There are common threads that connect them, yet each of this year’s Rising Stars has their own passion, purpose, and point of view. Nominated by bosses and peers, their road to the adventure park world may have started at summer camp, on family trips, or just by chance. Their dedication to the industry stems from deep personal views—from why it’s important to get folks outside to harnessing the energy of helping guests find their own internal superhero. Some are relatively new to the industry; others have been on a continuous rise for decades.
The Class of 2023 represents the new and the experienced, the dedicated and the delighted. These folks are proof that the worldwide adventure park industry is in good hands—today and in the future.
Adventure and Entertainment Risk Consultant, Granite Insurance
If you told a younger Ruthie Rivers that she’d someday settle into an enriching and exciting career in insurance sales, she’d tell you that’s just plain nuts.
“When they first approached me, I thought it was a joke,” Rivers says of her employer Granite Insurance asking her about joining the team. But when she met with them and they showed her how her hands-on background in adventure parks would serve her and the industry well in that role, she bit.
“I realized—and this is true—that while ultimately my job is to sell insurance, I’m not a sales person,” she says. “I’m a relationship builder. I have fun with them, I help them run their businesses better and safer. I’m out there creating this nationwide network of friends—friends who love what I love [the outdoors], whether they end up clients or otherwise.”
“What is unique about Ruthie is she has a background, lifestyle, and purpose-driven life centered on the adventure industry, and insurance is just the mechanism which she chooses to serve that industry,” says one nominator. “When I say serve, I truly mean that…with every action Ruthie takes, she strives to serve the adventure community at large, leaving it a better place than when she found it.”
What led you to this role? My dad was a Navy Seal, and I grew up with an adventurous family. I love any kind of outdoor activity, so I thought I’d fit in hospitality tourism. I got a job at a resort and found myself in a back office staring at computer screens and with no window. An aerial park opened down the road so I took a job there. I knew right away: I was in my happy space again.
In insurance, I am still in that space, traveling to spots to visit and help them out. I don’t do well being in the same place all the time. Now, I can visit, but I also can work from home, on the road and even from a sailboat. This is a role that could take me all the way to retirement.
What’s a moment you knew this career was right for you? I feel that way when I have the initial conversation with a potential client when they didn’t get a lot of that in the past. They’re dreading it, but when they meet with me and see that I know the field, the jargon, and why we need what we need, they open up. I can remember when I was on the other side of that coin, so it’s great to have the insight to really help people.
What’s the secret to your success? First and foremost, it’s the team that backs me up. I’ve seen a lot of agents who don’t have that, but I sure do. I appreciate and lean on them every day.
What’s in your future? I don’t think at any time anyone in our agency is going to be stagnant, because we’re always moving and growing. I’m going to go with that and see where it takes me. Oh, and some day I’d like to work remotely from a sailboat on a long voyage.
Zip Line Tour Operations Manager, Kualoa Ranch, Hawaii
CJ Hughes isn’t new to the adventure park world; he scored his first job back in 1999 as a high-ropes course instructor at a Boy Scout camp. But his continued growth and success shows that Rising Stars can continue to grow years into their career.
“Before, when anyone asked what I wanted to do, the best I could answer was ‘I don’t know,’” says Hughes. “But I’ve always loved being outside. If I wasn’t in a tree, I was near one. I didn’t have the grades to be a doctor or lawyer, so if I was going to help people in my career, it was going to have a different look.”
It all started at the Boy Scout camp. Ironically, he was initially spooked by high ropes. “I was too scared to do anything,” he says of that first year. “I could talk others through it, but I hadn’t done it myself.” When he did, he says, he realized the power the industry has. “This showed me this was more than just a job or career. It’s a way of life, and a meaningful one.”
Says a nominator, “CJ is an impeccable manager, kind, thoughtful, and smart. His decisions are bang on, his management skills are excellent, his staff love him, his ownership are thrilled with him. He is a pleasure to work with as he is always working to get better, do the right thing, and be kind. And he nails it!”
What’s your secret to being a good leader? I know not everyone is going to love me, so I don’t spend all my time forcing that. I also, when training or helping staff, never make it about them being wrong. Instead, it’s about learning how to do it right. And I communicate. My managers and I know what we are all thinking, and that’s important.
When did you know this was the career for you? That realization happens all the time. But I think about this time I was out guiding a zip line tour and a guest said, “Who is your boss because all of you deserve raises!” Who gets to have a job when customers say things like that? It was a great moment for me and my staff.
What’s the biggest challenge you—and this industry—currently face? Finding young staff who want to be involved, outdoors, and active. I can find one of those traits, but not often all three. I could run so many more tours if I find more employees who fit the need.
What excites you about the future of the industry? I don’t know about exponential growth at this point. There are so many places out there now. I think it’s more about technology helping us evolve how people experience this. For instance, imagine a helmet and visor that shows how fast you are going, your distance traveled, and more. I think we will see more and more of that.
What’s your career goal? I’ve never had an answer to that question. You know, it was my brother who told me about the camp I went to work at, so I just kind of stumbled into it. I keep finding the things I want as I do them. I’m going to just let that keep guiding me.
Fixer of All Problems, Challenge Quest, Okla.
Mason Craine grew up a summer camper and went on to work for that same camp as a young adult, working on the ropes courses as both a guide and technician. It was a time, he says, that gave him “the incredible opportunity to see what adventure parks and education ropes can do for people.”
When Challenge Quest—a firm that specializes in building, training, and facilitation for experiential learning—saw him in action (they were a vendor for New Life Ranch, where Craine went on to work for a bit), they scooped him up, seeing immense potential.
“His title, in all seriousness, is actually ‘Fixer of All Problems’ because that was the most accurate title I could give to him,” a nominator writes. “He has been a zip line guide, supervisor, and facilitator for a number of years, and has become a trainer, an ACCT professional inspector, and even an archery instructor. No matter the task, he tackles it with enthusiasm, professionalism, and just the right amount of perfectionism.”
What’s your leadership philosophy? Back when I worked at a camp, I was a trip leader for a five-day backpacking trip. It was the first major team-building event I’d ever run. That experience of seeing how they started out not knowing one another, not sure of their role, and then seeing them settle into it all was just so cool. It stuck with me. Whether it’s campers, trainees or fellow staff, I’ve seen firsthand how people learn from true experience. They cannot learn from words alone, and so I always look to lead them via their own experiences.
Is there a moment when you just knew you belong in this field? It’s always a joy for me when I provide an experience that helps people explore and grow. We see so many people from so many walks of life, and I get to know them pretty well for two-and-a-half hours. The look on their faces when they truly pushed through and got past their fear? Seeing them get past their personal challenges is why I do this.
What’s been your greatest challenge? It was a mental challenge for me on how to be in a leadership role and keep management sense. I like to make it feel non-corporate, with a balance of being a friend and a supervisor, so they come to me with their joys, problems, ideas, all of it. It was new to me, and I am proud of how I’ve done.
What do you see as your future? I go to Oklahoma State University for mechanical engineering. My career in this field was not planned; it just happened. I’m still in school, yes. But, you know, I think there are plenty of engineering opportunities in the challenge course industry.
Assistant Operations Manager/Lead Trainer, Kohala Zipline, Hawaii
When Hawaii native Kanoe Lewis decided she wanted to move away from her career as a barista/trainer, someone she knows at Kohala Zipline suggested she try working there.
“I said, ‘I get bored really quickly,’ and they said, ‘Then this industry is right for you,’” she recalls.
Lewis is, as one nominator calls her, “truly the Swiss Army knife of Kohala Zipline, and has shown a willingness to adapt to any situation that has been thrown her way.”
Besides working as the assistant operations manager and lead trainer, she also completed trainer training, and has worked with fellow staff members and management to develop and execute an in-house training curriculum while also managing the staff schedule and filling in at any position when a department is shorthanded.
“Training is where I found my niche,” Lewis says. “Helping to build good people. I love it.”
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given? Respect is earned. I had a supervisor at the time, Mike Picard, who told me that. I took it to a different level, though. I don’t ask anyone to do anything that I cannot do, and from that I earn respect. I feel like that’s gotten me pretty far in life.
What’s your leadership philosophy? Lead by example, not just by pointing a finger. Be in there with them, partnering with them, especially on the hard days. I also believe in building a better person for a better planet. It’s a whole Hawaiian value. All your choices affect everyone around you. And that’s important to embrace in leadership.
Share a moment that just felt like this is the perfect career for you. I had a visually impaired person book into a regular zip line tour. Nothing on their waiver; we found out when they arrived. He was the ninth person in a nine-person tour, and I had to do something difficult: step in and tell him it wasn’t going to work that day. But I asked to leave work and I took him back to his hotel personally. We stopped at beaches on the way. He had yet to put his feet in the ocean, so we did that. He described what he was feeling; I got to ‘see’ it with his eyes. I rebooked him for the next day (when they could be prepared) and when I picked him up, he told me it was his birthday! I got permission to show him not just zip lining but the whole island. We made it work; we were able to adjust. And me? I got to see him ‘see’ the course without sight. What a gift to me! It was good for my soul.
What do you see as opportunity in this field? Growth. There are so many places on this island that are undiscovered and untouched. If we can find a way to explore them without hurting the land, well, wow. Because, you know, this whole experience of zip lining gives people permission to be themselves, one of the greatest gifts you can get.
SkyPark Senior Instructor, Carlingford Adventure Centre, Ireland
The Boy Scout motto is “be prepared,” and in his role at Carlingford Adventure Center, life-long Scouting enthusiast Michael Kidd personifies that on a daily basis.
After joining Ireland’s largest adventure park as an instructor trainee mid-pandemic, Kidd’s ability to adapt, react, and be proactive and prepared has propelled him up the company ladder. Today, as a senior instructor in charge of day-to-day running of the park, all training of staff, and health and safety on site, Kidd says, “You basically do everything: clean toilets, manage a staff of 30—it’s all there.”
One of his nominators says he does all that not just with incredible efficiency, but with joy and aplomb. “Michael is a breath of fresh air. He approaches his work with excitement and enthusiasm, and this is demonstrated in the team he has built in SkyPark.”
He’s currently also earning his degree in Adventure Tourism from the University of Highlands and Islands in Scotland, all while running a park.
How did you find your way to adventure park work? I was really into Scouting since I was a young boy. When I was 16, I walked into Scottish Scout headquarters and came out a volunteer. Archery instruction was the first qualification I gained. At 18, I became staff, teaching climbing wall, tree climbs, ropes, challenge courses, team building, giant swing, Jacobs, ladder and more. Soon I was a trainer, training folks older than me. Then in August 2020, I got the phone call that I had this job. It all took off from there.
What’s the best advice you’ve gotten? It goes back to my first job. I was told ‘you can learn so much from other people, so seek it out.’ And when you learn it, the value comes when you pass it on, too. It helps a lot with people management skills. And when you learn those, you’re going to go far in this industry.
I also was taught by my great grandmother Granny Gwen: When you see someone who needs help, give them the same (experience) as others. We have Ireland’s only wheelchair-accessible zip line. I think the industry needs to do more of that, and that’s something I really want to help happen.
Can you share a moment when you knew you were meant for this field? I get to see this a lot: when someone starts their training journey, it’s not unusual for them to be thinking ‘this might not be for me.’ You see them struggle, and then you see it click. The day that person passes their assessment is always a very good day.
What do you see in the future for this industry? I guess my dissertation will answer that. The working title of it is “Commercialization of the ropes course and adventure parks sector.” The ultimate conclusion is to signpost the various changes experienced in the wider industry as a result of commercialization. With this came new products and opportunities for a pay-to-play experience, safer equipment, and standards (such as the EN15567 in Europe) as well as better training and certification (ERCA)—which was needed to regulate and advise new parks.
CEO, Mica Moon Zip Tours, Wash.
When Drew Stewart’s father, Rik, was diagnosed 25 years ago with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, he was given a life expectancy of 3-5 years, so “he had to figure out a revenue stream that would last longer than him and take care of the family,” Drew explains. So, his father founded Mica Moon and Drew—much to the benefit of his family and the industry—jumped right in. He grew quickly from apprentice to the guy who runs the show at Mica Moon, all while earning a college degree.
Says a nominator, “Drew has grown through the leadership ranks at Mica Moon and has become a trainer, innovator, and respected guide and confidant of our staff. He is spearheading Mica Moon’s preparation for an ACCT operational review and subsequent accreditation, all while managing guides, operations, and taking our marketing to the next level. I have no doubt that Drew will be in ACCT leadership as soon as his plate isn’t so full.”
And by the way, “My Dad is still with us,” says Drew. “He’s doing great.”
What’s your leadership philosophy? There is a book called “Extreme Ownership: How the Navy Seals Lead and Win.” It’s a lot about giving your team permission to operate within their capabilities and using that to give them confidence and help them learn. Rather than just information and instructions passed down, it’s a two-way street.
Can you share a great moment you’ve had out there? The whole point of our organization is to connect. I had this grandfather and grandson come out my first year and do the zip line tour. The grandfather came up to me after and said, “This is the best day of our lives. We’ve never connected like this before.”
What do you see as the biggest challenge and opportunity for this field? For challenge, the industry has grown so much and we’ve come a long, long way in the last five years, but we need to have standards (for safety and operation) that adapt to different types of spots. For instance, a camp for kids isn’t the same as a huge place adventure park, but now they are in the same category. We need to work on that to make it not just easier for all, but safe across the board.
As for opportunity, I think it’s important that we have a place like this within a couple of hours of everyone. I would love to see this brought to an urban setting, too. I know it sounds cheesy, but over the years, we see it time and time again: this type of activity is just good for people, and good for the world.
Park Manager, The Adventure Park at Storrs, Conn.
Jesse Pasacreta majored in computer science in college and found himself feeling “kind of out of place” at a desk job. Craving something different, he added a part-time job at The Adventure Park at Storrs just to have some fun. He realized immediately that he wasn’t going back to that desk.
“It was work that didn’t feel like work,” he says of adventure-park work life. “It was putting my time into something that was meaningful, felt right, and made me happy. Outside gives me peace and quiet in a way like no other things do. Sitting at a desk and looking out at that just felt hard to swallow.” Six years later, he’s the GM.
His nominators applaud his strong people skills; the staff even held a “Dress Like Jesse Day” this past season.
“He has a true passion for the business, the staff, and the guests,” says one. “The park gets high marks from guests with consistently outstanding reviews. While Jesse is still relatively early in his career, he has made a true impact on our company and I see him continuing to grow both at OVG [The Adventure Park owner Outdoor Venture Group] and in the industry as his career progresses.”
What’s the biggest challenge you face out there? Every day is a unique challenge, so picking one is rough. I’d say this: the only thing you can get used to is things not being the same.
What’s the best thing about this career? It allows people to fall in love with the outdoors. When someone comes in and you can change their lives? That’s so meaningful. You cannot allow that to distract from keeping people safe and staff happy, but it all fits together for that chance to change a life.
What moment stands out as great in your career so far? I recently had a staff member who felt (out of place in life) after a gap year during Covid (in which he worked at the park). He was worried about going back to school. He had no connections and felt isolated. But I saw him guiding kids and reaching them in amazing ways. And when you watch someone teach someone else to overcome something, they learn it themselves. He says he now knows how to connect, and he feels better.
What’s in your future? For me the best part of this job is mentoring others. I feel uniquely honored to be able to do that in this job. It’s a uniquely challenging time (when people need support and mentoring more than ever), and that just means I want to do that even better.
Natalie and Gatlin Carnley
Operations Manager and Site Manager, Butter and Egg Adventures, Ala.
Let’s put some extra hurdles into your work situation. First, choose to work for the family business. Next, get married and work side by side with your spouse. Toss in the whole parents/in-laws on site thing. Then, choose an industry that’s ever shifting, consistently challenging but then again: a whole lot of fun.
Natalie and Gatlin Carnley have taken all that on with grace and success even if, as Natalie says, it was the last thing she expected to do.
“I didn’t think I’d end up in this,” she says. “My parents started this in 2001 when I was in middle school, and I just wasn’t interested. But in college I had a change of heart. I wanted to be active, I wanted to be playing, not stuck behind a desk all day.”
She remembered going to camp as a kid, “at that awkward stage of life,” and how it helped her embrace her own self. “At camp we were all awkward together, and that made all the difference.”
The same is true, she says, of the aerial adventure industry. “I can be myself here, showing my true colors and not being ashamed of being a little quirky. I want to show people that can be them in life too.”
As for Gatlin—who previously served as a police officer in Montgomery and now oversees the Butter and Egg facilities and staff training—his path was simpler. “I married into it,” he laughs. But in doing so he also found a career that fits him perfectly.
The two work side-by-side, but not hand-in-hand. “We have totally opposite kinds of jobs,” says Natalie, who runs the day-to-day at Butter and Egg as the operations manager. “I like the planning and leading and he likes the management. It works.”
A nominator says their partnership benefits all at the park. “We all know how managing a home life and work as a couple can be challenging at times, but these two team members make it work,” they write. “Both have been certified in several different areas and this has been useful to our operation. We are a family-based operation, and both of these individuals allow us to continue to improve our services and facilities. Without these two, our facility would not the outstanding one that it is.”
What’s the best advice you’ve been given? For me it goes back to what I said before. My goal in this industry is to just be my true and authentic self, while still doing great work. At one point in my life, I wasn’t like that. Now, I am, and hope I always will be. (Natalie)
What’s your leadership philosophy? Be tough but fair. I expect everyone to do what needs to be done. But I also know things can take time. It goes back to my police training: do something over and over, and you’ll get it right in time. I try to lead that way. (Gatlin)
What do you see as an industry challenge? I am completely aware that our industry is very male dominated. Sometimes I have to put my foot down a little harder to be heard as much as a man. I love seeing other women in management positions. We need more of that. (Natalie)
What’s it like working side-by-side as a couple? It’s not perfect, and there are going to be times we are on different pages. We both have strong personalities, and sometimes we just have to talk it out. But that’s typical for every relationship, right? (Natalie)
Besides being with my spouse 24/7, I also work with my in-laws. It’s great and it works for us—they are great role models—but it’s not always easy. (Gatlin)
What does the future look like? Ultimately, we are in this for the long haul. My parents started this 22 years ago as a second career; now it’s our career, too. We will be taking over the business. We know it’s coming, and we’re excited to see how we will make it ours. (Natalie)