Women of Influence: Gina Claassen

A view from the top…
Gina Claassen is the corporate safety director of Herschend Family Entertainment (HFE). She has been with that company for 21 years.


HFE is touted as the nation’s largest family-owned themed attractions corporation. It operates several theme parks and tourist attractions and is currently headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. Claassen is based in Branson, Missouri, with her husband, Tony Claassen, who works at Silver Dollar City, where Gina Claassen began her career. 

Accomplishments and affiliations…
• International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA),  chair,  IAAPA Facility Operations Sub-Committee and past chair of IAAPA’s Exhibitor Awards Committee, speaker at IAAPA Expo and is an IAAPA Certified Attractions Executive (ICAE)
•Served on NAARSO Education Committee, instructor at the NAARSO Safety Forum, received NAARSO’s certifications
•Instructor at the AIMS Safety Seminar, received AIMS certifications 
•Member of ASTM F24 Committee
•CrossFit Trainer

Claussen chases her passion
BRANSON, Mo. — Gina Claassen’s take on life is uniquely her own. 

 She loves challenges, but she describes that akin to “keeping her hands in the cookie jar.” 

She sets goals, describing herself as “a goal-hitting person.” She is spontaneous. When something happens unexpectedly, that is when she says, “Wow, I need to check that off my bucket list,” even though that bucket list doesn’t exist.

After 21 years at Herschend Family Entertainment, she still loves her job. She has never closed any doors to other opportunities, but she found her family and passion at HFE.

“I guess I drank the HFE Kool-Aid,” she said. 

Claassen grew up in Harrison, Arkansas, the Boone County, Arkansas, seat, located on the border of Arkansas and Missouri. The town is just under 35 miles south of Branson, Missouri. 

Her parents, Steve and Glenda Cantrell, both came from families of dairy farmers. They were dairy farmers, too. Claassen and her older brother were raised on farmland in her dad’s family. Her father’s mother lived within walking distance of their home. Her mother’s family lived about 20 minutes down the road. 

Growing up, she helped on the farm, but what she really loved was playing team sports. She played any team sport she could find. However, Harrison was small and those opportunities were limited.

Her high school, Valley Springs High School, was, of course, small, too. There were 50 students in her graduating class. She played basketball on the high school team. When she was a sophomore, her team won state. 

Claassen also played basketball after high school graduation. She was a walk-on at North Arkansas College, a two-year community college in Harrison. That walk-on quickly led to a scholarship for her. 

It was her first summer after her first year of college that she got her first taste of the amusement industry. She and several friends found jobs at Silver Dollar City and carpooled there daily. 

Claassen loved it. She felt like she found a family there. She worked at an attraction called Splash Harbor, where she was basically paid to water fight with kids all day.

She also met her husband, Tony Claassen, there that summer. He worked at the park’s train attraction, which passed Splash Harbor.

“On days he was a conductor, I would see him as the train went by Splash Harbor,” she said. “On days he was not a conductor, he was either the crossing guard or a robber. It’s always been fun to say I married a train robber.” 

After her second year and last at the two-year North Arkansas College, she transferred to Southwest Missouri State, now called Missouri State University, where she graduated with a degree in entertainment management in 2001. She already knew where she wanted to be. Not only that, she and Tony Claassen had already married. 

Upon graduation, she slipped right into her job, asking questions and finding herself hands-on at the opening of new rides. 

She was hands-on when the park opened Premier Rides’ BuzzSaw Falls and later S&S’s Powder Keg. She was on the opening team for Wildfire, a B&M coaster, and the Grand Exposition, a new area of the park that opened with 10 Zamperla rides.

“When Herschend opened Celebration City, I found myself on that team, too,” she said.

She went from being an attractions supervisor to attractions manager. Her husband’s expertise was in maintenance and he not only continued there, he also went back to school and earned a degree from Evangel University in 2010. 

Claassen not only ran with any task she was provided, she also actually ran marathon races, half-marathon races.

In 2011, Claassen felt a shift in her focus when a ride accident fatally injured a 29-year-old U.S. Army veteran. Ride accessibility became a greater industry focus.

“This is what brought me here, she said, “to safety and to the issues of accessibility of amusement rides.”

She and other industry colleagues began having conversations and working together to drive change around physical limitations and the ability to participate on attractions” 

Claassen has worked in that area since.

“There is not a ‘one-size fits all’ model when identifying rider requirements,” she said. “Today, operators and manufacturers are working closer together to identify these requirements for each ride. More guests with disabilities are visiting our properties than ever before, and it is our responsibility to ensure their expectations are met. We want everyone to have a good time.”

Claassen is still a team player. She is an industry team player, still wanting to contribute her time and her skills. 

She may not run her physical races as much anymore, but she is an athlete. And this athlete doesn’t seem to show any signs of not crossing finish lines. 

Pam Sherborne

This article appears in the JANUARY 2020 issue of Amusement Today.
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