Tuesday, October 31, 2017

2003-2017 a History of Haunt at Worlds of Fun

There are many who are reading this who simply can’t remember Halloweekends, or Haunt as it has been known now for years, not being an integral part of the Worlds of Fun season.  However, there was a time when Halloween was celebrated by the park with a few cornstalks a “Used Coffin Lot” and a kid's illusionist show (Spooktacular).   There was a time when the park didn’t even stay open until Halloween, and when Jeff and I, discussed on multiple occasions how great it would be if Worlds of Fun would only take a look at Six Flags St. Louis and how it celebrated the Halloween season.  It’s for these reasons, that I thought this would be a perfect time to look at not the current season of Halloween Haunt, but the history of how we got to 2017 and now 15 seasons of “not so Scare Free” Saturday Nights.  

The simple introduction to any Worlds of Fun Halloweekends story starts in 2003, with the first real haunt, Carnival of Carnivorous Clowns at the old Beat Street (currently Patriot Plaza). One of my most important questions when it comes to history of anything is the  “why”, and quite frankly I don’t have an answer to it.  I can take an educated guess and assume that the head of Live Entertainment, then and now Brent Barr, (otherwise known as the mastermind behind Haunt at Worlds of Fun) had an inspirational moment to turn the then ramshackle remnants of Beat Street into a haunted house.  Maybe.  Well, Probably. 

Looking back it was a small spark, but even the tiniest flame can burst into a flaming inferno, and such was the case with Halloweekends in 2003.  There was no advertisement that I can recall, there was a “long” line of about 20 minutes, and there were two crazy guys running around with chainsaws terrorizing the people in line.  The haunt itself was very obviously not master planned but was creative in that it wasn’t.   “Dummy” Clowns and Screamsters dressed as clowns co-mingled, there was no way to really tell them apart until it was too late.  Crazy clowns banged on clear Plexiglas walls, and guests passed through a spinning drum at the end. 

Though unadvertised, Carnival of Carnivorous Clowns was almost an instant hit.  However, Worlds of Fun had never ventured into the serious haunt realm, so what happened next in 2004 was a surprise.  In 2004 Halloweekends began its slow climb from obscurity to at least local prominence.  Worlds of Fun introduced three new haunts, Camp Gonna Gitcha Witchahatchet, Lore of the Vampire, and Fright Zone as well as the often overlooked “Meat Cleaver High” at Moulin Rouge a show that still runs today in the same location.   Like Clowns, which also returned in 2004, Camp and Vampire used abandoned or vastly underused areas of the park. In the case of Vampires, it used the most recently abandoned Orient Express station, and Camp, the likewise abandoned Plunge queue line and plot.  Camp, which has now been gone for almost ten years, (having been displaced by Prowler), was an ingenious take on a Summer Camp "gone wrong", and not only employed the common strobe lights, fog, and netting, but also a variety of leftover props from park history. I still remember the old “Python Potions” menu sign, old Oceans of Fun kayaks and floats, and even old punching bags from Pandamonium.  Halloweekends would take several years to transition from using “old leftovers” to actually being worthy of new builds for itself only.  Personally, I think the creative approach to using what you had, made for a more home brew experience.

2004 also introduced the world of make-up artists, and most importantly a formal area to prep almost a hundred Screamsters.  So introduced the Creature Crypt, otherwise known as the basement of All-Stars Grill (Today Chickie and Petes).  Jeff who would join Camp Gonna Gitcha as “Pig Man”, in 2005 vividly remembers Creature Crypt as an eclectic and bit odd mix of makeup artists, potluck dinner and Halloween party showing old Halloween movies on television in the background.  As far as moving Monsters from Creature Crypt to Camp and Lore there was a rather creative answer to that too.  Monsters for Camp wouldn’t simply amble to their haunt, they were lead by thick rope like jailed convicts.  Vampires carried umbrellas to shade their pale visage from the overhead sun.  Don’t make the mistake, it wasn’t  a parade of anything like we would see today, that wouldn’t come until several years later, but it told a cohesive story.

For the first few years of Halloweekends one single year didn’t go by without some change that would have serious impact ripples for years to come.  At the time, 2005 didn’t seem like a major change, but it not only introduced another new haunt, and probably one of the only few that could be considered a “failure”, Dominion of Doom, but also introduced the concept of Friday night Fright Nights.  Prior to this point, Halloweekends was only Halloweekends, Saturday only, though Lore would operate on Sundays too.  In 2005, Worlds of Fun dipped their toe into operating Friday nights at first until 1 a.m.  Those first Friday nights were absolute ghost towns, you could count the rows of cars in C lot on your fingers.  However, it was a respectable “leap of faith” for Worlds of Fun to try Friday nights, and looking back it was a brilliant move.  Dominion of Doom as previously mentioned never quite worked as well as I am sure anyone hoped, but it was almost doomed from the beginning, offering an all-to-straight walk through down Forum Road.  Themed to a graveyard populated by the living dead, almost every single living dead “life form” was female, giving Dominion of Doom its makeshift moniker, Dominion of Dames.  Like the two previous haunts, Dominion had its own make up and costuming area, located in the caboose of Country Junction.  I can speak as a Dominion of Dames Screamster myself, it was cramped. 

Jeff and I got “talked into” becoming Screamsters by Head of Marketing at the time Chris Ozimek, who seemed dead set on getting us involved.  Jeff and I joined up and worked as Screamsters at quite a turning point of Halloweekends from the third week of 2005, until 2008.  I learned the fine art of scaring, well sort of, misdirection and scare.  I will never forget the older lady I worked with in Haunt, she would slowly, hobble out towards our would-be victims.  Once they were appropriately distracted, I would jump out, scaring the heck out of some well-intentioned guests.  I ended up with a red smoothie unintentionally spilled all over me in one instance… It was so worth it. 

2005 was also the first year for the Tivoli “adult” show, Slash it would come back in 2006 too but well… Worlds of Fun Fans don’t talk about it much for a reason. 

Probably of all years of Haunt, 2006 was the year that it all started to change.  Halloweekends would go from small, end of season event, that’s cool to come out and see, to “let's plan the entire season around Haunt” type of event.  Two words changed it, Asylum Island.  Up until that point, the walk-through houses or mazes were good, the talent was good, and they were fun to do if you were already at Worlds of Fun.  When Asylum Island came around, it was a reason TO come to Worlds of Fun, it was I believe the only haunt up to that point, and possibly ever, that could actually stand on its own and function without the rest of the park.  It would run ten seasons, and provide a home for the mentally ill in the daytime, and at night time… the insane would come out to play.  It was populated by its own cast of doctors, nurses, and patients, during its initial year it even had a mad dog that ran around outside terrorizing guests (a Screamster in heavy costume). There was a demented doctor’s office, a green mile, a padded room, and of course… The Yard.  The Yard or what has forever been referred to as the room  “everyone will get lost or pass out because of the strobe lights”, both disorients and terrorizes.  To add to the mix what most people don’t know is that it has a door, completely un-distinguishable from the rest of the metal bars, that can open and close causing guests to go around and around in circles.  You had to be a special kind of demented to work there. 

I think one of the best, and arguably worst parts of Halloweekends Haunt at that point was that there really were no rules.  I mean yes, the whole “don’t touch the guests” has always applied, but you could chase them, all of them or any of them, and you might get a “don’t do that again” reprimand… but that really didn’t stop a whole lot.  I remember vividly a guest being so terrified he ran out of Asylum Island, towards the Monsoon exit bridge, followed by a Screamster, and abruptly was stopped by a rope that was strung across the road leading to the pond behind Asylum.  The technique was referred to being “clotheslining” It was seriously frowned upon.

It was wrong.  Very wrong.  

It could be argued that 2006 set the stage for 2007.  Guests who have never been to haunt prior to the current year wouldn’t recognize haunt in 2006, but they would by 2009 and it was because of 2007.   

In 2007, several major changes happened.  First, the sixth haunt, Bloodshed opened up the hill from the Heart of America Theater, it was the first haunt that would actually be a new structure built strictly for Haunt.  It would become the standard for new haunts in the future (today there are four haunts that have their own specially built structure).  The second change was when make-up and costuming was moved from haunt specific areas, or that each haunt had its own separate make-up area, to a single, unified make-up area near costumes and the administration building.  This area was otherwise referred to as “The Trailer”.   This also, more importantly, necessitated the need for a “Parade”.  As a simple Screamster minion I have no way of knowing if the Parade was the reason for combining all the make-up and costuming or the other way around but I am inclined to believe that the Parade was a fortunate side effect.  In 2007, the Parade was quite a bit different than it is today.  It wasn’t on the map, there was no set time (except somewhere near the time haunts opened), there was no Overlord, there were no cars or motorcycles and there wasn’t a whole lot of organization either.  There certainly were no rules.  I scared a few guests, including one who lost his whole bag of popcorn to the Scandinavian midway prior to a parade.  I also had a good time running through Front Street shops.  Good Times.  It would never happen today, and that probably isn’t entirely a bad thing.  The point is what started as a "need-basis", to move Screamsters from make-up to their specific haunts, turned into the major event that we all experience today.

The amazing thing is that it worked, a most likely unplanned, unscheduled, unadvertised event became an instant hit and has today become a central focal point of the entire Haunt celebration.  An interesting point I "re-discovered' a few days ago came when I posted a few photos of the 2008 Haunt parade which was not a whole lot different than 2007.  A reader pointed out Lore of the Vampire characters were not there.  They weren't, because Lore opened at 3pm at that point.  the Vampires had to walk to their haunt at a separate time, and wouldn't join the parade until the Overlord joined in 2009.

Last, in 2007, Worlds of Fun made the not-so-aesthetics-only change in name.  Previously, the event had been called Halloweekends, in 2007 Worlds of Fun decided to keep the park open almost the entire week of Halloween (Halloween was a Wednesday).  It didn’t really work all that well but did necessitate, I guess, a change in names, from Halloweekends to Halloween Haunt (Because you can't call yourself HalloWEEKENDS if you are open on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday).  And like Screamroller becoming Extremeroller all those years ago, once a name changes for one reason, even if that reason may not exist any longer, the name still stays the same.  So, it was with Haunt.

For 2008, Worlds of Fun introduced two new haunts, Outlaw’s Revenge in Americana and Master McCarthy’s Dollhouse in Africa.  With Outlaws, unlike the previous several haunt additions this was a “scare zone” more than an actual haunt building.  Outlaws theme involved “old west style sliders” or Screamsters that were dressed up as Old West Outlaws who would startle by sliding, or falling to the ground and sliding over the pavement.  Jeff was a slider during the first season and there was a bit of a learning curve.  I specifically remember him going out and practicing in our cul-de-sac, as “coordinated falling” takes a lot of practice (seriously, you have to get over the natural tendency NOT to fall).  He also spent time replacing much of the park provided equipment and making DIY slider gloves with metal washers hot glued to them to create sparks.  The whole idea of “sliders” was pulled from another Cedar Fair park, Knott’s Berry Farm that had had, and still, continues to have one of the iconic haunt events in the country, Knott’s Scary Farm.  Amazingly enough, though as “iconic” Knott’s Scary Farm was and is, they sent several staff members to Worlds of Fun over the years to “borrow” ideas.  Worlds of Fun Halloween Haunt is, I believe, one of the hidden jewels of the Halloween season.

The second new Haunt of 2008 Master McCarthy’s Dollhouse used Zinger’s old queue house and supplemented with a second new structure.  The theme was a demented dollhouse and its one that, personal opinion, just never quite worked.  Don’t get me wrong it hit the “creepy” factor straight on the head, nothing says psychotic, like hundreds of Barbie doll legs stuck to a wall, with the music of “It’s a Small World” playing in the background (that song is enough to give anyone nightmares). However haunts can’t survive just by being “creepy” and Master McCarthy’s really could have benefited from a  sleek, perfect-edged, look that Worlds of Fun just couldn’t muster, because otherwise, it would seem to be a mastermind of an idea.   Master McCarthy’s would survive for five years though before finally being replaced by Miss Lizzie’s Chamber of Horrors in 2013.

As previously mentioned up until 2007, Halloween Haunt was quite “homebrew” if you will.  It was those changes over 2007 and 2008 that really took Halloweekends to Haunt, and from small local event to the largest haunt event in the Midwest.  The parade, which had started out of necessity, became in 2009 a purposeful event, with the addition of “Overlord’s Awakening”.  Prior to 2009, Asylum Island borrowed the park’s “ambulance” (golf cart), other than that it was pretty much a disorganized organization.  In 2009, the snowball started rolling downhill… First with one hearse, then came the motorcycles and the antique cars, multiple hearses and more.  Car collectors and bikers from the local area joined in and made for a maddening display of excessive, chaotic high-quality entertainment.  The fact that bystanders often wear earplugs because it’s just so dang loud, says all that needs to be said.

By 2009, all the pieces were there, and for the next six years, Haunt would continue to grow.  What is amazing to me, is the size of the crowds.  For some the masses that descend on Worlds of Fun, especially on Saturdays, is maddening.  For me, it’s gleeful, and personally, I love seeing so many coming back out to the park.  I will never forget the night in 2005 when we came out to Worlds of Fun with my father, and they were parking K lot.  Of course, then it was only a few rows.  By 2009 it was the whole lot, and by 2010 it was everywhere a car could feasibly be parked.  I also remember driving the train in 2010 (I was an engineer that year), and you could see the lights from Lot K and the cars parked all the way down the hill.  There are certain moments that remind me at Worlds of Fun of coming when I was a kid… this was one of those moments.  I loved it.

2010 was the year, that until a few weeks ago at least, was the worst storm during Halloween Haunt. Jeff and I were working on the steam train at the time, and Jeff himself made the call just before all HE*double hockey sticks* broke lose to take the train down, only minutes later the park was struck and lost power everywhere.  It was raining so hard “downpour” doesn’t really do it justice, it was hailing, and the wind was blowing hard so that I was getting wet in the middle of ELI’s shed.  When we finally made it to our vehicle, and “drove” out on 48th Street we found the intersection of Parvin Road and I-435 several feet deep in water, a small car had been stranded with water up to the passenger windows.  It was a scary night.  I was reminded of that night when I heard the news from a few weekends ago at Worlds of Fun.  Back to the story at hand, 2010 also introduced Cornstalkers replacing the previously moved Camp Gonna Gitcha at Fury of the Nile, and overall, I believe it works far better in that location than Camp Gonna Gitcha.  While not an entirely novel concept, when Cornstalkers works, it REALLY works.  Though since then the “Camp Gonna Gitcha” theme has been abandoned, I really do believe the time is ripe to rediscover that story idea within the Haunt framework.

Of course, it wasn’t just the houses either and no Haunt story would be complete without a mention of ALL the Screamsters.  With the expansion of haunt in 2007 and 2008 to include the park in its entirety, the park also introduced roaming haunt characters.  Though the characters themselves have changed over the years there is certainly no lack of creativity, and much of that is thanks to the actors and actresses that have played them over the years.  Many remember the “retired” characters such as the Rat Lady (who had really live rats that would crawl around her shoulders), Toxic Man with his eerie headlight and rolling trash can,  The walking lizard and cross-dressing lady (who as the name implies was a guy), and of course Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood.  The last two I believe just happened to be characters that started at the same time and found they coordinated well.   Several other characters remain, especially the cymbal-crashing monkey, the Bird Lady, and the just plain creepy kid-catcher, which was added a few years later.

As we head towards the current decade and enter 2011, I want to pause and make a comment regarding history and the way both I and everyone else views it.  I have learned over the last many years reading, researching and writing about park history that it is almost impossible to get a firm understanding of the impact of any change within a decade of that change happening.  Case in point, when I first wrote a “historical” look that involved Mamba, I had to change the story of its impact approximately a half a dozen times over the first decade that it existed.  Because with history, no one really knows the true impact anything will have until seen through the glasses of time, and the more time that passes the easier the impact is to see.  So with that being said, as we venture within a half a decade of current times the history that you read and that I write will become more “opinion” and less true history, though as always I will attempt to be as unbiased as possible.

By 2011 the park was directly advertising “9 Extreme Haunts” and almost everything we know about today’s Haunt was virtually there, at least in some form, Haunt had reached its point of maximum impact and for all intensive purposes covered the entire park. There was no “safe spaces” and going forward many of the “new” additions would simply be replacements of old attractions.  A great example of this would be the addition of 2011, London Terror, which would replace Dominion of Doom.  Like many haunts, such as Master McCarthy’s, London Terror is a fabulous and subtly freakish idea.  London streets, at night, narrow passageways lorded over by some of the most terrifying characters of all fiction such as “Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde” and “Jack the Ripper” done in a modern “steam punk” take.  What’s not to love?  While a good idea, I believe London Terror sealed the fate of any haunt on Forum Road/Heart of America Blvd.  The street is too straight, too open to its surroundings and I don’t think works regardless of what is put there.  In 2015, Forum Road as a Haunt was put out of its misery, and thankfully, London Terror didn’t die with it, it was moved to Bicentennial Square and renamed London Terror Square.  I believe it works much better in its new environment.

Worlds of Fun with Haunt has had many home runs when it comes to haunt mazes, but has alternatively struggled when it comes to live entertainment shows.  There have been a couple of big hits, Meat Cleaver High which premiered in 2004, over 13 seasons ago, still hauls in the crowds for a great show, Overlord’s Awakening is another massive hit.  But for all the massive hits there are as many failures, Slash in 2005 and 2006, and Half Pint Brawlers in 2011 comes to mind too.   I know what the park’s staff mindset was; an oddity, like the 19th-century circus, the weirder the better.  But even in the Midwest, it was the 21st century, and while I am about as politically-incorrect as possible and proud of it, the idea of using midget wrestling, and advertising “do you want to see a midget bleed” just… well, it just weirds me out a little in the wrong direction.  Maybe that’s the five years being removed from it that does it, but even in 2011, I remember not being entirely enthralled by it either.

2012 saw another show at Country Junction, of an entirely different entertainment value “Blood Drums” which seemingly was following the trend of “percussion using everyday items”. It wasn’t that the show was boring, but the fact that it was too long with no storyline made it a show that didn't have everyone running to see.  Again, like some many entertainment ideas, it was a really good line of thought, and a great idea for a show but just didn’t work.  For those that think I am critical of the park for making “so many bad decisions” I’m not, even Edison had to fail 1,000 times before he found the secret to the filament for the electric light bulb, or as he said he found a 1,000 ways NOT to do it.  You have to fail a few times to become successful.

With most Haunt attractions when we talk about removal, we don’t talk removal we talk replacement.  However, there are several Halloweekends attractions that were entirely removed in 2012, and like I mentioned above weren’t notable then, but rather missed, at least by us, five years later.  Diggers Used Coffin Lot, Witch Doctor’s Revenge and even the illusionist show "Spooktacular", all of which were holdovers from the pre-Haunt days, and were not major attractions, certainly not headliners, but were cute, and fun to watch, and were most importantly rather creative.  They ended their long run after the 2011 season, most likely never to return.

2012 and 2013 saw two new haunts.  One of which was completely brand new, 2012 introduced “Zombie High” a new haunt structure built next to Prowler, and playing on the current then and now interest in “Zombie” shows and movies (Zombieland, World War Z, Walking Dead).  2013, likewise, introduced another new haunt, though this one replacing Master McCarthy’s and that is the previously mentioned Miss Lizzie’s Chamber of Horrors, a perfect macabre fit in the lexicon of Worlds of Fun haunts.

2013, also saw a minor but definitely-noticed-change to the “Overlord’s Awakening” and following parade, the removal of the motorcycles.  It doesn’t seem like it would make a huge issue, but think 6-10 motorcycles, all revving their engines at the same time… so why?  CEO Matt Ouimet didn’t like them on his visit in Fall 2012.  So by 2013, out the door, they went.  

Live entertainment in Haunt had some failures but also some success, and in 2014 Live Entertainment finally broke its shackles and found Worlds of Fun another super hit,  Ed Alonzo’s Psycho Circus.  The first time I saw it I was laughing so hard I was crying but wasn’t sure how the not-so-subtle adult humor would go over to a decidedly Midwest audience.  Let me tell you, I have never seen Tivoli so packed, Every. Single. Show.  While it only ran for three seasons and has since moved on to Great American in California in 2017, I believe it is already greatly missed by park goers, and it will be a tough act for anyone to follow.

2014 also saw the introduction of The Boneyard, which like many haunts was not so much new as a replacement for the old Fright Zone.  Fright Zone was added in 2004 along with Camp Gonna Gitcha and Lore of the Vampire, but it was so inexplicably tied to Camp Gonna Gitcha that it became easy to overlook as a separate haunt itself.  For those that don’t remember, Camp Gonna Gitcha’s entrance was right outside of Zulu, and The Fright Zone was more of a “cocktail hour” as it were for Screamsters and guests preparing to enter Camp.  In 2008 when Camp left, I really feel that Fright Zone lost something, and maybe that was also why Camp never did as well in its new location either, they in a way had a symbiotic relationship.  I think though Bone Yard has many more props than Fright Zone ever had, it just always seems to suffer from a lack of direction.  Personal opinion?  I think Scare Zones are a good idea, I just think they do work better when coupled with an actual full out haunt, and if you are a guest waiting in line over an hour having someone entertain you (or terrify you) can only be a good thing.  Evil Laugh.

2015 was really Haunt’s most recent stand out year, with the addition of two major Haunt attractions.  After six years of the Overlords Awakening, with relatively little change, Worlds of Fun shook things up a bit and added side characters to the Overlord with “Hexed” featuring the “Bad Witches” of the East and West, taken directly from the Broadway hit “Wicked” (and you could say also directly from the Wizard of Oz).  Of course, 2015 saw the introduction of Worlds of Fun’s largest haunt addition since Asylum in 2006 with  “Blood on the Bayou”.  Bayou is easily the park’s most elaborately themed haunt when it's running in high gear, it has a perfect mix of theme, storyline, creepiness, and fear.  It is often regarded these days as one of Haunt’s best mazes, and with good reason.

Looking back and revisiting Haunt from its earliest days in 2003, it's truly amazing to see the progression one simple idea had.  Proving the power of One Person with One Unique idea can truly be powerful.   It still amazes me how one small haunted house, Carnival of Carnivorous Clowns turned into really what is one of the country's largest and best haunt attractions.  Some may ask why I don't talk about 2015 until 2017, and its for the same reason I gave the "historical warning" earlier, its really too early to tell the impact of recent changes such as Skeleton Key, or even the controversial change from Asylum Island to Urgent Scare will have on both Haunt's history and the history of the park as a whole.  Overall though, I think we all could learn something from Haunt's history and that is that we should never be afraid to do something completely different, to explore an uncharted path because we never know where it could lead.  Imagine what you could succeed if you knew you could not fail.  

Sunday, October 22, 2017

20 Years of Mamba: Poised to Strike Part II

Welcome Back to 20 Years of Mamba: Poised to Strike Part II.  Starting in September we have been reflecting back 20 years to the day to follow the construction of one of Worlds of Fun's most popular coasters, as well as it's tallest, Mamba.  As of mid-October 1997, 20 years ago, Worlds of Fun had closed for the season.  However, only a few weeks later, when these photos were shot, we can see Mamba's construction was beginning to kick into high gear with actual, tangible signs of the coming African Snake.  

In our next update will we actually see the structure of the ride rising into the air, look for that next month in November!

Authors note: I apologize for the lack of high-resolution images for this round of photos.  As mentioned in the previous post, the original photos are in a storage unit currently.  However, starting with our next update in November we will be able to provide images scanned from the original high-quality prints.

 Looking towards Timberwolf, the concrete supports going out in two single-file lines which will in a matter of weeks support the structure of the lift.

A closer look at the footers, you can see the Oceans of Fun parking lot on the left.

 Grading for Mamba Plaza, you can see the Forum Amphitheater and Detonator in the background.  As of 1998 it was still known as Forum, and would not be renamed to Heart of America Theater until 2000 to "fix" the theming issue of Coasters Diner which would be added also in 1999.

 Footers for Mamba's Station which will rise above it in the next few months as well.  

 Another viewpoint of the footers in the station, you can see where the basement walls will be.  Mamba has quite a massive basement, and I believe is used as a "take cover" location for tornado warnings.

 A footer form, you can see Monsoon and Fury of the Nile in the background.  

 No matter if pouring concrete for a house, or driveway or 10 million+ roller coaster, they all use the same methods.

Rebar, the structural steel support for each footer sits waiting in the Oceans of Fun Parking Lot.  

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.