Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Parkscope Unprofessional Podcast Hour - The Road Trip

Overcast (iOS) - Simplecast (Stream & Download)

Alan and Joe spent a week on the road visiting tourist locations, amusement parks, and breweries in Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, and Tennessee. Catch up on their trips to BBQ places, Segways, beer, City Museum, Silver Dollar City, and Six Flags over Texas below.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Hidden Rides and Themed Attractions of...Pennsylvania

Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania make up the traditional amusement park strongholds of the United States, and it's Pennsylvania which has wound up with the greatest variation and the best preserved attractions. The state is even home to the birth place of what is often seen as the predecessor to all American roller coasters. Trying to parse out the "known" from the "unknown" is more or less a product of someone's background, as the PA parks are about as well known as any nationally.

For those that there's little doubt about their recognition, Hersheypark and Hershey's Chocolate World lead the pack. With greater than 3 million visitors a year, Hershey, PA is home to the king of all factory tour rides, some of the baddest coasters on the planet, monorails, a zoo, and a waterpark. Dorney Park in Allentown isn't that far away; it's a historic facility that doesn't have a whole lot of historic rides thanks to fires and liability insurance costs. It does have Cedar Point's old Demon Drop, the 1924 wood coaster Thunderhawk, Steel Force (Morgan hyper), and a collection of above average flat rides and other attractions. History lives at Kennywood, with an Old Mill, three classic wood coasters, the last operating Noah's Ark funhouse, and tons of other "last of its kind" attractions spanning the last century. Finally, we mention SeaWorld Entertainment's Sesame Place, a water theme park facility that's expanding dry rides in 2018 with a new Gravity Group wood coaster.

From there, there's the slightly less known. Idlewild is Kennywood's sister park, and another historic facility that transitioned from trolley park to fairytale park during the 50s. Home to the Rollo Coaster and the Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood attraction (still running with the same trolleys from when it was Mister Roger's), it's a great family park. Another top end family park is Dutch Wonderland, located on the main strip in Lancaster. It also has a wood coaster (Kingdom Coaster, formerly Sky Princess - CCI's first project) along with a couple boat rides, a monorail, sky ride, and a new suspended coaster that might open in 2018. Maybe. 

Pennsylvania is full of traditional parks that cater to local business outings and smaller populations. Knoebels is the most well known of these; open for eons but only really built out as an amusement park in the 1980s forward, Knoebels Amusement Resort is effectively the brain child of Dick Knoebel and his late wife, who were huge amusement historians and fanatics. They acquired, restored, and rebuilt numerous classic ride types long thought to be lost to time - The Elitch Gardens Twister, the Flying Turns, the Golden Nugget Mine Ride from Wildwood, multiple carousels, a Herschell Looper, and of course the San Antonio Rocket, now known as the Phoenix. Think of it as a theme park where the theme is "the greatest traditional amusement park ever assembled." It might really be that.

Further west are a trio of small parks that used to be a quartet. Lakemont in Altoona closed after the 2016 season to be retooled as a smaller "family entertainment center" that retained its two historic coasters. As of now, it's still not reopened, and it looks like 2019 at earliest will be when the doors are unlocked. Home to the world's oldest roller coaster (Leap-The-Dips, also the last side friction), it would be a tragedy to lose it. Part of it's woes are the proximity to Delgrosso's Amusement Park, a small facility built and run by a local tomato sauce distributor. The pizza and spaghetti here are, as you'd expect, very good. There's also a decent collection of rides and water slides kept in great shape.

Another pairing of "struggle" with "success" is Waldameer Park in Erie and Conneaut Lake. Conneaut Lake has been bouncing in and out of bankruptcy since the mid 1990s, but has found a foothold at present and is dragging itself out slowly. Like the other long gone Pennsylvania/Ohio parks that died before it, there's a 20s era wood coaster full of airtime (Blue Streak), a mix of really old flat rides and kids rides, a nice water front, and a cute hotel that's been heavily renovated. Waldameer Park probably benefited the most from the death of Geauga Lake in Cleveland, drawing lots of people who used to go there to it's expanding offerings. There's a reasonably sized water park there now in addition to the classic rides (Bill Tracy-designed Whacky Shack and Pirates Cove, Comet wood coaster) and newer thrillers (ARM drop tower, Gravity Group's awesome wood coaster Ravine Flyer II).

The American history of the roller coaster goes back to Pennsylvania and a small town now known as Jim Thorpe. The Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway was a tourist railway with extremely steep drops and curves, and became famous throughout the US in the mid-late 19th century as the first and only word in terror. When early coasters were constructed both in the US and throughout the rest of the world, the term "Scenic Railway" was associated with the format, and like the real thing in rural Pennsylvania, there were no underwheels and speed was controlled by brakemen. Many scenic railways even had mountain facades and theming; you can see this still on the scenic railway in Wiener Prater in Austria. While scenic railways are dead in the US, mountain coasters still exist as a sort of throwback to that era. Camelback Ski Resort operates such a ride year round.

Speaking of Camelback, let's talk about water parks. Pennsylvania has a lot of people in it and is far north, which means that indoor water parks are very much viable here. Camelback has one - Camelbeach. And it has a monster indoor water coaster, along with several other slides and attractions. They've also got a substantial outdoor water park too during the summer months. But the largest indoor facility in the state is by far Kalahari. The Pennsylvania location of the water park chain is the largest single roof indoor water park in the country, exceeding 200,000 square feet. There's more slides inside here than most outdoor water parks in the nation, along with a wave pool and two lazy rivers.

There's several outdoor water parks in the state worth noting as well. Kennywood's water park is Sandcastle, which of course is several miles away because Kennywood is totally closed in by urban development. The space it occupies is on the Monongahela River in a tight footprint that leads most slides to face the river itself. Smaller water park facilities are found at WildRiver in Saxton and Carousel Water & Fun Park in the Poconos which cater primarily to kids.

Finally, we get to the oversized family entertainment center portion of the piece: Legoland Discovery Center goes here because it's new. That's really the only reason. Also, it has a unique dark ride for the chain rather than the usual Kingdom Quest rides seen in the US, so that's kinda cool. All the Legoland Discovery Centers have trackless shooting dark rides, but unless you have a kid under 12 years old, you'll need to scour the events section to learn when the next adult night is. Fun Fore All in Cranberry Township on the west side of the state has kiddie rides (including a coaster), a Triotech shooting simulator ride, go-karts, bumper boats, and all the ticket redemption games you can shake a stick at. There's also an independent mini golf place across the street for more hot putting action. And last, but not least; Bushkill. Bushkill is sorta kinda a defunct park that's been whacked by flooding multiple times. But in 2017, they reopened their roller rink. And they're intending to open rides along with it soon enough. Sadly their pretzel dark ride and fun house are long since lost, but any regrowth here would be wonderful.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Immersive Irony Experience Theme Park Podcast - Blackpool Wild Mouse Memorial Episode

Alan and Alex discuss FUNployment, the doldrums of winter, and visits to Knotts, Magic Mountain, Universal Studios Hollywood, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Kalahari Pocono, and Volcano Bay. ACTION PACKED~!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Hidden Rides and Themed Attractions of....Oregon

Associated with loggers and hipsters, Oregon is a ecologically diverse and physically large place. There's a big city (Portland), there's some smaller cities, there's miles of sometimes treacherous coast line, there's forests, there's huge desolate treeless landscapes in the east; it's pretty wild. This wild history also means that Oregon has trended low historically; only 4 million people live there today, more than half of which are in the Portland area. It shouldn't be a surprise that most of the history of the industry revolves around Portland then. The primary park there was Jantzen Beach, which eventually closed in 1970 after years of dwindling attendance, migration away from the flood plagued area surrounding it, fires that ravaged the park's attractions, and freeways that moved traffic away from its gates. It's worth noting that it had a competitor for 3 years during the Great Depression called Lotus Isle - that park may not have even sought to be even exist, but simply be bought out of competing by Jantzen Beach only to wind up actually being built. In one of the wilder stories in amusement history, a plane crashed into its heavily themed scenic railway coaster in 1931, leading the park's elephant (named Tusko) to go on a rampage and destroy several rides. The park's ballroom burned down and it closed in 1932.

That's all in the past. What about right now in 2018? Well, there are two primary parks serving the community. One is the Oaks, which also happens to be the oldest park in Oregon. Ed Bollinger ran the park from the 30s until the 1980s when he created a non-profit to operate the park and donated the facility to it. See, progressive, futuristic thinking isn't just a recent trait in Oregon! Oaks has a famed roller rink and a small collection of rides being joined this year by a brand new Gerstlauer Eurofighter coaster; that's the park's largest capital investment in decades.

The primary competitor is Enchanted Forest in Turner, a classic story book park that's got extremely unique rides. There's the one of a kind shooting dark ride Challenge of Mondor. There's the Big Timber Log Ride, who's steel coaster based drops and uphill sections earned it a place on RCDB. There's the Haunted House walk through. And most famously of all, there's Ice Mountain Bobsled. What is Ice Mountain Bobsled? Well, it was originally designed as a heavily themed alpine slide, but transitioned into being a unique, in-house built roller coaster with full enclosed three car trains. Enchanted Forest certainly mixes the traditional with the novel.

Oregon has some other more orthodox, but still unique, attractions elsewhere in the state. Seaside, Oregon is a classic beach front town which still features a few indoor attractions after the closure of the one amusement park here in the 1980s. Of most notability is what Google Maps indicates is "Interstate Amusements Co." on Broadway, home to what is often referred to as the best set of Lusse Auto Skooters on the planet. These are the same sort of super heavy bumper car in use at Knoebels, and previous sets have disappeared during my lifetime from Hoffman's Playland (now Huck Finn's) in Upstate NY and Oaks in Oregon. The heft and speed of these cars makes the hits exceedingly violent; there's nothing else comparable. The area also has a small carousel, a more modern set of electric bumper cars, a Tilt-A-Whirl, indoor mini golf, and a Fascination parlor (a great electromechanical game I've detailed before). I'm not quite as enthusiastic over the existence of Prehistoric Gardens near Eugene, but as far as static models of dinosaurs made primarily in the 50s and 60s go, it's in great shape. This is an old school sorta roadside attraction that we're losing left and right.

Like almost every state with something approaching a real population, Oregon has some stand alone attractions. Modern wood carousels have opened in the state in Salem and Albany as community focal points. Occupying the "Independent FEC and Pizza Restaurant" niche is Roaring Rapids Pizza Company, which has a metal CW Parker Carousel, mini golf, and arcade games. Train Mountain Railroad  is not only a rail museum with the largest private collection of Cabooses, but features ride-able scale trains. None of the county fairgrounds have anything too exciting, but the Oregon State Fair does have a permanent sky ride that runs during the event, and the local rides company of Funtastic Shows and Davis Amusements Cascadia often travel with interesting pieces like the Schwarzcopf Flitzer and Funtastic's Herschell wood carousel.

While there's no really great outdoor water parks in Oregon, there is a really interesting indoor one. Wings and Waves Waterpark features an aeronautic and space theme, with a real life Boeing 747 mounted on the roof that serves as a platform for slides.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Hidden Rides and Themed Attractions of....Ontario

Possessing nearly twice the population of its closest competition, and 50% more space than Texas, Ontario claims home to the nation's capital (Ottawa), Canada's biggest city (Toronto), the most used border crossings (Buffalo & Detroit), 40% of the country's GDP, and a connection to all but one Great Lake. Most people's experiences with the province will be limited to just Southern Ontario - the spit of land between the lakes where the major cities of the province all reside. Wind your way north and you'll eventually run out of road before you run out of Ontario. The Trans-Canada Highway, AKA ON-11, effectively establishes a boundary for traditional craft. To go past that requires high clearance vehicles and immense fuel tanks, along with the bravery required to travel for hundreds and hundreds of miles on logging roads into places where literal polar bears reside. There are huge tracts in which no man may have ever stepped foot. Ontario is that big.

As such, this is going to be an above average Hidden Rides segment. There's a lot to cover, after all. As always, I'll start by referencing the known thing: Canada's Wonderland, Cedar Fair's now second most popular seasonal park. Home to 15 roller coasters (one of which has dark ride elements), the best collection of flat rides in North America, and a Mountain centerpiece that is really really cool, Canada's Wonderland is an above average park that is also apparently getting a B&M Dive Coaster for the 2019 season. And we have to move on now, because there's other things to see.

Metro Toronto itself is home to a whole bunch of lesser known attractions; Centreville Amusement Park on Toronto Island is probably the most beloved, and has the coolest ride of the bunch with old school scary dark ride the Haunted Barrel Works, but also a brand new skyride, several car ride attractions, a junior coaster, and a log flume. Legoland Discovery Centre in Vaughan has a Kingdom Quest trackless shooting dark ride like many other facilities in the chain. Fantasy Fair at Woodbine Centre is an indoor family entertainment center in a mall with several kiddie rides and a small train. There's also some haphazard theming including animatronic dinosaurs and Main Street USA style store fronts.

But when it comes to wackiness, few places can ever match Niagara Falls. Much like Pigeon Forge or Orlando's old I-Drive, there's no shortage of off the wall amusements and attractions. An entire section of this blog could be dedicated to Niagara Falls, Ontario alone, but we're going to limit ourselves for now and just go through most of the highlights:

  • Marineland. Probably the most controversial theme park in North America, and it's tough to argue why. Are there interesting things here? Sure; Dragon Mountain is a gigantic Arrow looper who's theming took 25 years to construct (and only partially when done). There's a huge S&S tower complex overlooking the falls. It has some really crazy Huss rides from the 70s. It has performing animals and...OK, so that's part of the problem. "Part" because there's a preposterously high death rate. "Part" because the reaction by management to criticism has been far more boneheaded than SeaWorld's ever was. Google "John Holer". That's all you need to do.
  • Clifton Hill. This couple of blocks is where the not offensive stuff is at: There are two dark rides here, both shooting ones - Ghost Blasters in the Great Canadian Midway and Tour Bus SWAT Team Ride at Adventure City, located in a Sheraton. Ghost Blasters was constructed by Sally, the other by I.E. Park (and originally themed to Spiderman). There's also a Funhouse, Ripley's Believe It Or Not, an Upside Down House, three wax museums (Movieland, Louis Tussaud's, and Rock Legends), two haunted walkthroughs (Nightmare's Fear Factory, Castle Dracula), Rainforest Cafe, 4D Motion Simulators (mostly from Triotech like Zombie Attack), multiple mirror mazes, multi-level go-karts, indoor and outdoor mini golf, and the Niagara Skywheel.
  • Niagara's Fury. This is run by Canada National Parks, and it's actually pretty interesting - there's a preshow where cartoon characters learn about the creation of Niagara Falls before one dons their poncho and heads into the big room. It's a 360 degree theater not terribly unlike Disney's except for the floor's capacity to shake and the (sometimes soaking) water effects. It's actually very well done! 
  • Head further towards the falls and it just won't stop. There's more haunted attractions, the Niagara Falls IMAX Theatre, Skylon Tower's wacky Greatest Possible Arcade circa 1996, more FECs, a Margaritaville, and towering hotel/casinos. Oh, go the opposite way and you'll hit the big Fallsview Indoor Waterpark and Bird Kingdom.  

With all the glitz and cheesiness of Niagara Falls, one may wish to step back and find something more simple and perhaps "authentic." Guelph is a university town a decent drive out of Toronto, and Riverside Park there features a Spillman carousel and a diesel powered miniature train. Way out on the eastern edge of Ontario is North Bay Heritage Railroad and Carousel - they actually possess two carousels with work being done by local carvers. The town of Roseneath, located about halfway between Toronto and Kingston, also possesses a classic carousel. This one is a CW Parker of 1906 heritage that's been given a new building and lots of TLC. Older yet is Lakeside Park of St. Catharine's Looff from 1903, also meticulously kept up. And in the remote city of Thunder Bay lies Chippewa Park, a small community amusement park. It's carousel is being refurbished, and it's Spillman built coaster was torn down in 2011, but some kiddie rides remain for summer operation.

This may still be too devoid of natural surroundings for some, and Ontario tries to answer those criticisms as well. Blue Mountain Ski Resort has the safest option all around with their Mountain Coaster, one of the first constructed on the continent. Horseshoe has zip lining, a rock climbing wall, and scenic chair rides. There's also a few resorts in Ontario which feature exclusive water parks: Logos Land and Cedar Park Resorts both have substantive aquatics facilities with old school fiber glass slides.

Speaking of water parks: Yeah, there's a lot of them here. Calypso Water Park just outside Ottawa is the nation's largest, and has a huge selection of water slides and two impressively themed lazy river attractions too. Wet N' Wild Toronto is probably the second biggest stand alone facility, having reopened and rebranded to Wet N'Wild (the other Wet N'Wild chain; no really, there's two) in 2017 and with a new slate of slides. Bingeman's Big Splash in Kitchener, Lake Lisgar in Tillsonburg, Adventure Bay in Windsor, and East Park in London round out the list of significant aquatics facilities in the province.

Storybook parks also have a very real presence; Santa's Village in Bracebridge is probably the nicest of all of them, and has a jet boat ride down the Oshawa River, both a powered coaster and SBF kiddie spinner, and a really above average train ride. Storybook Gardens in London might have the highest attendance in this category because of its location near a large population of people. In spite of the location, there's fewer rides here to go with the common fairy tale dioramas and what not. Story Book Land in Owen Sound is much more remote, but has a cool home built walk through haunt and a decent collection of family friendly flat rides. Castle Village & The Enchanted Kingdom completes the group with fairy tale houses, walking trails, and medieval museum exhibits, but it doesn't actually have rides.

Like most places in the US, there are family entertainment centers with go karts, rides, bumper boats, and golf. Blue Mountain Go Karts is perhaps the most traditional of these, with a first generation Herschell kiddie coaster, older style go karts, and batting cages. Fun Haven in Ottawa is an indoor variation, and as an indoor facility there's an updated coaster (SBF Visa spinning coaster), updated bumper cars, and updated arcade games. Then things get interesting: Neb's FunWorld of Oshawa is also an indoors facility, but is sprawling and freeform thanks to the building being added onto over time from a bowling alley to a much more expansive set up. The largest building features an indoor Moser kiddie drop tower that's actually themed with synchronized lights, electric go-karts, and the Sparetime Express kiddie coaster, inside of a a steel cage above the go karts.

Ratcheting up the "weird" factor even further is an indoor FEC located in a large garden center. Colsanti's Tropical Gardens is, in fact, a great place to buy things like trees and flowers if you are Canadian. If you are not, you can still stop in and play arcade games and put your kids on rides like the Miner Mike coaster. And topping all contenders is Wild Water & Wheels of Peterborough. Why this facility? Is it the go karts? Nah. The water slides? No. The mini golf? Negatory. No, its about the coaster: the last Bailey Autosled in existence. The gauge of the track is based on the original material of PVC pipe (this particular one is steel), and the individual seat cars are akin to an alpine slide. It's quite possibly the oddest roller coaster in existence.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

What's happening with SeaWorld? Part 2: The Plan?

Prior to discussing what it is SeaWorld is doing and whether or not it is working, let's first summarize Part 1 of this series:

-Busch Entertainment (what is now SeaWorld Entertainment) was acquired by Blackstone in 2009 from InBev, who was seeking to rid themselves of non-core assets of Anheuser-Busch after InBev's hostile takeover of the company. 

-Blackstone and it's investors paid $2.3 billion dollars to InBev; Roughly $1 billion dollars was cash from Blackstone and it's investors, and the remainder was in deferred financing provided by banks. Over the next three years, Blackstone would extract $610 million dollars from SeaWorld in the form of dividends. These dividends came from company profits, cash reserves, and sales of non-core assets.

-In 2013, 3 months after Blackfish made its debut at Sundance, Blackstone made the first public offering of SeaWorld (SEAS). They would sell stock 4 additional times until which time they ceased to have a position with the company. The stock sales and dividends paid over this time period allowed Blackstone to make nearly triple their money back on SEAS, even as the stock faltered in the wake of Blackfish. In addition to sale of stock, the deferred financing now hit the SEAS books as long term debt of roughly 1.5 billion dollars owed to various large banks. 

-SeaWorld's has two debt bubbles which may burst based on debt/EBIDTA ratio and more frighteningly, a maturing note in 2020 which SEAS best option to avoid default on may be selling attempting to sell junk bonds.

-Negative attendance in the wake of Blackfish, potentially lied about by SeaWorld management, led to collapse of share value. Blackstone's last sale of stock was to a Chinese firm (Zhonghong Zhuoye Group) in 2017 who paid in excess of market value for the shares using borrowed money. The company's chief  was embroiled in criminal legal wranglings, and the company's stock has been frozen by Chinese regulators in the months since. 

There's a lot there to grasp, and while there's certainly a lot of financial issues, they're compounded by poor managerial decisions and bad promotion. That's what Part 2 intends to tackle.

Friday, February 9, 2018

What's happening with SeaWorld? Part 1: The Finances

Ever since Blackfish was released, SeaWorld Entertainment has been struggling. Attendance is down dramatically at their Orlando flagship and in San Diego, and attraction closures at their less struggling Busch Gardens facilities are becoming an epidemic. There are investigations, lawsuits, and flat out bad press. Trying to make sense of this in a vacuum would be difficult. The tea leaves on theme park media, meanwhile, are often intentionally impossible to read. Jeff Putz, the man behind Coasterbuzz.com (it mattered more in the pre-social media era) had this to say as someone who wound up doing contract work for the company:

"Now the word comes that the CEO is stepping down, and they're laying off about 300 people across the chain. That's unfortunate, and I think it's an over-reaction (the company is still profitable), but it's also not surprising. Is it because of Blackfish? I don't think you need insider knowledge to know the answer to that question. As someone who has observed the theme park industry for around 15 years, I think it's obviously not that.


I have no idea what they were up against in each of their markets in terms of competing attractions, but that you have to sink some cap ex dollars into theme parks to keep attendance up isn't some secret sauce. Disney, Universal, Six Flags, Cedar Fair and even independent parks like Holiday World get it. That's where SEAS is failing."

Robert Niles at Theme Park Insider instead points at another factor: The loss of free beer.

"Leaving the Anheuser-Busch family not only robbed SeaWorld/Busch Gardens of a corporate owner with deep pockets, it meant the end of the beer giveaways that time has shown might have been the most under-rated attraction at those parks. Without the lure of free beer, the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens parks have been exposed as under-capitalized attractions in generally inconvenient locations near competitive markets, without the hotels and secondary development to support growing attendance, and attraction line-ups that have suffered with too many recent flops."

Niles goes on to argue that theme park fans don't care about animals in the same piece that establishes SeaWorld Orlando as having had an attendance of 5.5 million within recent memory. That's pretty inconsistent as a take, but the general theme continues here that SeaWorld's mistake was not spending more money or that the money was spent poorly on the wrong rides/attractions. For most, this is a satisfactory answer. It's simple enough to grasp and to lots of people makes sense given the popularity of attractions like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Cars Land. It even fits well with the popular internet idea that audiences specifically demand "fully immersive" attractions such as this. 

As is often the case on this blog, I often look at issues or topics in the theme park industry that aren't well analyzed. As good an explanation as this is, is it actually the right one?