Interview with Sr. V.P. & Director of Operations for Tommy Bartlett Explorartory - Mark Schilling

Mark Schilling has worked for Tommy Bartlett, Inc. for over forty years. Starting off parking cars and operating the snack bar for the famous ski show, Mark is now vice president and director of operations for the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory - but will still pitch a hand in doing his originally duties whenever needed. Almost kid-like in his joy of working at a place that is filled with wonder, Mark was gracious to spend a couple hours giving me a tour of the facilities and impart some entertaining stories, as well as some of its long history.

Tell me a little about yourself – are you originally from the Dells?

Not originally. I came here for a summer job for the Tommy Bartlett Show back in 1971. Parked cars, snack bar, vending, that type of stuff. Made enough money to go and finish college totally on my own. Pretty amazing, making as little money as we made back then that you could still make enough to go to college and not having to get a whole lot of financial aid. I finished up in La Crosse. I grew up in Galesville, a teeny tiny small town. I came up here for a summer job while I was in college and I never left.

So what exactly do you do here?

I’m Sr. Vice President & Director of Operations, but during the summer I’m still parking cars. Still running the snack bars. Whatever is needed to make sure show goes on. The only thing I don’t do is ski. In the wintertime we’re working on exhibits for the Exploratory and trying to come up with something new and different to catch someone’s imagination, to say “Hey, I want to learn more.” But first and foremost – have fun. That’s the great part about my job, just trying to make people have fun.

Tell me a little bit about the history of the place – I’m assuming it was started by a guy named Tommy Bartlett?

Tommy Bartlett started the Tommy Bartlett Show. He was a bigger than life character – sort of the P.T. Barnum of the Dells. Mr. Wisconsin Dells sometimes was the title was hanging on him.  He was not afraid to promote. He used to have us put bumper stickers on every car that came to the show until late seventies, early 80s. He was famous for all his billboards, the bumper stickers, and he did a live radio show every week for Chicago – just to promote the Dells. He did anything he thought would get people up here and come to the Dells. It worked for a lot of years, and a lot of people came as a result. We had the show for many years, and then we started Robot World, which is now the Exploratory. Been doing it for 30 years now – this crazy stuff. It s a year-round attraction. Started off just as a seasonal, but as we developed more things to do, especially in the hands-on science area, we got to be a viable year round place to go. It’s an hour and a half visit minimum to do it right, and often you can spend a lot more time than that.

Who owns it now - the family of Tommy Bartlett?

Tommy Bartlett passed away about 13 years ago, and his business partner Tom Diehl worked with him since the late 60s. He was basically general manger of his restaurant, snack bars, and eventually general manger of the ski show for a whole bunch of years. Once he took over, it just evolved. The capacity of the crowds, it just kept getting bigger and bigger every year. He’s a dynamic person Tom Diehl. He really made it what it is. So because of his relationship with Tommy, if something were to ever happen to him he would be able to buy out his stake. Tommy was quite happy to have him as his partner – he really made this thing work.

I remember coming here as a kid when it was called Robot World. Why was the transition made to it now being The Exploratory?

It originally was The House of Tomorrow – then Robot World - the world’s only robot guided tour started in 1982. The first year basically the robots didn’t work. The company that made them kept promising us that they would work, but they didn’t work, so we finally gave up with the company and went with a company out of Chicago.  They created these two robots (similar to C3PO and R2D2), and they had them at the beginning of the tour and also at the end of the tour, so it looked like they moved – sort of a Chucky Cheese type thing. Back then it was super doper, but by today’s standards with Star Wars and special effects, things get updated too fast.

For example, in 1999 we got a robot dog from Sony – the most amazing artificial intelligence at the time called AIBO. We entered a special raffle drawing and were chosen as one of the people that would buy it. We had it up on a table and it did this little routine with tricks. A year later that thing was selling in Spencer Gifts for ninety-nine bucks (whereas they spent a few thousand). That was kind of it for robots, and Robot World. It’s too hard to give people what their expectations are.

So, we were doing The Exploratory two years after we started Robot World. Tommy had gone to San Francisco to tour The Exploratorium, which is the grand-daddy of all hands-on science centers. We talked to them about it, and how we are in the Midwest and would this sort of thing be good to do. It was a very ambitious undertaking to do a hands-on science center in the Wisconsin Dells – a totally radical kind of thought. We started with a whole bunch of exhibits; some of them were the same from The Exploratorium. They gave us a cookbook (blueprints to build exhibits), but we tried to give them a little more color, a little more sophistication to them. But the biggest idea of Tommy’s was to make things FUN – if they learned something, that would be a side bonus, but the first thing was it had to be fun. If it’s not fun, if it’s just there to teach, people will instantly back away, especially kids. We get them by making them intrigued – put a spark in their imagination.

How many exhibits are there?

We have over 175 exhibits, and were adding a couple, two or three every year. Some are grand – the Mir Space Station was a big addition for us – it required a whole new building.

So how do you come up with the exhibits?

We travel all over.  We go to different science centers all over the country. We do a lot of searching on the internet, see what’s new technology wise.

What’s the most popular exhibit?

I would have to say the Vandegraph hair raiser (a static electricity generator). Just the uniqueness of it. People actually have their hair stand up, which like I said doesn’t really work well for me, but I can feel it on my arms – not so much on the top of the head.

Your favorite?

The Mir Space Station – on a whole it’s just so unique the way they have it tilted inside there is – gives you that . . .

Sick feeling – I almost fell over!

Oh, we bring in school children, and if you don’t warn them they’ll walk in and tip over on their side! They’re just galloping in there like they’re heading for the playground, but once they look up and see where there at, it’s disorientating and uncomfortable. A lot of times we have to just bring them in, and sit them on the floor.

Yeah, when you warned me before we went in I sort of blew it off thinking there was no way I would be affected, but I literally had to grab the handrail to steady myself.

It affects a lot of people in different ways. Some people really can’t handle it for any time at all, and they’ll get right to the exit and just peek in. Other people can do it no problem at all. That’s why astronauts train for it.
So what is the best part of your job?

Just making people happy every day, especially in the summer when I park cars. Only somebody like me can say “How do I make that fun?” Well, when you do the stupid stuff that I do in the parking lot - you make people smile.

What’s the hardest part?

The hardest part for us is to get people in the gate. Everybody is so cynical when they come to the Dells, especially the early years when the Dells kind of had a carnival atmosphere, kind of kitschy. It just promotes itself bigger than it is. Well the Tommy Bartlett Show has been made bigger, grander and actually has stuff you can’t see by just flipping a television channel. There is unique stuff happening all the time, the music and the setting, it’s just a magical experience, and The Exploratory is just a whole another experience. It’s the biggest thing in the Midwest for this kind of stuff. The live show, the science stuff here is as big as anything in Chicago, Milwaukee or Minneapolis.

What’s the most memorable thing that has happened while working here?

Starting Robot World was a big day, a big event. We got to tear down the old restaurant which I actually managed coming out of college for a couple years, and soon after they decided to make Robot World. Tommy decided to tear it down, and he made it a fire drill for the local fireman as a training exercise, so I got to light the match. That was my Christmas card that year – was me standing in front of the fire – smiling – everybody knew how enjoyable that was. But it was just fun to make that transition. From a restaurant motel to something more spectacular – more grander than we had before.

Any ideas or additions planned for the future?

We have files full of ideas, and it’s just a matter of when we will trip the trigger to do another expansion. We're hoping we can stick around for a few hundred more years and show people a good time