SANDUSKY – What sounded like a terrible idea 32 years ago became a passion for Rob Decker and led to him developing some of the most iconic theme parks in the United States.
Decker, a 1978 Sidney High School alumnus, retired this spring from his role as senior vice president of planning and design at Cedar Fair Entertainment Co., which owns 13 amusement parks across the United States and Canada including Cedar Point and Kings Island. As an executive at Cedar Fair for the past 20 years, Decker helped create more than 45 roller coasters.
“I’ve decided that that’s probably more than I can recall anyone developing,” he said. “I had an incredible team and an incredible company, and I loved everybody, but I decided let’s try something different.”
Retirement should provide more free time and fewer business trips, but Decker still will have projects to keep him busy. Shortly after retiring, he started his own company, Robert A. Decker Design & Planning, LLC, which will provide advisory services to Cedar Fair along with other companies and communities.
He’s also working on a new beach house in the Carolinas that he can enjoy with his family.
“I’ve always had a strong focus on career and a passion for the business, and it becomes all consuming after a while,” Decker said. “At this point I’m designing a retirement place, a beach house, and a couple other projects and decided to open my own design firm.”
An architecture background
Decker was a little different than most of his colleagues during his career in the amusement park industry. The field is full of engineers from the aerospace industry, many former employees of NASA and Boeing, who design roller coasters.
Decker, however, came from an architecture and urban design background. He earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Cincinnati then worked for architecture firms in Ohio and on the East Coast.
He was getting bored with projects like convention centers, hotels and high-rise structures when a friend encouraged him to consider a job with Jack Rouse Associates, an attraction design company.
“I said that sounds like a terrible idea,” Decker said.
Despite his reservations, Decker interviewed for a position with Jack Rouse Associates and accepted a job in Cincinnati. He was sold on the idea a theme park is like a city that needs a lot of planning for its infrastructure and facilities.
“Architecture naturally follows that,” said Decker, who didn’t have children at the time and felt he could take a chance on his career.
Decker’s first project in his new field was working on the development of Universal Studios Florida, which since opening in 1990 has become one of the most visited theme parks in the world.
“Kind of got to hit one out of the park right away and kind of caught the bug,” Decker said. “I’ve always said that this industry you’re either in it for two months or 20 years.”
After more than a decade with Jack Rouse Associates, which has clients all around the world, Decker accepted a job in Sandusky with Cedar Fair Entertainment. His job with Cedar Fair required a lot less travel and allowed him to be home more often, which was a priority with a growing family.
Developing roller coasters
Working with a cast of thousands, Decker’s career in the theme park industry saw him develop roller coasters from conception to their opening. He and his team would meet with manufacturers to design rides then work to position them within parks, develop the area around them, name them and create logos.
“My opportunity was to bridge the gap between what was simply a thrill ride to the total guest experience,” he said, adding his goal was to create a sense of adventure around every corner.
A roller coaster Decker is particularly proud of is Cedar Point’s Gatekeeper, which is positioned over the front gate of the park.
“Gatekeeper not only flies over the front gate, it is the front gate,” he said.
The idea for Gatekeeper came from a desire for a ceremonial archway and entrance to Cedar Point, which is known as the Roller Coaster Capital of the World. Decker compared Gatekeeper to a military flyover at a sporting event, greeting guests as they enter the park.
“They’re just feet apart and they can look at each other,” Decker said of guests entering the park and ones riding Gatekeeper. “One just has a look of terror and the other is starting to walk a little faster because they’re excited and ready for the thrill of the day.”
Another one of Decker’s favorite projects was Hotel Breakers at Cedar Point. Originally opened along the banks of Lake Erie in 1905, Decker and his team worked for five years on rehabilitation, renovation and redevelopment of the site.
“It’s quite a gem,” he said. “We brought it fully back into full restoration, and people are proud to say they’ve been staying there for decades, and hopefully they’ll continue to bring their families to Cedar Point because of the hotel.”
Thanks to family and friends
Decker credits the support he received during his time at Sidney City Schools with the success he’s had in his career.
“I’m really grateful for all the support I’ve received from family and friends and Sidney in particular,” he said.
Decker’s desire to pursue a career in architecture began with a love of drawing. His father was a draftsman, and on weekends he would try to emulate his dad’s work.
Sidney City Schools didn’t have a program suitable for his development as an architect, though, so Decker worked with the school’s administration to craft his own curriculum that combined drawing with math and science courses.
“If I wasn’t able to get the extra math and science help that I needed, I wouldn’t be an architect,” he said. “I owe a lot to the school system for how helpful they were to me in my career.”
Decker worked hard to achieve his goals – one year he didn’t even have a full lunch period – and was accepted into the University of Cincinnati’s architecture program, which was and still is one of the most renowned programs in the nation.
The Sidney High School graduate is happy to see more STEM programs – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – developing across the United States and giving more children opportunities to pursue their passions like he did.
‘Catching his breath’
In retirement, Decker wants to devote more time to helping children in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and art. He’s always tried to make time for kids who want to talk about their ideas for new roller coasters.
He’ll also continue working on some design himself through his new company. The new venture will allow him to continue developing plans for rides and attractions while expanding into civic projects and commercial development.
“I’m still just catching my breath,” Decker said. “I’m getting a lot of calls and just talking to people about what lies ahead, and we’ll see what happens.”
At least in the immediate future, Decker’s new company will be a one-man operation. Being his own boss will allow him to focus more on his work-life balance.
“It’s an opportunity for me to call a lot of my own shots,” he said. “I’m very passionate about the people and the companies I’ve worked with and still hold great relationships.”
Decker’s family is wary about how many hours he’ll still devote to work during retirement, although he’s confident he’ll have more opportunities to be invested in family life. He’s already made several trips to Sidney to visit his mother since leaving Cedar Fair Entertainment.
Sandusky will continue to be home for Decker, but he’ll probably spend a lot of winters in the ocean-front property he’s building and travel for leisure more often.
“I’ve been blessed and am excited to step forward in this role to enjoy this next phase of life,” he said.
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