Your favorite theme park podcast returns to talk about the XFL, art museums, Henry Ford, training systems, and Detroit. But no, really, we cover the announcement of Voodoo Donuts at Universal, closure of DarKastle, Blackpool demolishing its Wild Mouse, Legoland getting rid of Island in the Sky, Kennywood removing Log Jammer, and more complaining about things closing. Finally we talk about Alan's latest articles on theme park employment trends and how theme parks make money. Is Six Flags ahead of the curve in revenue trends and training? What should Cedar Fair do? What about SeaWorld? Finally we close with your questions!
Along with Pennsylvania and New York, Ohio has always been one of the most amusement park heavy states. Where industry flourished in the late 19th century, independent trolley operators arrived. Where independent trolley operators were, amusement parks were sure to follow. Since I got into being a theme park fan, Ohio has lost a number of notable and significant facilities: Sea World Ohio, Geauga Lake (later Six Flags Ohio and Six Flags Worlds of Adventure), and Americana all entered the long, dark night. Along with the 70s/80s era closures of Idora and Chippewa Lake, the state isn't what it used to be. That doesn't mean it isn't still above average; Cedar Point and Kings Island are still here and pull over 7 million combined attendance. There's also Columbus Zoo, which was where Jack Hanna presided over enormous growth (aided greatly by his promotional touring) into one of the finest zoological parks in the world. During Six Flags' struggles, the Zoo acquired the old trolley park Wyandot Lake and reformed it into a mixed water/amusement facility that retained its classic wood coaster. Cincinnati's zoo is also exceedingly well known, and is home to 4D theater rides, a carousel, and a train.
Any serious look at themed attractions has to look at zoos, and to use the popular urban parlance, "Ohio's zoo game is strong." Columbus Zoo also operates The Wilds, a gigantic outdoor animal facility south of Zanesville. Consisting of some 20+ square miles, The Wilds is roughly half the size of Walt Disney World's entire boundaries, and multiple times as large as the next largest facility (San Diego Safari Park). In addition to bus and jeep tours that run near 2 hours, there's ziplines, rental yurts for overnight stays, and onside dining. Don't forget the pollinator garden either.
Not as well known as Cincinnati or Columbus, but not much less grand, are Cleveland and Toledo's zoos. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has an outstanding Australia area with train ride, classic carousel, and the impressive indoor Rainforest area. Toledo has two carousels, a train that runs the perimeter of its well done "Experience Africa" area, and an aerial course, as well as some really good WPA structures that still stand. The other small cities of Ohio still have above average stuff for zoos: Dayton's Boonshoft Museum of Discovery has an AZA accredited indoor zoo within a science museum. Akron's zoo is small but still has a carousel (and a "train"; doesn't really run on track) and impressive theming in sections like Grizzly Ridge.
Some of the most traditional amusement vibes on the planet can still be found in Ohio. Stricker's Grove is a throwback like almost no other; it's a private picnic park for group outings that opens to the public only a few days a year. While many picnic facilities exist in the US, few contain two operating wood coasters and an assortment of classic flat rides. Stricker's has the business model and the ride selection of something from the 1950s, except you can see and experience it in the present day. Interesting fact too: during our last visit at Stricker's in 2017, I flipped arcade play into a Vollmar's Park trivet, of all things. Vollmar's Park operated several hours away in Bowling Green and actually closed in 2001. Maybe some of the rides had wound up here at Stricker's, but I still found that a really strange find.
The state also features two classic 50s era kiddie parks. Memphis Kiddie Park operates on a small plot of land in Cleveland proper: the Herschell Little Dipper coaster at the park is among the oldest steel coasters in the world, having opened back in 1952. Another Herschell kiddie coaster can be found at Tuscora Park in New Philadelphia, half an hour south of Canton. Unlike Memphis Kiddie Park that is family owned, Tuscora is a public park which has outsourced amusement operation to a third party to draw families. The rides are geared to kids and in many cases exclusively open to them.
Newer family entertainment center style facilities have popped up to help take some of the load off. The owner of Howard's Apples Farm Market acquired a kiddie coaster from the defunct Dover Lake Water Park, then decided to open it to guests coming for apple cider slush and corn mazes in 2016. An hour south of it is Sluggers and Putters, an above average mini golf/go kart facility who opened a refurbished version of Americana's old kiddie coaster in 2015. While it possesses no rides, Entertainment Junction north of Cincinnati does have trains - so many in fact that it has the largest indoor train display in the world. Part of it? A model of Coney Island Cincinnati.
When a name became popular in the 19th and 20th century, everyone raced to copy it. When getting into hot water became popular, a lot of "Carlsbad"s started to come around. When amusement parks started getting built, everyone wanted a name that screamed what it was you were attending. RCDB lists 21 amusement parks named "White City" after the original 1893 World's Fair. There's 14 Dreamlands, 13 Tivolis, 10 Coneys, and 124 Luna Parks. Those are just the places that ever had a roller coaster, by the way. Coney Island Cincinnati was one of these places. It's not on an island, but it did have a swimming beach (later replaced by a pool, probably since the Ohio River wasn't the best to swim in), and it did have rides. Lots of 'em. It was among the most, if not the single most, successful regional park in the United States after World War 2. Walt Disney himself sought out the advice of its owner and manager, Ed Schott (yes, like Marge, who married into the family) when developing Disneyland.
Coney Island was too successful for it's own good: that position near the Ohio River that once brought in steamships full of passengers also meant the park was in a flood plain. There are also rumors that pressure either from within the ownership or from outside in Cincinnati's elite pushed the ownership (which by this point had morphed into Taft Broadcasting) into moving Coney Island. The park was supposed to close forever after the 1971 season; one which was reportedly its most successful. After only a few years of limited operation, Taft wound up spinning off Kings Island and keeping Coney Island. The park was ultimately sold in 1991, and while it is nowhere near as grandiose as it once was, many features such as the Sunlite Pool (largest recirculating pool in the world since opening almost a century ago), modern and classic thrill rides, and even a steel roller coaster still run.
As amusement parks have closed, many Carousels have been made available and become standalone attractions. Among the most notable are the two at Sandusky's Merry Go Round Museum, which is downtown only minutes from Cedar Point. There's displays, horses and other figures to view, and then of course the carousels themselves. The Cleveland History Center recently reopened a carousel of their own, this time once owned and operated at another venerable Ohio institution that closed in the 60s; Euclid Beach.
The rumors are true, Portland's Voodoo Donuts will be opening this spring at Universal Orlando Resort's CityWalk. Replacing Element next to NBC Grill Brew, Voodoo Donuts offers fresh, unique, and crazy creations such as the Dirt Doughnut, Bacon Maple Bar, Grape Ape, and Voodoo Doll doughnuts. We don't expect to see the "Cock and Balls" or "Maple Blazer Blunt" donuts to make the trip to Orlando.
For many years, I heard a common refrain from industry folks and those on the internet who felt they had been sufficiently smartened up. They claimed that a core reason behind the bankruptcy of Six Flags (SIX) in the late 2000s was that they had "given away the gate": in effect, they had allowed admission at a loss to try and pick up revenue from food and drink sales only to come up desperately short. They fundamentally misunderstood how the theme park industry worked, unlike Cedar Fair (FUN) and others. Considering the number of people who told me this and my respect for them, I generally mimicked it. Why wouldn't it? It made all the sense in the world. But I've gotten older, and gained a lot of real world experience. I've started to come to distrust those in positions of authority. As I worked on my piece related to the theme park labor market, "giving away the gate" came into my mind. Is that true, or just more BS?
So I did what any rational almost-35 year old should presented with such a question: I sought out FEC 10-K filings. 10-K filings are the annual report corporations are to present the Feds to prove that they aren't up to any malfeasance. First up - Six Flags. Low and behold, what appeared to be truth to the claims, as only 54.2% of their revenue in FY 2016 came from admission. But I've been in academia around scientists: you have to repeat that experiment to prove it. So off to Cedar Fair's 10-K to see what they were doing. The answer? 55.6%. A whopping 1.4% difference as a percentage of revenue. The gross admission revenue at Cedar Fair was almost equal to that of Six Flags: it was about a tenth of a percentage short. Neither chain is anywhere near having admission revenue cover operating expenses. I looked at SeaWorld (SEAS) too: 60% of revenue is admission, and they're in the same situation as far as operating expenses. Maybe that's the way things are now. What about in 2001 when Six Flags was steaming full speed towards collapse?
In FY 2004, as SIX had entered its death spiral, they still beat FUN's percentage of revenue derived from admission as a percentage of their overall revenue. Even with notes about discount tickets being distributed in the annual reports, that didn't explain the split being what it was. I was convinced then that the truth was much more obvious: they had abused their clientele until they stopped coming. With the cost of capital expenditures and park purchases being their customer acquisition costs, they had failed to retain anywhere near enough of them cover the interest on the money SIX had borrowed. In 2004, SIX's operations at the park level actually made $149 million dollars. The problem was that they owed $191 million in just loan interest - by the time everything else they owed got added up, SIX's losses totaled almost a half billion dollars, or -$5.23 a share in 2004. What's really amazing is that after all these years and a bankruptcy, the percentages have barely changed. It was time to put down what was real and stop repeating other's feels.
I decided to do a sort of 2017 retrospective, and given that I was going on rides right up until the end of the year, I had to wait until the next calendar started. If that isn't suitably timely, I understand your concern but also must admit: I am ignoring it for the purposes of this piece.
As a hardened vet of the coaster wars (1994-2003) who's come out with minimal PTSD, I have to admit that yes, I do keep a track record. I count. I'm that guy. I typically don't bother to track coasters I've already been on, though when I did a conservative run of what I thought I had done in total this year, I wound up with 108 total roller coasters. Rather than subject you to absolutely everything, I rounded down some of the less exciting repeats and kept it to (A) new-to-me rides in 2017 (B) stuff that was at least sorta interesting that I re-experienced, cut down to 100 coasters because that's plenty. The Excel spreadsheet I've been keeping for two decades tells me that I completed the year with 64 new additions to my life list: that's a Whistle Punk Chaser or Typhoon away from tying my second best year of 2001. Yes, I've been doing this awhile. 2002 is at an untouchable-without-Megamillions-victory 140. As I'm sure you were interested in those sorts of details, 2017 was well above my average over the last 20 years of 40.55 new coasters per annum. For my next trick: counting the number of matches dropped on the ground the second they hit the floor.
That new-to-me list I'll be reviewing with you, the reader who's eyes have already glazed over, spans 7 countries, 3 continents, and 41 parks/facilities/fairs. I encountered seemingly everything from Middle Eastern shopping malls to Midwestern American race track/amusement park hybrids. There were both mountain top coasters in Tennessee and Barcelona. There were Legolands in Dubai and Deutchland. There was variety. Plenty of it. And a fair number of SBF kiddie spinning coasters too.
Phobia Phear Coaster, Lake Compounce (Bristol, CT)
My first new coaster of 2017 actually didn't come until late May. Lake Compounce bought this Premier Sky Rocket for the 2016 season, meaning that they and Busch Gardens Williamsburg made the same exact capital expenditure for the same exact year, but only one of them actually bothered to announce it or advertise it (guess who?). They're fun rides, with a huge pop of airtime after the train manages to make its way up the first incline and some forceful inversions afterwards. All done without the horse collar over-the-shoulder restraints.
Yes, there were people settled here upwards of 11,000 years ago, but from the perspective of European exploration, Nova Scotia was probably run into by Vikings in the 11th century, and then rediscovered for white folks by a Venetian funded expedition about 500 years later. Portuguese people showed up, then the French, and finally the English appeared and took it all over. Want a great factoid? Acadians are from Nova Scotia. Acadians speak French. Acadian and Cajun sound similar phonetically. I probably already used this in a past piece because I love it so much. It blew my mind when I found out, OK?
Anyways, of the 4 Atlantic/Maritime provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia is the most populated. It's home to as many people as Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick combined. OK, that's still just under a million people, but really, Halifax is a delightful and cosmopolitan city. I saw the best Bathory cover band in Canada play there after eating a rather tremendous burger, acquired comic books at a very good shop downtown, and used the Dartmouth ferry as a scenic boat ride. It was at the height of Pokemon Go, and there were like 150 people crowded around one space at the pier in Dartmouth. Just nutty stuff. Halifax also has a bunch of tragedies in its history, like the largest non-nuclear human caused blast in history that wiped out thousands of people, being near where Swiss Air 111 went down, and the place where most of the Titanic recovery efforts were based out of (and where many victims are buried.
That's a lot of sadness, so I'd like to offer some feel good stories instead. Usually a facility the size of Windsor Playland Safari wouldn't merit inclusion in one of these, but it had nearly gone out of business after the 2016 season when it was for sale for a piddly $156,000 USD. The owner's son decided to step up and take it on along with his lobster fishing business, and renamed and rehabbed the facility for 2017. There's some go-karts and a water slide here; nothing too big.
Another park that's gone through some rough times and survived is Upper Clements Theme Park. Constructed with the expectation of hundreds of thousands of visitors, it has wound up attracting a consisted 70,000 or so each summer to Annapolis Royal. I very often love to point out that a park has something that's one of a kind. When that one of a kind thing is attached to a wooden roller coaster, that's even better! Except here. You see, when their roller coaster (originally the Tree Topper, now just "Roller Coaster") was built by Bill Cobb, it was at the time that PTC was excited to offer parks a new articulating train option to better take Cobb's infamously sharp and banked corners. Unlike every other park that got these trailered PTCs, Upper Clements has never been able to afford replacing them, so they still have the worst tracking trains in all of roller coaster history. So bad that Dave Althoff once wrote about why they are complete garbage.
That's not a fair full assessment of the park though. Along with the wood coaster that tracks poorly (but has good track on it, and a kinda interesting layout), they've got a wacky train that uses a turntable to turn around and go back the same way it came instead of a full circuit loop, ziplines, mini golf that's free with entry, a really dark walk through haunted house in an actual old house, and the log flume which operated at Vancouver's Expo '86. It's a quaint park that also sells fireworks and knives in its gift shop.
In 2017, Atlantic Playland's Rockin' Roller Coaster was changed to "SBNO" by rcdb.com - that stands for "Standing But Not Operating", leaving only one permanent coaster in the province at Upper Clements. There are still bumper cars, a steel carousel, walk through haunt, and some kiddie rides here. However, as a testament to the park's struggles, there's also several rides which are racked and covered in shrubs, as well as a whole abandoned go kart track. Things were better here once, but I suppose rides and slides (it has water slides I guess too) are inspected and thus should theoretically be safe. Less safe are the rides and slides at the abandoned Magic Valley Fun Park by New Glasgow. Closed prior to the 2016 season, an acrimonious relationship between the locality and owner wound up with the park closing its gates in relative silence.
For those seeking a historic sort of time, Fortress Louisbourg on the southern coast of Cape Breton Island (the more sparsely populated eastern half of the province) has a historic village, period costume, and all the blank gun fire and cannons you could ever desire from a national park.
Alan, Joe, and Nick cover The Beach Boys with John Stamos, pay for FastPass, monorails, Nick's trip to Orlando, Alan's trip to Gatlinburg, Joe's trip to a Krampus haunted house, theme park employment, and our 2018 theme park resolutions.
YouTube Tuesday will be going on hiatus for awhile. We hope you've enjoyed watching our videos, and will continue to watch them again and again on YouTube. So far, we've created a solid 25 features and 6 bonus videos for you to enjoy. To commemorate this occasion, we've created a full list of our YouTube videos below. We hope you fully enjoy!
This is a compilation of several interviews with former Disney CEO Michael Eisner from 1997-2001. Throughout these conversations, Eisner talks at length concerning the death of Frank Wells, his 1998 autobiography "Work in Progress," the purchase of ABC by Disney, the opening of Disney's Animal Kingdom and Disney's California Adventure, his near-fatal bypass operation, the (mistaken?) hiring of Jaimie Tarses at ABC, the 2001 economic recession, the creation of Go.com, and his philosophies on running the television, movie, and theme park divisions of Disney.
It's an incredibly interesting exploration of Michael Eisner's public persona, with the obvious ego, his defiance of what certain people try to tell him to do, and his justifications for certain terrible business decisions (DCA, Go.com, etc.). Besides reading "Work in Progress" or "Disney War," there is probably no better insight into the high-level business decisions of late-1990s Disney.
For our last YouTube Tuesday feature (for quite a while), we bring you a double feature of the final elements of our early-1990s nostalgia trip of the Disney theme parks. Feast on some primo footage of Old Tomorrowland, Kitchen Kabaret, World of Motion, Journey Into Imagination, Horizons, and much much more! From all of us in the Disney family, we hope you enjoy your visit to EPCOT Center, and the Magic Kingdom!
For the last few months, news stories of a different sort than usual have hit the theme park blogosphere: employees demanding more pay, and parks making overt gestures to try and find new paths for hiring. Six Flags Magic Mountain averted a strike at the last moment; meanwhile Disney World and the union representing their cast members are still in talks. Cedar Point, meanwhile, is for the first time advertising more flexible hours for locals, something they've stayed away from for decades. All of this comes in the midst of a national push behind increasing minimum wage that was exemplified by Bernie Sanders' campaign promise of a federal jump to $15/hour and multiple cities going a similar route. What exactly then is going on? Aren't theme park jobs just for high school and college kids?
To better understand the challenges facing the theme park world in hiring, it's time to do something that most people will find intensely boring. We have to talk about economics. Most people have a basic understanding that at the heart of all transactions is the concept of "supply and demand". Here's a basic supply curve I stole from quora.com:
You might have heard of this, but not seen one since an Econ 100 level course or maybe even never. Basically the concept is that as price increases, the quantity rises to match because more money can be made. As the quantity begins to exceed the demand, then the price falls to match. Demand curves are imperfect because demand is imperfect as is the capacity of the market to meet the demand. People buy useless or bad things instead of better items because of cultural reasons and information asymmetry (the idea that consumers know less than providers, e.g. health care). The market can't provide based on demand because there is inherent lag (housing) or market/natural restrictions (import restrictions, lack of base materials). And sometimes it is inherently in a company's best interest to keep supply low to drive cost of their good as a luxury item (Ferraris, Rolex watches, designer clothing). Supply and demand is simple to fundamentally grasp but requires some nuance to actually understand and apply.
I've known one person who ever worked in North Dakota and they basically said it was hell. They were a well paid nurse doing their initial contract for experience and money and it probably ruined them and sent them into anarchoprimitivism. Mind you, they were probably always going to find anarchoprimitivism, but this likely accelerated it. And anprims have a consistent ideology. You might not like the whole "people die because there's no meds" but at the heart of it, anything else ultimately has us still chewing through the world's resources and leaving it a destitute hulk sailing through space.
This is a dark intro to a blog post when the longest segments may revolve around Lawrence Welk and a giant slide. North Dakota though is no normal state. It is flat and desolate. Vast, empty, largely undeveloped in every way both ancient and modern. It hides nothing. Aside from transportation of materials from Minnesota to the west coast, it doesn't even have much in the realm of traffic. Only the city of Fargo is home to more than 100,000 people, and while the state is the 19th largest in mass, it is the fourth smallest in population. Population density here is 1/100ths of Rhode Island. For a brief moment, fracking in the Bakken formation made this a modern day gold rush, with rents into the thousands a month for mediocre facilities and 6 figure salaries being thrown out left and right. The petroleum speculation bubble burst, and many of those jobs are now already a thing of the recent past.
With permanent settlement never particularly exciting given the brutally cold winters and sometimes bleak appearance of the landscape, native populations like the Mandan didn't bother to go agrarian here until somewhere between 1000 and 1300 AD; well after the Yucatan had gone through several civilizations. The promise of fertile land again attracted European immigrants in the early 20th century, but as farming technology progressed and family farming eroded as a successful business strategy, they stopped coming. From 1920 to 2010, the population of North Dakota only changed by 4% due to the consistent migration of educated, high-skilled jobs out of the state. That changed with the fracking boom, but how many plan to stay now that wells have shut down is a whole different story.
I've spent three paragraphs summarizing several hundred years of North Dakotan history to tell you that as far as the amusement industry goes, there's no real background. There were 4 competing state fairs until 1965, at which point the one in Minot took the prize of being given the lone fair with the title by the state legislature. There's no history of defunct parks in the state or parks which have operated way in the past. There's one legitimate amusement park that operates today: Bismarck's Super Slide Amusement Park. It's been operating since 1967, and the titular attraction (a fiberglass multi-lane super slide) is as you'd expect to be present. The only permanent coaster in the state is also here, and it is an American made Wisdom Dragon Wagon. Not that exciting.
So what of the fairgrounds? If you've read this series before, you know that fairs occasionally have strange rides. North Dakota is such a state. The State Fair itself has a midway provided by someone: who? I have no idea. Murphy Brothers used to until the company went under in 2012, and now it might be Heart of America Shows. Or NAME. Or someone. Whoever it is packs up two coasters including a super rare Chance Toboggan (it would be the third in the continental US) and a bunch of flat rides.
Speaking of flat rides: The Tri-County Fair in Wishek, ND appears to have an independent carnival owned by someone in the community - perhaps the race track adjoining the grounds? There's a mix of kiddie rides and a couple of larger attractions, but of most interest is what appears in photographs to be a Flying Carpet attraction from the 1950s. If indeed it is still running in 2018, it would be the last operating such ride in the world.
Given the extreme cold, it shouldn't surprise anyone that there's not a ton of outdoor water parks. Raging Rivers is right across the Missouri from Super Slide Amusement Park, and is the only notable outdoor water park in the state. There's also a few indoor facilities like Splashers of the Seven Seas in Grand Forks, but if you're hoping for funnels and water coasters, you need to head elsewhere.