U taps Williams to head theme parks worldwide

Exec filling Nichols post

Universal Studios has promoted Tom Williams to chairman and CEO of Universal Studios Recreation Group.

Williams, a 29-year veteran of the company, replaces Cathy Nichols, who unexpectedly ankled the company this week to pursue other interests.

In his new post, Williams will oversee the recreation group’s worldwide activities, which include Universal Studios Hollywood (and its adjacent CityWalk venue), Universal Studios Escape in Orlando and the company’s next scheduled theme park, Universal Studios Japan in Osaka — a joint venture with the Rank Group and local business interests that currently is under construction for a 2001 debut.

Staying in Orlando

Though Nichols was based in Los Angeles, Williams will operate from his Orlando headquarters.

“This promotion is the direct result of Tom’s extraordinary leadership in transforming our Florida theme park into Universal Studios Escape, a world-class destination resort, and the most ambitious expansion in the history of our recreation business,” said Universal Studios president and chief operating officer Ron Meyer, to whom Williams will report. “Tom has proven that his exceptional business and creative skills are ideally suited to drive the continued expansion of the Universal Studios recreation brand around the world.”

Williams, a highly respected executive within the theme park industry, has been with Universal Studios Florida since 1987 after working in various other posts inside U’s previous corporate manifestation, MCA.

Williams most recently served as president and CEO of the company’s two-gated theme park Universal Studios Escape, which includes Universal Studios Florida and the recently opened second gate, Universal Studios Islands of Adventure.

Highs and Loews

During his time with the theme park-recreation division of Universal, Williams has been involved with such projects as U’s move into hotels through a partnership with Loews, including the company’s first, the Portofino Bay at Universal Studios Escape, and CityWalk.

Steven Spielberg, one of the chief visionaries and creative consultant for U’s Orlando theme parks, gave a thumbs up to Williams’ promotion.

“Tom and I have worked together for many years, and I have great respect for his experience and expertise,” Spielberg said. “We’ve had a very successful creative collaboration as evidenced by Universal Studios Florida and most recently Islands of Adventure. Tom is a natural leader and a talented executive. Universal couldn’t have made a better choice.”

Nichols’ ankling

Universal brass would not comment about Nichols’ departure and the exec could not be reached for comment. Several insiders said they were surprised by her ankling, but pointed out that Williams will be able to step right in and fill the job’s demands.

It is not clear where Nichols, who spearheaded Universal’s expansion activity over the past two years, will move to next.

She was hired to oversee U’s recreation group in May 1997 and oversaw build-outs in both the Orlando and Los Angeles parks as well as Universal Studios Japan.

“After 2-1/2 years of intensive expansion activity, I am very proud of what the recreation team has accomplished and wish them continued success,” Nichols said in a statement. “I have achieved my objectives at the company, and at this point, I am ready to pursue a new chapter in my career and new challenges.”

Meyer added: “We thank Cathy for her many contributions, including the successful launch of Universal Studios Escape and our global expansion, and wish her the very best for the future.”