Major Shakeup as Top Leaders Depart Universal Creative

December 13, 2022, 9:03 PM · Thierry Coup, Mike Hightower, and other long-time leaders at Universal Creative are leaving the company, according to news reports. The executives are taking an NBCUniversal early retirement buyout offer for team members over the age of 57 or who have been at the company for more than 10 years.

Universal long has been known for management stability in its theme park division, where Tom Williams ran the shop for decades, with Mark Woodbury charge of the creative team. At the end of last year, Williams retired, but Woodbury moved up to run Universal Parks & Resorts, keeping the leadership transition in house. With Hightower moving up to replace Woodbury, it seemed that Universal was settling in for another run of stability, this time leading up to the opening of the new Epic Universe theme park in Orlando in 2025.

Now, many of Universal Creative’s iconic leaders heading out the door. Coup has been Universal Creative’s Chief Creative Officer and Senior Vice President, having overseen The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Super Nintendo World, and many other acclaimed projects for the company. In addition to his year serving as Universal Creative’s new President, Hightower most recently oversaw the development of Universal Beijing Resort.

TheWrap also is reporting that Mike Harrington, vice president, engineering and safety at Universal Studios Florida, has taken the buyout.

Depending upon what these creative leaders want to do next, there could now be a stunning collection of talent on the market soon, especially when you consider the recent departures over at Walt Disney Imagineering. Could some Universal Creative people end up over at WDI? Could some Imagineers be heading over to new roles at Universal? The two companies have a long history of seeing designers bounce back and forth between them.

Or could other theme park companies pick up some big names now on the market? Or might some departing Universal leaders be ready to start their own themed entertainment design shops? Stay tuned for big changes happening on the creative side of the business.

* * *
For more theme park news, please sign up for Theme Park Insider's weekly newsletter.

And to help support Theme Park Insider while saving money on discounted theme park tickets, please follow the ticket icon links our Theme Park listings page.

Replies (18)

December 13, 2022 at 10:29 PM

All before their shiny new theme park opens? Very weird.

December 13, 2022 at 11:01 PM

Well, so much for that leadership stability that was brought up a few days ago...

Will Disney scoop up Coup and Hightower the same way they did Scott Trowbridge?

December 14, 2022 at 12:05 AM

This looks more than a bit suspicious to go right around plans for a new park. Get the feeling some behind the scenes drama going down.

December 14, 2022 at 3:42 AM

Obviously they're going to replace them with Bob Chapek.

* Ducks *

December 14, 2022 at 8:23 AM

My first thought is that once 3rd gate opens, there will not be as much need for the number of people currently employed. Same thing at Disney after Epcot opened.
I'd think that by this point in the process, most of the design and creative aspects of the park are complete.

December 14, 2022 at 9:02 AM

Epic Universe and Super Nintendo World are designed so there’s going to be less big projects on the horizon. The article notes that there’s a succession plan already in place so things will be very stable the new park opening.

December 14, 2022 at 9:42 AM

I had the same thought, Marc. It's also much like Joe Rohde leaving Disney as there is nothing new on the horizon for Disney parks, so no real need for creative talent if the heads of the companies that control the purse strings aren't going to budget funds for a new project.

December 14, 2022 at 10:13 AM

@ M. Ricketts & TwoBits: According to Robert's article these two "executives are taking an NBCUniversal early retirement buyout offer for team members over the age of 57 or who have been at the company for more than 10 years." It doesn't seem to have any direct relationship with the state of construction on any Universal project.

December 14, 2022 at 11:51 AM

Don't underestimate the power of early retirement buyouts. They are risky for businesses, and often result in long time, high performers, leaving because they know they can easily find work elsewhere. I also wouldn't be surprised if some of them collect their check and rejoin in a few months. It happens.

I don't find enough evidence in this news of danger over at epic universe. It also seems too early to jump ship in fear of few future projects. I know nothing of attraction development, but I would think it doesn't stop until a few months after opening when the attraction is fully operational. And then there's the kidzone replacement.. And by the time that opens IOA will need something new.. Pipeline seems healthy enough at universal

December 14, 2022 at 1:23 PM

Bizrently: "I know nothing of attraction development, but I would think it doesn't stop until a few months after opening when the attraction is fully operational."

Me: Hey, Death Star Deux was fully operational before the construction workers bailed. It would not surprise me to learn the same would be true of theme park atrakshuns.

December 14, 2022 at 2:54 PM

@TH - You're right that these staff are taking an early retirement being offered to numerous NBC/Universal staff. However, I think twobits and Marc have a point that these staff felt like they could take advantage of this opportunity because the creative process on Epic Universe and Super Nintendo World is near or beyond the final stages, making it easier to walk away. Also, from the POV of these staff, there's no way to know if the early retirement offer will stay on the table beyond the completion of Epic Universe, so it's to their benefit to pounce now in the event it's redacted in a year or 2.

December 14, 2022 at 7:26 PM

Having been around the block enough times to encounter a few buyout opportunities of my own, I'll say this - if you can line up another job, always take the buyout.

Switching jobs is the best way to boost your pay, and a buyout is just free money on top of the switch. If you don't take the buyout, a post-buyout workplace can be a miserable place, especially when so many of your remaining co-workers are the ones who couldn't find another place to land.

That said, if your entire industry is offering buyouts and no one is hiring, you're kinda stuck, but industry legends such as Thierry always will have options. And that's the most surprising thing about this to me. Very often, buyout offers have upper limits so that senior management cannot take them and exit the company. Universal Parks is making plenty of money, so I am curious to learn why Comcast management decided not just to allow, but to pay, some of the parks' top talent to walk.

December 15, 2022 at 5:29 AM

Robert: "... but industry legends such as Thierry always will have options."

Me: A small edit "... but industry legends such as Thierry AND HIGHTOWER always will have options."

December 15, 2022 at 1:17 PM

@TH: I see the early retirement buyout offer as a way to get them off the payroll since there won't be anything for them to do. In the long run, it will save Universal money by cutting staff even if their employees get a bonus for their buyout. It's win-win for both parties.

December 15, 2022 at 2:07 PM

My suspicion is that with development on Epic Universe pretty much complete and whatever is coming next still in the early stages, Universal is encouraging some of their long time creatives to step aside and let new blood fill in the top positions. Now is a good time to do it as they can write it off for this fiscal year versus having it on the books for next, and it's entirely possible those leaving could still be hired as consultants on an as needed basis in the future. While there is certainly value in having long tenured creatives, in a world where demand is shifting quickly and technology is evolving rapidly, it might not be the worst thing to have a new generation of younger creatives at the helm. Their experiences are likely closer to those of the guests that currently make up Universal's target audience, and as such they may be better suited to deliver attractions with maximum appeal.

December 15, 2022 at 3:11 PM

@Twobots: So with the parks in Singapore, Japan, China and the new replacement for USF KidsZone there won't be anything to do?

December 15, 2022 at 3:19 PM

I would truly be flummoxed to find out that a large, profit-driven company is making a short-term, financially-driven decision.

December 15, 2022 at 8:56 PM

The buyouts were offered at throughout NBC/Universal. They are attractive offers... I took one.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Park tickets

Weekly newsletter

New attraction reviews

News archive