From 1976 to Now: Meet Tom Suel, Valleyfair’s Maintenance Director
1976: The Beginning
The summer of 1976 is a special time in Valleyfair’s history as it is the anniversary of our park’s opening. It might be hard for some of us to imagine what the park looked and felt like then, but luckily, Valleyfair’s Maintenance Director, Tom Suel, was there and has agreed to take us back in time.
As an eager high school student looking to earn some money, Tom applied to work in Valleyfair’s games department. “I remember back then, it was tough to get a job at Valleyfair,” Suel said, “If you didn’t have someone to reference who already worked there, you didn’t get an interview.” Tom happened to know a man who already worked at the park and was able to drop a name to get a job at Minnesota’s up and coming amusement park.
Tom worked in the games department for two summers, and then he was presented with the opportunity to gain more hands-on experience as a maintenance assistant. After completing his senior year of high school, Tom was offered a full-time job with the maintenance team. “I was all set up to go to technical school, but after thinking a lot about it, I decided to take a year with Valleyfair and see if I really liked it,” Suel said, “I never looked back.” After receiving on-the-job training, Tom continued to climb the ladder within the maintenance department.
The Times They Are a-Changin'
One of the biggest changes Tom has seen in the park is the advancement of technology. “What we thought was complex back in the day is child’s play now. We went from operating the brakes on roller coasters by hand to building an extremely complex impulse coaster like Steel Venom that is all automated.”
The water park is another area where Tom has seen major advancements in technology. “We used to have a few slides where all we did was pump water to the top that would then flow down the slides. Now we monitor everything from water pressure to chemical levels, to water flow,” Suel said.
These advancements have made Tom’s job both easier and harder at the same time. “The amount of information available now is so helpful, but everything is also more complex. We have two people on our team that specialize in just controls now, where we didn’t even have to think about that 30 years ago.”
The size of the park is another major change that Tom brings up time and time again. One of his favorite changes is the growth of the trees. “It is absolutely gorgeous now,” Suel said, “You used to be able to see all the way across the park, and now we have so many trees that have reached maturity.”
Tom has witnessed many rides and attractions come and go, but his favorite project that he was able to work on was Wild Thing's construction in 1996. “It was a love-hate relationship with that ride,” Suel said. The team at Valleyfair had one off season to build this brand-new hypercoaster. “Most coasters that are built now are built over two years,” Suel said, “Our team was able to do it in just over a half of a year.”
Building a Team
Tom is proud to lead the maintenance team at Valleyfair, especially since Valleyfair has one of the best downtimes (the amount of time a ride is closed for maintenance) in Cedar Fair.
“We have so many different areas of specialties within the maintenance department,” Suel said,” On my team, I have air and hydrologic specialists, mechanics, electricians, control specialists, carpenters, and more.”
When looking for associates, Tom looks for a variety of different skills. For example, when hiring a carpenter, someone would need to know all the basics of working with wood and then receives specialized training at Valleyfair for the specifics of working with wooden roller coasters. “Wooden roller coasters require a lot of work,” Suel said, “These coasters require thousands of hours of work each year, and tracking is so critical to the success of the ride.”
It’s all about finding balance when creating a team, and Tom has found that with his team at Valleyfair. “This is all about the team. I can't do this stuff by myself, and I’m proud to work with such a successful group. I’m proud of what we are doing.”
Welcome to Today
Another major change that Tom has witnessed over the years is the number of events that Valleyfair produces each year. “I think entertainment is part of the package in the amusement park industry,” Suel said, “I’m excited to see Grand Carnivale in 2021. These events are intense. It has been an adjustment for our team, but they are worth the amount of work.”
One of Tom’s favorite additions recently was the construction of North Star in 2017. “I wasn’t sure how that ride was going to be received, but it turned out to be one of the best rides in the park. It is so well built, and the control system on it is amazing,” Suel said, “There was a lot of debate on where to place that ride, and I think it has been a great addition to Valleyfair’s skyline.”
We know you all want to know when Valleyfair is getting that new coaster, so we asked Tom what his thoughts were on another major construction project. “Oh, I am all in,” Suel said, “It’s not up to me, but I think that it would be so much fun to add another ride.”