Monday, January 13, 2020

THEME PARK BOOK CORNER: "Dick Kinzel - Roller Coaster King of Cedar Point Amusement Park"

It’s tough to think of the regional theme park scene from any point in recent memory and not think of Dick Kinzel, former CEO of Cedar Fair and GM of Cedar Point. A giant in his prime, Kinzel managed to consume CBS/Paramount’s theme park division, beat back a well capitalized Six Flags, expand a single park in coastal Ohio into a major international theme park chain. Tim O’Brien, a former Ripley’s creative and writer for Amusement Today, began working on a series of biographies of theme park legends sometime ago and Kinzel was a natural choice. His rise from selling popcorn to running the parks was meteoric and proof of the American Dream to some. Others saw him as a villain responsible for damaging the charm of parks he consumed while being wildly out of touch as the years went on.

The book is not a total puff piece, though it clearly shows that it was likely approved by Dick himself, and extensive interviews were done with him regarding the development of not just his early career, but of the coasters he’s best known for building and transactions that he both took part in and those which ultimately fell through. I do think that in the end, reasonably objective readers can come to their own conclusions about his intent, his specialties, his ethos, etc.


How Does It Read?: It’s a simple read consisting of 111 pages of real text. You don’t need to have an MBA or PhD to read it. Why should you? Neither did Dick Kinzel, who attended one year of college, dropped out, and achieved more than most of us could ever hope to. That being said, if you’re specifically looking to read about Disney or Universal, or if you are only interested in the parts dealing with Knotts, you’ll probably be underwhelmed by the book’s focus on things that aren’t those (though amused that Dick wasn’t considered good enough to get an interview with Walt Disney World).

Will I Learn Anything?: At the very least, it will confirm countless stories told throughout the years from coaster enthusiasts - that Bandit at Yomiuriland was the inspiration for Magnum, that a board member pressured the decision to build Magnum at 200 ft, that Cedar Point discussed mergers with Six Flags and buyouts of tons of other parks, and so on. That’s a very surface level read.

For me, this also confirmed a lot of suspicions I had about why it was that certain beliefs were reinforced in the coaster community: Kinzel held a lot of sway and openly admits that he sought after advice from coaster enthusiasts for new attractions since they had the expertise of having been on many. That’s a two way street however: coaster enthusiasts also knew Kinzel was wildly successful and tended to take away from his understanding of the industry what the “right” and “wrong” things were to do. And that leads me to the last section of my reviews...

Did You Take Anything Away From This?: Oh did I ever. Let me be clear: Dick Kinzel was a very good CEO for Cedar Fair for a long time. And then criticisms of him later on in his career are also correct. What’s often totally lost on those “smart” enthusiasts is an understanding of just why he was a good CEO and why that was a bad fit for him later on when Cedar Fair was, for several years, the largest domestic US regional park operator. Kinzel understood how to cut costs and how to produce large margins when taking existing infrastructure. He intimately grasped the ways in which one could find synergies both at a micro and macro level to extend the profitability of Cedar Point and Valleyfair when in charge of both, as well as to find methods by which he could extend stays and increase per capita spending. In turn, discussion of theme park business by enthusiasts has almost always concerned increasing per capita spending above all else. This was revisited in the brief Mark Shapiro era of Six Flags too.

What is not grasped is that while Kinzel was absolutely great at doing this, he lacked the acumen to understand how this positioned Cedar Fair. By being cash rich, Cedar Fair nearly wound up consumed by private capital in the early 1980s and had to be privately bought out and turned into a limited partnership, a decision that has made it exceedingly difficult from a taxation perspective for Cedar Fair to merge with any other theme park operators in the present day. Without that push from fellow large shareholders and Kinzel himself throwing in his money, he’d have been out of a job and the business model the parks operated under at that point tossed away in order to mine the company for liquidity.

Still cash rich afterward, Cedar Fair began the process of buying independent parks, and later acquiring Paramount’s chain as well as Six Flags Ohio. This showed another concern with Kinzel: while he had been outstanding in terms of obtaining return on investment with his coasters early on and was doing this capital investment using basically nothing more than cash on hand, building up debt even on a sure thing like the Paramount parks was outside his knowledge base. Rather than learn how they worked, Kinzel instead tried to force them to operate like his own facilities. Remember what I said about how discussion of business in theme park fandom circles is related to per capital spending: those parks lost 10% of their attendance their first year of ownership in order to try and move them from passholder-heavy to single day ticket usage. That strategy was ultimately tossed out entirely by Kinzel’s successors who understood the suburban locations of the parks were naturally fits for pass usage unlike what Kinzel had become accustomed to in Sandusky.

Kinzel’s bag of tricks had diminishing returns, as big coasters in parks full of them failed to bring in returns and group sales as a business began to wither. One fascinating aspect of the book to me is an often repeated mistake by people even today with Cedar Fair: market research consistently showed that the parks were perceived not as inclusive vacation destinations that appealed to everyone, but primarily coaster parks for younger people. Still, as the skyline of Cedar Fair fills up more and more with giant thrill rides, the idea of marketing Cedar Point as a beach first and coaster park second in much of the advertising was a repeating theme in 2018 and 2019 as though the market saturated with Cedar Point knowledge was somehow unaware of what the park was.


Part One: The Man and His Climb To The Top

Part Two: The King’s Creations

Part Three: Rounding Out The Package

Part Four: Dick’s $2 Billion Dollar Spending Spree

Part Five: After The Spending Spree

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