dreams for how the company can continue to make a positive impact on the community.”
Today, Dollywood has bounced back from COVID, breaking new records in growth and revenue. “Our recent growth isn’t about new attractions or wowing people, It’s about the same team of people working to create better strategies,” Naughton says. “I’ve applied what I’ve been learning in the strategic leadership cohort at Haslam, putting it to use in how we’re growing our business. It’s been unbelievable and lots of fun.”