Aging Infrastructure: Rebuild or Refresh
When deciding what to do with an aging International Street, the Kings Island executive team had to answer a question others in the industry routinely face: Do we tear it down and completely rebuild, or do we spend money to refurbish the existing area?
For Mike Koontz, the Mason, Ohio, park’s vice president and general manager, the answer was clear.
There was simply no chance the beloved area would unceremoniously meet its end with a sledgehammer and a tearful farewell.
“The nostalgia of the buildings is important to the history of the park,” he says. “And, the cost of tearing it all down and rebuilding would have been unreasonable.”
According to Jerry Merola, managing partner of Amusement Entertainment Management LLC, the Kings Island decision to refresh existing structures aligns with current industry trends.
He says about 80% of today’s operators and owners choose refurbishments over new construction. According to Merola, renovations mean people “can start with something versus nothing.”
Merola, whose company offers consulting services for owners or operators addressing this exact process, says the question boils down to finances, and the first step to determining any potential return on investment is conducting a market feasibility analysis.
“No matter which direction you’re going, there’s going to be an expense issue involved,” Merola says. “However, oftentimes when you look at the economics of the project, it’s probably more worthwhile to rehabilitate an existing structure than to build a new one.”
Beyond financial considerations, Koontz had to consider time constraints. The park’s short offseason only gave him three and a half months to bring the 47-year-old International Street back to its 1972 glory.
The Kings Island repair list wasn’t short, also calling for a complete refurbishment of the Royal Fountain as the plumbing, pumps, lighting, and control systems were “beyond their serviceable life,” says Koontz.
All in, several million dollars were spent on replacing 130,000 pavers, painting buildings, replacing all the tables, installing new lighting, upgrading the sound systems, renovating the fountain, enhancing the landscaping, and adding some décor to the area, according to Koontz.
While refurbishments are the heavy favorite, there will be times, however, when the existing structure is just not sufficient enough or worthy of the investment of a renovation, says Merola.
That was the case for executives at Walibi Belgium, who are in the second year of a five-year, 100-million-euro transformation.
The massive overhaul includes the creation of World of Walibi, which provides visitors an immersive atmosphere and “strengthens Walibi’s image as a family leisure park,” says Jean-Christophe Parent, general manager of Walibi Belgium and Aqualibi. The updates are the direct result of survey responses from guests who said they wanted to be fully disconnected from reality when they entered the park.
Once completed in 2023, 75% of Walibi will have been updated, and the park will have eight Worlds of Walibi, each hosting a combination of rethemed, existing attractions, as well as all-new rides. (For more on this update, see p. 80)
Parent says park executives did not hesitate to present the proposal to shareholders because it was “the only way to restore the park’s former grandeur.”
Just 90 minutes away, Bellewaerde in Ypres, Belgium, completely tore down one of its park entrances at the end of the 2018 season.
Building a new entrance near the park’s Mexico area gave the park a chance to “meet new standards” and better accommodate a steady increase in visitor traffic. The 2-million-euro investment included the installation of more scanners, updated technology, a dog kennel, and a new information booth, a service that was once only available at a different entrance.
It was never a question of if the team should do the work, but how soon it should be done, says An De Ridder, the park’s marketing and sales director.
“Since both entrances of the park are always used throughout the year, it was inevitable to invest in a new entrance in order to meet new standards,” De Ridder says. (Walibi Belgium and Bellewaerde are both part of Compagnie des Alpes’ portfolio. Learn more about the company on p. 72.)
Barry Zelickson, a principal owner of Big Thrill Factory, an indoor-outdoor family entertainment center (FEC), says owners and operators need to consider a variety of factors including how much space an attraction takes up, what they would ideally want in that area, and how much money is available to spend before taking action.
The profitability or lack thereof carries a bulk of the weight when considering whether to keep or lose something.
Outside of profits, it’s a matter of compatibility, too.
“To me, it’s also got to fit your facility and fit who your target audience is,” says Zelickson. “Just because something works somewhere, doesn’t mean it’s going to work in your market.”
For example, Zelickson installed escape rooms at his two Minnesota locations five years ago before the escape room craze hit his market. Everything was good until his revenue stream started declining.
“The profitability had leveled off, and it wasn’t solving all the needs we needed for it for our facility,” he says, adding the FEC pulled the attraction entirely instead of opting for a new theme.
Six Flags Mexico chose a combination of new construction and refurbishment with newly themed kids’ areas, DC Super Friends and Bugs Bunny Boomtown, which opened earlier this year. Choosing to focus on smaller guests hits an important target market for a brand known for big thrills.
“We know that children begin visiting our parks at a very early age and aspire to ride all the ‘big coasters’ when they get older,” says David McKillips, Six Flags senior vice president of international park operations. “It is important that we offer new thrills and experiences for the younger sect who visit with their parents and even grandparents.”
In total, six brand-new experiences were part of the project while nine existing attractions were rethemed.
“Innovation is in our DNA, and we never stop looking for new ways to entertain our guests,” McKillips says. “We continually assess our park offerings to ensure we are creating the very best experience possible.”
Caitlin Dineen is an Orlando-based freelance writer with more than a decade of print and television journalism experience, some of which led to a Pulitzer Prize nomination from her reporting at the Orlando Sentinel.