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Longboater Bob Gault rose from emptying trash to CEO of SeaWorld

The retired theme park executive never forgot what led to his success: an unmatched work ethic and a deep passion for connecting with people.

Bob Gault enjoys a variety of retirement pleasures, including golf, sailing, fishing and volunteering.
Bob Gault enjoys a variety of retirement pleasures, including golf, sailing, fishing and volunteering.
Photo by Lori Sax
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Longboat Key resident and retired theme park executive Bob Gault has many of the ingredients for a life well-lived, including a waterfront home with expansive and enticing views of Sarasota Bay, and 10 grandchildren. And, while he enjoys life at 79, Gault has also experienced some darker moments. A big one: His son Robbie Gault, one of four children he had with his first wife, Claudia, was killed in a car accident at 18 years old in 1994.

Another personal demon is Gault is a recovering alcoholic: It’s been 36 years since he’s had a drink — a decision he says has made his life “exponentially better.” Gault’s 36 years of sobriety also coincide with 36 years of being married to his second wife, Shannon Gault. “I was beaten by alcohol,” Gault says. “I had to stop, or I was going to lose everything. It was a blessing in disguise to stop drinking.”

For that and many other reasons, Gault maintains a cheery outlook on life. Part of that stems from his California upbringing, where he developed both his relentless work ethic and roll-with-it vibes. He sums up his 42 years in the entertainment and theme park business with a simple motto: treating employees well and consistently showing them they are appreciated is a time-tested, and timeless, way to build successful teams and motivate employees. 

“You have to show compassion for everybody, from the janitor to the CEO,” Gault says. “My only real skill in life is I like people, and I like talking to people.”

The posts Gault held at some point in his career include: CEO of SeaWorld of California; CEO of SeaWorld of Ohio; CEO of SeaWorld of Florida; corporate vice president of operations for the Anheuser-Busch Entertainment Corp.; president of Universal Studios Hollywood; and executive vice president of Universal Studios Japan.

Gault recently sat down with Key Life to talk about his life, career adventures and nuggets of wisdom he’s picked up along the way. 

Gault grew up in San Diego, in the Point Loma neighborhood, which was on a peninsula. He called himself a “water baby,” and loved everything beach-related, including surfing and sailing. His parents encouraged him to go to college to become a dentist. 

But a career in dentistry never got going. Gault, who was attending San Diego State, was drawn to a trio of UCLA fraternity brothers who were opening a theme park in San Diego focused on water creatures and animals. They called the place SeaWorld. In 1964, Gault took a job at the brand new park. His first job? Walking the grounds, picking up cigarette butts and taking out trash.

Gault rose up quickly, crediting his hustle as a driving force. “All of a sudden, I was getting all these promotions. I had outworked everyone.” 

The promotions made Gault rethink dentistry. For one, he found something he loved doing and was making decent money. And two, he was going to college at the same time while working and he felt squeezed. So, he said goodbye to San Diego State. 

Gault learned an important lesson in business — know your “why” — long before author Simon Sinek made the phrase a go-to for any leader looking to galvanize a workforce. “One of the founders of SeaWorld, in 1964, put his arm around me and said: ‘We’re in the business of creating good feelings in people.’ I’ve never forgotten that lesson.”

Another key to Gault’s success was his willingness to move to new places, from Cleveland to Orlando to Japan. “You have to be willing to pack up and move and do whatever they want you to do.”

Gault loves talking and getting to know people. But he’s also a good observer, another way he rose in his career. “You have to watch people around you and learn what they do and model behavior after them. Sometimes you (learn) what not to do.” 

For Gault, “Lost in Translation” is more than a Bill Murray movie about Americans in Japan: Gault lived it. He was one of the top Universal executives who helped open the company’s theme park in Osaka, Japan. It was a four-year odyssey that culminated with a successful opening in 2001. One culture difference Gault discovered quickly was that while American businesses might have a lot of meetings, Japanese take the concept to unseen heights, which, he says, led to frustrating delays. “Japanese culture likes to meet and then meet again and then meet some more. They meet on a topic so much they can meet it to death. American culture is more of making decisions, not having meetings.”

Another culture clash came in the concept of casual Fridays. Gault recalls that, when he introduced casual Fridays, his Japanese colleagues didn’t take to the idea of not wearing a buttoned-up shirt and tie. So, Gault brought a pair of scissors one day, and jokingly demonstrated how he would start cutting ties if necessary. The next week his Japanese team came in wearing polo shirts – only this time they had gym bags in tow. Why? The employees were going to change into their dress clothes before heading home from work. “They didn’t want to be seen standing at the subway without a shirt and tie on because that would mean they were unemployed.”

Gault retired in 2007, when he was 67. He spread his interests around in retirement, from golf to sailing to fishing to volunteering for civic and nonprofit boards. He also rediscovered his Christian faith. “It’s not so much religion as it is a personal foundation for understanding the world and accepting it. It gives me so much strength and guidance.” 


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