Fast Talk: Summer Amusements

It's family vacation time, and in an era of backseat DVD players and jaded youth, we asked the operators of five lower-key attractions how they've adapted to compete in the Spielbergian, conglomerate-driven entertainment universe.

Create a Memorable Scene

Bill Chapin

President, See Rock City Inc.
Lookout Mountain, Georgia

Rock City Gardens was founded by my great-uncle, Garnet Carter. We have hiking trails, wild deer, a 1,000-ton balanced rock, and our famous vista where visitors can see seven states at once. Many people know about us by our old barn advertising campaign and our slogan, "See Rock City," both of which have become part of Americana. We're proud of that, but we're not stuck in the past. When interstate highways took people away from the roads with the barns, my father switched to billboards. Now that the Internet is the superhighway, people can purchase tickets on our Web site.

Two of our biggest challenges are the lengthening of the school year and the increase in dual-income families, both of which make it harder for families to take a two-week summer vacation. So to attract business year-round, we've added a light show between mid-November and New Year's, and in 2002 we boosted our fall business by planting a corn maze nearby. We've also purchased a Civil War museum, which gets us into the educational market, and turned a nearby house into a conference center, opening up the business market.

Dick Pope, who founded Cypress Gardens, used to talk about OPM Squared, which meant, "our photographic materials, other people's money." In other words, what we try to do is create a scenic environment that makes people want to take a picture. When they return home, they show those pictures to their friends. And then those people want to visit us. It works!

The seven states that can be seen from Rock City Gardens are Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Sell the Experience

Christopher Smith

President, The Mystery Spot
Santa Cruz, California

We do guided tours that show variations of gravity, perspective, and height — balls rolling uphill, people standing sideways, that sort of thing. Because we have no actual product to sell, the level of service we provide is very important. If you go to a store to buy, say, a yo-yo, even if the service is bad, you still walk away with the yo-yo. At the Mystery Spot, you don't walk away with anything except the experience we give you, so we pay strict attention to courtesy, cleanliness, and the training of our tour guides.

That brings up the employment issue, which is a problem for roadside attractions. It's difficult work: It's being an actor who reads the same script eight times a day. You can't get enthusiasm from someone who's feeling cheated, so we make sure we pay our guides better than most similar attractions do. Even though it's a dead-end job, it doesn't have to be dead-end pay.

People try to figure out the secret of what they see here, and that's part of what drives our business. People have fun, but there's no clear explanation for their fun. Anyone can say, "Oh, it's just an illusion." Okay, so if it's an illusion, then explain it! And they can't. The real "secret" is the entertainment that customers have here. I watch people coming out after their tours, and most of them are smiling. If someone can leave here with a smile, we've done our jobs. That's what we sell for five bucks.

The Mystery Spot is one of several attractions, including the Wonder Spot in Wisconsin, the Cosmos Mystery Area in South Dakota, and the Oregon Vortex, where the laws of physics are reputedly bent.

Never Coast

Richard L. Kinzel

Chairman, president, and CEO, Cedar Point
Sandusky, Ohio

An amusement park is really not a complicated business: You give the public what they want, and we've found that what they want are thrill rides. That makes sense to me, because I still love roller coasters myself. Whenever we open a new one, I'm the first rider!

I started at Cedar Point in 1972, making cotton candy, and became CEO in 1986. In 1976, we built the Corkscrew, the world's first triple-looping coaster, and that was the first year our attendance topped 3 million. Now we're known for our coasters, and it's paid huge dividends for us. We had the first 200-foot coaster, the first 300 footer, and the first 400 footer, which are tremendous marketing vehicles. It has also led to what we call the "coaster wars," where we have the tallest coaster, then someone else opens a slightly taller one, and we come back with an even bigger one. It may seem like a spiraling arms race, but these rides allow you to increase your prices — we now charge $44 for admission. They attract lots of media attention, and they draw people to the park. We've almost always had record years after adding these rides.

The economy has been weak for three or four years now, but this is a capital-driven industry, and we put something new in our parks almost every year, good times or bad. That's what brings people in. You can talk about movies and DVDs and the Internet and all the rest, but there's nothing like getting on a roller coaster.

Cedar Point is the second-oldest amusement park in America, dating back to 1870 when most visitors arrived via a sidewheel steamer boat across Sandusky Bay.

Build a Distinctive Showcase

John Jakobson

President and general manager, Legoland
Carlsbad, California

Everyone knows our Lego toys, which first appeared in 1932. The first Legoland park began as a showcase exhibition next to company headquarters in Denmark in 1968. It was extremely popular, so they began adding more and more features, and soon it was a theme park. We opened a London Legoland in 1996, the California outlet opened in 1999, and a German park in 2002. Each one attracts between 1.3 million and 1.6 million people annually.

Our European parks are the leading ones in their countries. But we have lots of competition here in California, so we stress that we're providing more than just entertainment. We're providing an interactive learning experience where children can build their own robots, make music in our musical fountain, or design a Lego self-portrait. But we also have roller coasters and water rides like other amusement parks; we don't want people to overlook that. Balancing education with entertainment is our trickiest marketing challenge.

We also need that balance in our staff — we have a good mix of amusement-industry people, and then there are people like me, who are Lego people. Ironically, when I was a student I always wanted to have a summer job at the Danish Legoland, because it looked like a fun place to work. But there were never any available. I joined Lego's corporate office straight from college 19 years ago, and joined the parks division in 1990, when we were first looking outside of Denmark. I tell our staff, "You've got the job I always wanted!"

The tallest tower ever made out of Lego bricks, just over 90 feet, was recently erected at Legoland in California.

Swim Against the Sharks

Mark McHugh

President and CEO, Gatorland
Orlando, Florida

We're a 110-acre theme park with alligators, snakes, spiders, and creepy-crawly stuff. With Disney, SeaWorld, and Universal all located nearby, the expectation level of our customers is much higher than if we were in a more isolated spot. It's like being the Main Street retailer competing with Wal-Mart.

I spent 13 years with SeaWorld, training killer whales. But then I married into the family that owns Gatorland, and in 1996 they asked me to run it. At first, I tried to run it like a big theme park, and that was a mistake. This is a completely different critter. I had us advertising in Great Britain and Germany — two of our big feeder areas — but that took away from local efforts. So in 1998, we switched to marketing only within a 100-mile radius. We can still reach foreign tourists by advertising in the airports, at the rental-car counter, and so on. We let the big guys funnel people into central Florida. Then we strive to get their attention. By the time a British tourist gets to her hotel, we've been in her face 13 times.

Vacationing families are much more go-go-go today than they were 20 or 30 years ago, especially here in central Florida, so we try to provide a little break, some relaxation. But obviously, our marketing pitch can't be, "Come in here and slow down." Gatorland had been a pretty passive, static zoo experience, and I wanted to bring more interactive entertainment to the park. So we opened a petting zoo and a free-flight aviary. And employees walk around now with animals, so visitors can pet them. We're high-touch, not high-tech.

Gatorland, founded in 1949, is home to the Gator Jumparoo, where alligators are trained to jump out of the water and take a piece of chicken from a trainer's hand.

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