Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Day the Music Died

Today is an important date in Worlds of Fun history, one that even I had to look up about a year ago to make sure I had the right date.  October 12, 2017.  What is so important about that date?  Well to this editorial, it is about not what happened today, but what happened, or more importantly ceased to happen twenty years ago.  Oct 12, 1997.  It was the last day that the Zambezi Zinger operated at Worlds of Fun, ever.

“A Long, long time ago… I can still remember how that music used to make me smile. And I know if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance, and maybe they would be happy for awhile. “ – Don McLean

Such were the words of Don McLean.  And it was on this date twenty years ago that I personally feel the music died, at Worlds of Fun.  Many attractions were removed about twentyish years ago, but the one change that made the biggest impact, the one change that symbolizes everything else that … well went wrong, was Zinger’s removal.

The facts are there, for twenty years there are legions of Worlds of Fun fans that adamantly refuse to come to Worlds of Fun since they took Zambezi Zinger out.  This is backed up by numbers, in 1984 attendance at JUST Worlds of Fun only was 1.4 million, we know that it dropped to about 1.2 million or so in the decade that followed that but since the last numbers were publicly released it was always over a million.  We also know that it has since then dropped below a million.  Significantly. 

Why? I am sure there are multiple answers to that question.  However, the answer we have found over twenty years of covering park history is simple, Cedar Fair attempted to run the park too much like Cedar Point.  When Cedar Fair bought Worlds of Fun they only owned three others parks, Cedar Point, Valleyfair and Dorney Park.  All parks very similar to each other, none like Worlds of Fun.  They had been successful with those three, so it made sense to keep doing things the way they always did.  Look at the first few years of Cedar Fair operation of Worlds of Fun the facts are right there, Mamba, Bearenstein Bear Country, Summer Spectacular, Grand Prix Raceway, Ripcord.  Need I go on?  Just like Cedar Point, in fact Mamba Plaza even looks like Cedar Point!  Those who have been around Worlds of Fun, or really any Cedar Fair park, know their standard policy is that if it costs too much money, or they need the land for a new attraction, take it out.

It’s straightforward to realize that by 1997, with only two years of ownership under its belt, Cedar Fair didn’t realize the impact they were making when they took out Zinger.  Two years isn’t going to give anyone any significant experience with any market.  Of course, anyone that has taken Business 101 realizes that lack of experience isn’t really a good answer for failure.  But here is the ultimate point, Worlds of Fun didn’t have to get rid of Zinger, Zinger WAS fixable.  Twenty years later, Six Flags Great America still operates the last of the four U.S. operating Zinger-style (Speedracer) coasters, Whizzer.  And then there is the fact that Zinger still operates in South America.  Yes, it could still operate and it CAN still operate.

We believe that Zinger can and should come back, that is our answer today, as was our answer ten years ago.  It is completely possible, and would, we believe, have an enormous impact on Worlds of Fun and Cedar Fair (which is a plus for us as we are Cedar Fair stockholders).  We believe it would boost attendance by at least 30%.  It would bring back all those fans that have disavowed Worlds of Fun over the removal of the Zinger, it would attract those Kansas Citian’s who grew up with Worlds of Fun and haven’t been in years, it would also give Worlds of Fun a family-style coaster that the park so desperately needs.

But wouldn’t all this be pandering to nostalgia? Well… Since you mentioned that… Cedar Fair CEO Matt Ouimet had an entire piece in the L.A Times covering his search across Europe for classic-styled amusement park rides to bring nostalgia BACK to his United States parks.  He was quoted saying   They will be very recognizable rides,” followed by “It’s playing to nostalgia and just having fun.”  Well, Mr. Ouimet if this is what you REALLY believe then I respectfully argue that your most recognizable, fun, and nostalgic ride ISN’T in Europe, it’s in South America.

The next question is how?  Is it feasible?  Absolutely, yes.  And there are two schools of thought on the issue.  Bring Zinger back the way it is, from South America, fix its problems, give it a new control system, some new brakes, some anti-roll backs for the lift hill, and yes even some seatbelts.   Move Boomerang somewhere else in the park, and reinstall Zinger in its rightful plot in the woods. 

The second option is not my favorite, but works as well and is probably more affordable, if not as nostalgic. That option is to rebuild Zinger using RMC Raptor Track.  Blueprints still exist for Zinger so it is completely possible to rebuild Zinger, exactly the way it was, at least track layout wise, but make it a whole new ride.  Imagine the possibilities.  Just imagine, being the marketing team that gets to market bringing the Zinger back to Kansas City.  Imagine the bottom line.  An inexpensive new coaster that you know everyone will love.  There is no "why" to this, it is as an obvious a home run for the park as being handed a blank check.

 Zinger after it closed forever at Worlds of Fun

As a fan first and foremost of Worlds of Fun I have come to terms, especially recently, that there is absolutely nothing I have done or said that has made one difference to the park.  Let me tell you that is a hard fact to swallow when you have been engrossed in the park’s history for twenty plus years.  However, I have seen what has come to parks armed only with an apathetic staff, and parks with the names of Geauga Lake and Astroworld scare me to the core.  I cannot and will not let that happen so long as I am alive and breathing, and I firmly believe that the answer to Worlds of Fun problems is as much in the past as it is in the future.  Bring Zinger back, give in to the power of nostalgia, and make the park a worlds of fun once again.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Not Just Hot Air: The Forgotten Legacy of Jack Steadman

There is an old saying; you never want to meet your hero as you are bound to be disappointed.  It is no secret to those who know me personally that I have a great deal of respect, and in many ways “hero-worship” Jack Steadman, primarily because I view him as the father of Worlds of Fun.  For many years I had attempted to contact Hunt Midwest to set up an interview with him, it never ended up working out and sadly in 2015, he passed from this world.  Personally, there was some sadness, and a great deal of regret, but from what I have heard it is probably isn’t entirely a negative that I never got to meet him, as from what I have read and heard, his personality was shall we say “forceful”.

With that being said with recent events, specifically the removal of Steadman Plaza plaque from Worlds of Fun, and the recent comments that are best paraphrased as “who was he anyway?”.  I felt it is my duty to share what I do know about the man that was Jack Steadman, the best of Jack Steadman, in regards to Worlds of Fun. 

And the quite honest truth Jack Steadman is EVERYTHING to Worlds of Fun. 

Jack Steadman at the ceremonies for the 1974 "Grand Opening" (second year of operation)

It could be argued that Hunt Midwest hasn’t owned the park now for over twenty years and Steadman’s influence now almost fifty years ago doesn’t matter anymore.  I couldn’t disagree further, and to prove my point let’s look another Cedar Fair park, Cedar Point.  In the 1960’s Cedar Point almost became a residential subdivision.  The modern father of Cedar Point, George Roose, was a real estate developer that became an amusement park operator after visiting Disneyland and witnessing its own success.  George Roose quickly realized he had Ohio’s own Disneyland slated to become cute suburban homes… so he did the unthinkable.  He changed his mind and instead set on the road to make Cedar Point the Disneyland of the Midwest.  And he did.  Today, the depot at Cedar Point is named in his honor, the modern father of Cedar Point.  No serious Cedar Point fan would argue against his importance to the park’s history.   How then is Jack Steadman any less important because he has not been involved in his park’s operation for twenty years? 

A lot look to Lamar Hunt, the founder of Worlds of Fun, and let’s be honest; Lamar Hunt played a significant role in the development of Worlds of Fun. But it wasn’t his idea.  It wasn’t his brainchild, and for that story, we need to go back not to 1973, not even to groundbreaking in 1971, but to 1957.  In 1957, Jack Steadman went on a trip to Disneyland with his family, and to quote the Kansas City Star:

““Steadman told yesterday’s luncheon guests a thing like the theme park “doesn’t just happen” in informal comment after the meeting Steadman said he had continued discussions with Hunt about the possibilities of such a venture until 1966 when he got a go-ahead to develop it” Roberts, Joe (1971, Aug 4), “Worlds of Fun Work to Start” Kansas City Star, p. 1a

 One thing is certain, Jack Steadman wasn't the type to speak quietly, lord knows how he sounded (or what he said!) coming out of that bull horn.

The story even goes on to elaborate that between 1957 and 1966 the Steadman family continued its unofficially sanctioned research and visited parks across the country discussing between children and parents ideas and attractions they liked and thought should be included in the new park if it was ever to be built.

Then there were the trees, and Steadman had more than a few words to say on that, and for those that know me his views feed my views and became a big part of why I am so protective of the park’s arbor development.  In a story from the KC Star Jack Steadman was quoted saying “Worlds of Fun will be designed to preserve and enhance the natural beauty of the heavily wooded park site” Roberts, Joe (1971, Aug 4), “Worlds of Fun Work to Start” Kansas City Star, p. 1a.  In a Clay County special edition regarding the opening of Worlds of Fun Steadman further elaborates that serious negative consequences imparted by Steadman himself, awaited anyone that removed a tree from the site.

 Jack Steadman at the ribbon cutting of his last and latest "baby", Timberwolf.

So many other stories could be used to elaborate his impact on Worlds of Fun, how he discussed obtaining investors for the park by using the “Hunt Name”, instead of Lamar Hunt himself, implies that even on the financial side, Steadman was very much in charge of pushing forward his own “World”.  Or for example, how virtually every quote or comment made by park executives during the park’s construction came from Steadman himself.  Then there is my personal favorite which can’t be found in newspapers and is a more personal telling of the story, that goes that Steadman himself pushed from a significant upgrade to many of the park’s star attractions, especially Tivoli, which was originally planned to be an outdoor theater.

However, no story about Steadman could be told without his last great legacy to the park, and that’s not the soda stand named after him (Big Jack’s), but one that though Cedar Fair has arguably made attempts to destroy, has refused to soar off into the sunset and that is THE landmark, the Worlds of Fun Hot Air Balloon.  Steadman states in his own words:

We chose the large, multicolored ascension balloon for our symbol because it represents fun, adventure and travel reminiscent of the movie “Around the World in 80 Days” These are the things we want Worlds of Fun to represent” Roberts, Joe (1971, Aug 11), “Gala Start to Fun World” Kansas City Times, p. 1a

Jack Steadman and his ascending hot air balloon.

It was never my plan to write an editorial regarding Jack Steadman, and instead to write detailing his extraordinarily large investment and endowment, in my forthcoming book detailing the history of the park that is currently in progress.  However, within a span of a few weeks, I saw the removal of “Big Jacks” sign and more notably “Steadman Plaza”, and to be honest what I saw dismayed me more than the removal of almost any other attraction at the park.   I saw the destruction and erasure of everything that formed the bedrock, the foundation of the park I loved. And you will forgive me for saying this… everything that is GOOD about Worlds of Fun.  It concerned me that Jack Steadman’s impact and devotion to making Worlds of Fun a world-class attraction so many years ago was being forgotten and lost.  Regardless of who owns the park, and who operates it, the simple fact still remains there would be no Worlds of Fun, whether past, present or future, there would have been no Forum concerts, no Zambezi Zinger, no Mamba, nor no Prowler, certainly no hot air balloon, and most importantly no memories without him, and for that I am eternally grateful.