|By Scott Powers, The Orlando Sentinel,
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 8, 2006 - George Millay, a restless theme-park visionary who founded SeaWorld and Wet 'n Wild and pioneered Orlando's tourism business, has died in his San Diego home.
Millay, 76, died Monday after battling lung cancer since last summer.
On Tuesday, he was saluted both internationally as a giant in the theme-park business and in Orlando as one of the driving personalities who helped turn Central Florida into the world's playground.
Millay is in the halls of fame at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions and at the World Water Park Association. The latter declared him "the father of water parks."
Friends and close associates recalled him as restless, hard-driving, demanding, tough and sometimes hot-tempered -- but extremely fair and fun.
He is survived by his wife, Anne, four children and seven grandchildren, all of California.
"He was a visionary. He was a genuine theme-park pioneer. He had great creativity and tremendous drive and stamina," said Bob Gault, who rose through the ranks at SeaWorld and is now president of Universal Orlando, which bought Wet 'n Wild in 1998.
Today, the two parks he built here anchor the north and south ends of the International Drive tourism corridor.
"He was a real pioneer of Orlando and Central Florida tourism," said Bill Peeper, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Always an entrepreneur, Millay visited Marineland in Palos Verdes, Calif., in the late 1950s to research a themed bar that he wanted to open. He and three partners decided instead to start a theme park, mixing the animal attractions of Marineland with the style and business model of Disneyland.
SeaWorld opened in San Diego in 1964.
A few years later Millay led efforts to bring a SeaWorld to Central Florida, and it opened as the region's second park in 1973. In the meantime, SeaWorld also built a park in Ohio.
It was no accident that SeaWorld and Millay came to Central Florida, recalled friends.
Millay admired Walt Disney and the company he built. Friends say he emulated Disney's approaches.
Kelly Smith, his longtime lawyer in Orlando, and a business partner, said Disney executives encouraged him to come to Orlando.
"He admired Walt and what he had done," said John Seeker, who was an executive at both SeaWorld Orlando and Wet 'n Wild. "The standards, the employees, the guest services that Walt really set for the industry . . . that was something that George would demand. He cared about his employees a great deal."
A corporate dispute led Millay to leave SeaWorld in 1974. He and new partners tried to regain control in 1989. Instead, Anheuser-Busch Co. bought SeaWorld.
"Those of us at Busch Entertainment who knew George, either personally or by reputation, are indebted to him for the remarkable vision and spirit of innovation he exhibited throughout his long career," Keith M. Kasen, chairman of the board and president of Busch Entertainment Corp., said Tuesday in a statement.
Millay wasn't done with Orlando or the industry when he left SeaWorld. He put together another partnership and set out to redefine the water amusement park on a grander scale, a dream that many saw as a big gamble.
"Hell, I had reservations about it," Millay said in a 2005 interview with the Orlando Sentinel.
"I wasn't concerned about kids accepting Wet 'n Wild. I was concerned about middle-aged mothers accepting it."
The park opened in March 1977. By the mid-1980s, attendance topped 1 million. Several more Wet 'n Wilds opened, from Brazil to Las Vegas.
In recent years Millay was an unmistakable figure in a black eye patch, the result of 1979 cancer surgery that claimed an eye, ear and part of his jaw.
By the late 1990s, he decided it was time to sell. In 1997 and '98, he and his partners sold the Wet 'n Wild parks to various groups, for $77 million, he said.
He still wasn't done, lawyer and friend Smith said. Millay was forever restless, forever looking for the next challenge.
"I go into the office every day," Millay said in a 2004 interview with the Sentinel. "I don't have any hobbies. I don't play golf."
Jim Leusner of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Scott Powers can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5441.
Copyright (c) 2006, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
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