New owner steps in with four-year plan
More than hope for Indiana Beach
AT: Tim Baldwin
MONTICELLO, Ind. — In a year of continuing unsettling news, bright spots are certainly welcome. The late April announcement that a buyer had stepped in to restore and reopen Indiana Beach was just the touch of optimism needed. The park has operated since 1926 and the February announcement that it would be closing permanently was a blow to the surrounding community and park fans everywhere.
New owner Gene Staples has found himself in the spotlight, immediately thrust into celebrity status. With a background in real estate development and hospitality, the businessman had the right tools to purchase the closed park from California-based Apex Parks Group and address its needs. Self-described as an amusement park junkie, Staples saw it more than just a business venture; he found it a cause to preserve a piece of Americana.
“I have the opportunity to step in and make a difference,” he said. “The family-run amusement parks are slowly becoming extinct creatures. The small parks and medium-sized ones such as [Indiana Beach] are becoming lost. This one hits a little closer to home, having been there as a child and taking my own four children there over the years.”
Having watched a local children’s park, Kiddieland, in Melrose Park, Illinois, close in 2009, he knew such places can’t be replicated. Staples, who attended the auction, was sad to see it go. Had he the clairvoyance to know at the time that he would be later purchasing Indiana Beach, he admits he would have purchased some attractions.
To witness a second park closing was not going to happen on his watch.
“I had the means and ability to reach out to Apex. They did some amazing things with the park over the past few years and invested a bunch of money into the infrastructure issues when they first got the park,” Staples said. “They really wanted to see the park saved. It was viable with the right structure.”
Staples examined the facility, its condition and the attractions and found it could financially work for him and his team. He also mentioned that he worked with White County officials and acknowledged them for stepping up and working with him on the project, aiding in completing some infrastructure issues Apex was not able to complete.
The emergence of the coronavirus outbreak put any official announcements on hold. During that time, social media posts sparked interest from the public. Staples was pleased by the response.
“We got a ton of feedback from the Indiana Beach Nation support group,” Staples noted. “We read their comments and gained a huge understanding of how much this park was loved.”
Prior to the pandemic outbreak, his team evaluated the property in February following Apex’s announcement that the park would be closed. Through the due-diligence process, he was pleased with the current conditions, but also knew quick action was needed.
Apex filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 8.
“Once we went out and evaluated the park, we knew it was something we had to do,” he said. “We worked with creditors of Apex and put together some amazing terms to assure it would be structured in a way to ensure the longtime financial health of the park.”
Staples remains hopeful that the park can still have some sort of season in 2020 even with the evolving situation of the COVID-19 crisis but is also prepared for the possibility that they might not debut the park again until 2021.
“We’re not going to be Six Flags; we’re not going to be Cedar Point. That’s not what the park is. Our goal is to be one of the premier vintage amusement parks in America. With the right investments and the attention to detail, we could take what is there and create a four-year infrastructure plan and put the spit-and-polish back onto it, if you will,” he shared with Amusement Today.
With his expertise in real estate development, Staples is cognizant of the needs of each building. Noting some neglect in some areas, he hopes to quickly address those issues. Repairing a roof now may stem off having to replace a building later on. He understands that previous owners tended to invest in more visual impact that was marketable to guests, but the “necessary evil” of physical infrastructure is a top priority.
“Most people might overlook [some things], but I think what people will notice is we’re taking what’s there and making it as nice as possible. We’re going to make sure we spend the money wisely to repair the infrastructure to ensure the long-term physical health of the park,” he said. “That’s Phase I.”
Staples reports Phase II is looking at what can be added to the park to improve the park but still keep its charm.
Only a few items from the park had been sold off. The park’s carousel was sold, and Staples is disappointed in that loss. The other three attractions were a simple flat ride, bumper boats and a kiddie ride, which he feels can be easily replaced.
He reports the coasters are in good shape. Indiana Beach has already been in contact with S&S Worldwide for parts to bring Steel Hawg, the El Loco coaster, to fully function within its maximum capacity. Approximately the first third of Hoosier Hurricane — the first of three wooden coasters built by Custom Coasters Inc. at the property — is being retracked, with a completion date expected by July.
“Lost Coaster of Superstition Mountain is in excellent operating condition,” he said. “Apex had realized the real issues with its operational problems and fixed that a year ago. I’ve been told it has been running well ever since.”
More than 40 attractions are at the park. Along with the five coasters, the park also boasts a flume and several flat rides.
“All the other attractions are in good working condition,” said Staples. “Some need some minor TLC, but our intention is to [preserve] those vintage rides that make it Indiana Beach.”
Two fan favorites are the Frankenstein’s Castle walk-through and Den of Lost Thieves dark ride. Among his personal favorites is a Larson International Flying Scooters called Air Crow. Like several attractions at the park, the ride is positioned on piers out over Lake Shaffer.
“The fact that Indiana Beach is going to be 95 years old shortly, it’s irreplaceable. There is not another park that is like Indiana Beach with the stacking of the roller coasters overhead and the amount of fun and excitement shoehorned in on the peninsula of Lake Shaffer. The way you walk on the boardwalk, the lights, the vintage signs mixed with the newer neon signs … there’s a certain romance and Americana to that park that can never be duplicated. You could try, but there’s no way to duplicate the feeling that you feel when you stroll on that boardwalk, whether it is the middle of a summer day or better yet in the evening when it is lit up beyond belief,” he said. “It’s really one of a kind.”
A hopeful reopening date of July 1 is a target, but management is aware of restrictions surrounding global events.
“We’re shooting for that date until told otherwise,” Staples said. “We anticipate all rides being 100 percent operational.”
Carnivals, concessionaires and fairs continue to find creative revenue streams
AT: B. Derek Shaw
UNITED STATES — The carnivals and concessionaires that rolled out portable food operations at their winter quarters, empty parking lots and other open spaces have been joined by others — even a trio of fairgrounds on the West Coast. While some of these culinary operations are open one day a week, others are around all weekend and some are going the distance seven days a week. All are getting positive encouragement and praise from those supporting their creative operations and traditional carnival food offerings.
In the California, The Merced County Fair, Merced; Alameda County Fair, Pleasanton; and the Big Fresno Fair have joined the ranks of those offering space on their fairgrounds to house food trailers. This enables food concessionaires to fill the public's appetite for fun, crave-worthy fair food while generating some revenue for providers.
The first to do so was the Alameda County Fair. Jerome Hoban, CEO, came up with the idea to help position the fair as top-of-mind for their community residents. The staff, working with their on-site concessionaire, Comcast Spectacor, developed a set menu that customers can order online all week for pickup on Friday. The first week, serving a BBQ ribs dinner, they projected 200 dinners, but 350 were actually processed. The second week, offering a beef brisket platter, the goal of 600 was easily broken. The contactless setup includes a food pick-up place, along with a separate beer and wine location. Local wineries have been brought into the mix, along with frozen margaritas and growler refills. The fair even provides “selfie-spots” so purchasers can immortalize this unique experience, while practicing social distancing.
“Fair-centric” is how Angel Moore, vice president of business development described the concept. “It’s been great. It made us realize how much we miss them (fairgoers) and how much they miss us. This has been great for our team, an extra push, a breath of fresh air, an adrenaline rush.”
Next on the food menu are corn dogs as customers are asking for this staple-of-the-fair food item. The fair is also exploring more drive-in options as the year continues.
“As fairs were canceling, we saw a need for our vendors. It is important that we keep them whole, as part of our fair family,” explained Lauri King, deputy director, Big Fresno Fair. “This is how they make their living.”
To try to ease the pain and help concessionaires survive during these hard times, Fair Food Feature! was created. “It all started with Country Fair Cinnamon Rolls, which was a great success. Then we worked to expand it to include others. Our community loves their fair food — so this provides them a great opportunity to get their fair food fix while supporting local businesses. It’s a win-win!” said King.
Each Friday through Sunday, the fair has anywhere from one to three participating vendors in the drive-thru only operation, set up in the area normally used for the carnival midway. Queuing that snakes through the grounds — and has taken up to three hours — does include a separate gate exit. Recently Lawson’s Concessions’ colossal corn dogs, Dippin’ Dots, and Pepe’s Mariscos fresh Mexican food were present. Over the recent Memorial Day weekend, Big Bubba’s BBQ was added to the food mix. Originally designed as only a month-long event, the fair plans to continue to provide Fair Food Feature! as long as there is support and vendor participation.
King, when asked about community response said, “It has been amazing. We are giving people a little bit of sunshine at the end of the tunnel. It is flowing smoothly.” Masks are worn and social distancing is safely practiced.
It helps to have a food concessionaire live in a fair’s neighborhood. That’s how Fair Food Fridays came about for Teresa Burrola, CEO of the Merced County Fair. “Will you do it on Fridays only?” she asked her neighbors, Rawlings Concessions, who live a block away. They agreed, bringing in their Log Cabin Kettle Corn, with corn dogs, for a lower percentage, “pandemic pricing,” as the fair calls it. “It was huge,” said Burrola as 1,800 corn dogs were sold opening weekend. “It kinda took off. I can’t wait until this weekend!”
The fair is keeping with offering only food specific to the fair, like County Fair Cinnamon Rolls, which were part of the second weekend’s offerings, as well as funnel cakes, French bread pizza and of course, cotton candy. The fairgrounds are easily accessible, allowing cars to travel through. As they say on their Facebook page, “Just because there isn’t a fair this year doesn’t mean you still can’t get your Fair Food fix!”
The Great New York State Fair, Syracuse, recently jumped into the food vendor ring with its New York State Fair Food Fest. This past month the venue’s orange parking lot has been home to three different drive-thru stands. Villa Pizze Fritte, a staple at the fair since 1960, usually operates out of their orange and yellow A-framed building. Joining them more recently has been Big Kahuna food stand and the Ashley Lynn Winery, all open from noon - 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“It started as a Pizze Fritte revolution; now it’s time for evolution,” Grazi Zazzara Jr., a member of the family that owns the Villa Pizze Fritte stand, said in a news release. A Pizza Fritte (for those not in the know) includes two-foot long, sugar coated pieces of fried dough. “The community responded,” Zazzara said. “People are interested and excited for this type of outing, and even more so now with so many summer festivals canceled or in question.”
Masked servers walk up to cars and take orders as drivers and passengers are not allowed to leave their vehicles.
While the Martin County Fairgrounds, Stuart, Florida, is not a big venue, it has been home to three stands from locally based Deggeller Attractions, a floss, dough and grab. Their motivation for the operation was to keep employees working. “We took a shot. We’ve been able to give everybody a little bit of work and are able to house them,” said Cathy Deggeller.
Borrowing from the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru experience, the process worked. Those who stopped by “seemed to have enjoyed it. They had a lot of fun,” said Deggeller.
Elsewhere in the Sunshine State, Big Easy Concessions, operated by George and Alieta Mitchell for 51 years, made use of a spot at the intersection of two busy roads in Ruskin, Florida. “We’re trying to make ends meet, although it’s not like being out,” said Aleita. “As owners we have to continue on, any way we can.”
A selection of food and lemonade are the offerings available. “The people have been very, very nice and appreciative — [which is] very unusual,” said Mitchell.
Perhaps the carnival may not be coming to every town this year; however, suburban Philadelphia carnival operator, Skelly’s Amusements, is providing drive-thru carnival food fun at their winter quarters in Williamstown, New Jersey. The company began operations in mid-April with three trailers and basic food options, expanding selections each succeeding weekend. Since then, they have added a fourth unit. “We’ve had a very successful three weeks. This is a complete surprise — absolutely incredible! People are traveling to attend this event. It is a very, very nice surprise,” said Mike Skelly, co-owner. “We have items that most restaurants don’t have. Not too many businesses sell funnel cakes,” said Skelly in a Courier Post article.
The layout is a loop around their operations with a 300-foot food area. Waits have been up to 1.5 hours, with 20 or more vehicles queuing on US 322-Glassboro Road. Of course social distancing protocols are in place.
“It shows you that people want to get out. People want to do something. They want to take their kids out. We have such a unique food item that they are going to end up enjoying it,” said Skelly in a Fox 29 TV interview.
At the very bottom tip of southern Texas, six miles from the Mexican border, the town of LeFeria is home to several carnival operators including Kenny’s Funland. With two roll offs and a Hitchhiker corn dog stand, the Maples have been at it since the third weekend of March.
“We made a few bucks, then we had to shelter-in-place as the county got stringent,” said John Maple, owner. They reopened at their winter quarters with funnel cakes and other standard carnival grab food a few weeks later. Kenny’s Funland offers a special of the day, every day.
Phase two of the operation includes a retail gift shop, working out of their balloon joint. Items include all types of plush including fortnight llamas, plastic swords — items people would normally win at a carnival.
“We’ve received a lot of community support from LaFeria natives,” said Maple.
Kenny Fox has cooked for carnival people for more than 35 years, first with Archway Amusements, then Connor’s Amusements and now, for the time being, on his own with Kenny’s Snack Shack in his hometown, Beardstown, Illinois. “I’m not trying to make a lot of money, just make a living,” said Fox. He offers his famous sausages in addition to other carnival staples seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fox offers fish every Friday and Saturday and set the prices of all food a third less expensive than if he were at a carnival or fair.
The operator has daily specials that are announced the day before on Facebook, to give supporters an idea of what to expect. “It’s been a pretty good deal with a lot of repeaters. It’s working out real good,” said Fox.
The power of social media and a proven track record have led to phenomenal results for Molnar’s Concessions. Based in Austintown, Ohio, the family-run business, known for their legendary cinnamon rolls and annual Christmas mail order business, successfully rolls on during these times. Operating on a Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. schedule, the operation takes place at their winter quarters with a full array of carnival food, drinks and treats.
Having 5,000 followers on Facebook hasn’t hurt. “We only advertised on Facebook, with a boosted post, saying we are open,” said Faith McGee, daughter of owner, Jim Molnar. They only had two food trailers operating, to minimize the number of employees needed to staff them. “Everyone is wanting to get out.” McGee uses a track phone for the number they listed on their Facebook post. The concessionaire has runners who deliver orders to waiting vehicles. “It is more chaotic for us,” said McGee; however, the results have been worthwhile. “I thought I was at the Canfield Fair. We had one heck of a weekend. Good response.”
McGee points out that there are a lot of franchises in their community; however, many residents tend not to go there. Instead, they have been coming out to support the local operation. She also is appreciative of her devoted employees. “My help is so loyal to me. They are anxious to get out, work and travel. They are ready to help me at any given time. This is one of those years that is going to be a struggle. This may be our only source of revenue this year. We have got to pay our bills.”
The earliest reported creative revenue operation started March 15 in eastern Pennsylvania. Houghton Enterprises, Cochranville, is still going strong. They are now up to four locations including four food stands at Church of the Sacred Heart, Oxford, Pennsylvania. Penn Valley Shows, Middleburg, Pennsylvania, has tied in a vintage car cruise during their weekend operating hours. Now they are setting up food trailers at cancelled events where they were booked in May to help recoup some of the financial loss incurred.