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? 


Saturday, February 3, 2018

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



Their college team wears Red, the state's name is derived from Choctaw for "red people," the capital is the popular pick for America's best conservative city, and yes, they almost always vote Republican. Oklahoma lives the gimmick. Home to possibly the most avoided stretch of tollway in the nation (I-44), the state is most famous for it's weird shape, white supremacist terror attacks, Russell Westbrook, T. Boone Pickens commercials, and Jim Ross' BBQ sauce. It's a bit like Kansas except their voters are practically destined to approve medical marijuana (even if they can't afford to regulate it because their taxes are really low). Fracking income is down but wind farms are getting built like crazy. Its what you think of it, and then it's something else too.



Oklahoma City's population has skyrocketed, while Tulsa's city population has been flat and its suburbs instead absorb the humanity. If one inspects that further, you can see how amusements mirror that reality. Frontier City was the park from which the whole Premier Parks empire grew to absorb Walibi and Six Flags: it's back in the hands of Kieran Burke today as their flagship. There's several decent size coasters here, though none are all that wonderful (the Wildcat wood coaster has been neutered; the steel coasters are basically 70s era production models) and there's a dark ride and some halfway decent theming. That's more than I can say for Bell's Amusement Park, Tulsa's classic facility that managed to get kicked out of its home on the Tulsa Fairgrounds. There's a long back story about that you can read here, but let's just say that the space isn't generating revenue for the public of Tulsa. Politics rule.



Speaking of abandoned parks: Eagle Park. You can show up and get tours of the last Comanche chief's house along with lots of pictures of the decrepit rides. It's a regular stop for urbex types looking for soft adventure.



So before we get to the really deliciously obscure stuff, let's get to the stuff that's easier to Google: Lots of facilities in the state have a ride or two that aren't really full parks. Incredible Pizza Company in Warr Acres has a SBF Spinning Kiddie coaster. Elk City has a city park with a nice modern carousel. Oklahoma City Zoo does the usual zoo thing and has both train rides and a newer carousel to hit up: Tulsa Zoo has, well, the same sorts of things.



"What about kiddie parks?," I hear from the back. Oklahoma has you covered with three significant ones: Meadowlake Park in Enid has a Eli Wheel, CP Huntington Train, and a classic carousel. Quartz Mountain Fun Park and Water Slide doesn't have a coaster, but has something way rarer - the nation's other Eyerly Fly-O-Plane. There's this one (which was acquired from Eagle Park) and the one at Lake Winnie outside Chattanooga, and that's it. There's also an adapted concrete slide too, so you've got the best of all worlds. Finally, Kiddie Park in Bartlesville has 17 rides, most of which are vintage 50s pieces that are indestructible.



But wait! There's more. If you follow this series, you know that the states around Oklahoma (Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas) have fairgrounds with community owned attractions. Oklahoma is no different. The largest of them is, unfortunately, not operating any more - the old Observation Tower at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds is static and will probably never run again. The other state fair in Tulsa however rehabbed their scenic attraction: a Von Roll Skyride, just like the ones Disney used to operate or that runs at Cedar Point today.

BUT WAIT. THERE'S MORE.

There are also 5 other community carnivals in the state of Oklahoma, and they have some gnarly stuff:



Carnegie Tri-County Free Fair: 5 rides in total; Ferris wheel, Pirate Ship, Space Train, the Swing Ride, and the Fish Ride.

Geary Tri-County Fair: Tilt, Ferris Wheel, Scrambler, kids rides (kiddie train, Astrojet, Swinger)

Hinton District Fair: Ferris Wheel, Train, Tilt, Scat, some other rides



Hydro Free Fair: Ferris wheel, Hustler, Octopus, Loop-O-Plane, kiddie rides, pool. City also has a carousel.

Mountain View Free Fair: CW Parker Ferris Wheel, Carousel (? vintage), Kiddie car ride, possibly Italian

Many of the kiddie rides are probably worth 10X whatever the fair boards think they are at auction, while stuff like the Parker Wheel and Scat are rare, lucky-to-see-them-twice-in-a-lifetime pieces. Who knows how long they'll keep on running though, which makes them all the more important to record and see in real life; few pictures or video exist of any of these.