Smaller, Independent Theme Parks Thriving

by ekramer on July 19, 2010

In recent years, the economy has sent some theme park profits and attendance numbers rolling downhill. Profits flattened after a near decade of increasing revenues that topped out at more than $12 billion. Last year, the theme park chain Six Flags filed for bankruptcy after it carried heavy debt into the recession. But smaller parks have been able to ride out the recession due to some specific strategies.

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Between farms and cornfields dotting Indiana’s southwestern landscape sits Holiday World, a 64-year-old theme park where families line up to pay one admission price to access all rides. But Matt Eckert, its general manager, says these lines aren’t where he saw evidence of the recession nearly two years ago.

“We started seeing a lot of our picnic customers canceling,” Eckert says. “Obviously if a company’s having a down period one of the first things they’re going to cut is you know their employee parties.”

Although company picnic business fell off by about 30 percent, attendance numbers for the everyday customer — which accounts for 85 percent of the park’s business — actually increased. Eckert says this was in part due to admission being fairly inexpensive at about $42. That includes Holiday World’s newest ride — the Wildebeest, the world’s longest water coaster. It’s a series of yellow tubes where flowing water helps shoot riders on a raft through the very wet labyrinth.

Regularly adding new rides is one of the strategies parks like Holiday World use to get customers to return each year and attract new ones. Eckert sums it up this way: “We like those E-S-T words — the biggest, the tallest, the fastest, the best,” he says. “We always go for something that’s going to top something else in the industry if we can.”

The Wildebeest cost more than $5 million — no chump change during a recession. But Eckert says that ride is a factor in business being up this year over last. And he says the company picnic crowd is starting to return. Holiday World has done drawn crowds by making investments over several decades. One of the biggest was adding its Splashin’ Safari water park 1993.

“The water park was huge,” says Pat Koch, the matriarch of the family that started the park. “The water park really helped to increase attendance when it was a very hot, humid day.”

And it has helped business this summer, with its record high temperatures, says Koch, who is also the mother of Will Koch. He oversaw the park’s rapid growth and died last month in an accidental drowning. She says the family is dedicated to continuing the family business and growing it, just as Will Koch would have wanted.

And other independently owned parks in the region are growing — including Bowling Green’s Beech Bend, with its adjoining auto race tracks. It spent $5 million to add a water park with a wave pool and other water rides, which it recently opened after a massive clean up following the April floods. Now, park-owner Dallas Jones says attendance is up.

“I’m going to say we’re in the 7 or 8 percent bracket, if I had to guess,” Jones says. “It may be even a little higher than that. The sad part of it is we’re about six weeks behind.”

These smaller parks, which appeal to people vacationing near home during this recession, are a bit of an anomaly in a sea of larger theme park companies that have seen revenues drop. They’ve had had to cut expenses and slash ticket prices to bring customers through the gates. With that backdrop, industry eyes were keenly focused on last months opening of Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando, says Dennis Speigel who consults theme parks nationwide. He says in these times, large bureaucratic companies often have limited access to credit and are unable to commit to new attractions.

“When you’re an independent operator, and assuming you have the capital, you can make these decisions rather quickly and implement them rapidly,” Speigel says.

Louisville businessman Ed Hart says he understands the strengths of these smaller parks. He once operated Kentucky Kingdom before selling it to Six Flags. He built up that park with big rides and one of the industry’s first water parks accessible with a general park entrance fee. While Six Flags closed that park earlier this year, Hart is now in negotiations to reopen Kentucky Kingdom next summer. He says he sees the smaller parks leading the way in the industry.

“Park owners are starting to realize that the future is more in creating family entertainment as opposed to just trying to appeal to teenagers with these high-thrill rides,” he says.

And industry observers say that kind of thinking could be to the ticket to a rebound for the industry.

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