Last Week at Rotary

Thursday, September 7, 2017

International Theme Park Services, Inc.

Internationally recognized as a leader and expert in the theme park / leisure industry with 50 years of professional experience, Dennis Speigel directs International Theme Park Services, Inc. (“ITPS”) with exceptional business and solid financial judgment, creating success for the clients of ITPS.

Mr. Speigel’s early beginnings in 1960 as a ticket taker/seasonal employee at Coney Island Amusement Park in Cincinnati, Ohio was the impetus behind his decision to make the theme park business his career. He quickly worked his way to Assistant Park Manager of Coney Island and then to Kings Island Theme Park in Cincinnati, Ohio, where, as Assistant General Manager, he supervised general park operations, including personnel, rides, food/beverage, merchandise, games, and guest hospitality.

In 1974, Mr. Speigel became the Vice President and General Manager of Kings Dominion/Lion Country Safari in Richmond, Virginia, which historically draws over 3 million in attendance per year. In addition to overseeing the planning and construction of the park, he administered a $60 million construction budget and utilized his creative marketing skills to establish and implement several long-range marketing/development plans. He was also responsible for managing the park for Taft Broadcasting and the Kroger Company, while generating 11 million in attendance and over $250 million in cumulative revenues from 1974 to 1980. Mr. Speigel also successfully opened Lion Country Safari, a wild animal preserve, achieving an attendance record of 650,000 the first season.

President Al Koncius introduced Mr. Speigel (Mr. S) to the club. 

Mr. S said he began at Coney Island as a ticket taker from 1959 – 1969 and “had more fun, in fact, I likely met you when you came through the gate.” Coney Island was a wonderful place to work. It was known as “America’s Finest Amusement Park.” Walt Disney came many times. He offered a 30% stake in the new Disney Land to Coney’s owner, Ed Schott, but Ed couldn’t ante up the money. Back then it cost $.25 to get in and $.50 to park. It was a deal and many couples came on dates. Coney Island’s Mall was special. It was next to none in its grandeur. People loved the “Lost River” and the roller coaster, “Wildcat,” constructed into a figure-eight that was torn down in 1965. There were a few dark areas along the Wildcat’s route where park employees would brag that they had “scared the smoochers.”  On Coney’s south side the Shooting Star coaster took over with a full 95’ drop. There were penny arcades where people spent hours trying to win prizes ranging from toasters to bicycles. The Carousel was a beauty! So much so that when Coney was flooded from time to time, the horses would be swept from their spots on the Carousel and people would pick them up along the river’s edge and return them to us. Imagine that! During the 1940s and 1950s, Coney had a “Haunted House.” Back then women wore “poodle skirts” that when air was blown on them, their friskiness made the women scream. Those were the best times! 

We had fireworks and special events to draw people into the park. We had “Suicide Simon” whose act placed him inside a box that was blown up twice a day with dynamite. Later when I talked with him, I realized he’d lost his hearing. Coney built a relationship with the Hollywood creative team, Sid and Marty Kroft, to help with the construction of the Eiffel Tower at Kings Island. 

Finally with the enormous expense of cleaning up after floods and the competition growing from Fess Parker’s Daniel Boone Park in Boone County, Coney wasn’t economically feasible any longer. In 1968, Taft Broadcasting bought Coney. Kings Island opened in 1972. It cost $1,500 per acre to buy the land and 16 of the Coney staff came to manage/operate it, for a total of $37M. To give a modern day comparison, it cost $25M for a new roller coaster this year.  What Kings Island has is LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!  It draws people from the entire Midwest as well as our neighboring states to the south. Today it is the 16th most successful amusement park, where Disney is #1 and Universal is #2.

When it came time to move everything from Coney to Kings Island, we did it in 26 days. It was a feat, I must say! We even transplanted the ghenko trees to Kings Island. We proceeded to recreate Coney at Kings Island. We built the longest fountain in the world at the time created after one in Denmark. “The Racer” was the first roller coaster built in the US since 1947. There have been 2,000 roller coasters built since then. We brought John Allen, the most famous roller coaster designer out of retirement to build the coaster at Kings Island. “The Beast,” a 1.5 mile coaster, is still my favorite in the world. There were Games and Arcades that were a carryover of “Skee Ball” at Coney. The Eiffel Tower proved to be an entertainment feat at Kings Island. When we had the Opening Ceremonies, the New York Times covered it. It said Miss America and Miss USA were in the ceremony. We put 2,000 – 3,000 balloons in the air. Jets flying over “hit the balloons and their after-burners nearly broke the tower in two with 5,000 people standing underneath it.” We had 40,000 guests everyday that amounted to 2,012,000 guests that first year. When Gary Wachs made the pitch about Kings Island to Six Flags he was 28 years old and we were in our twenties. The Six Flags management laughed at his projections of even 2M guests the first year. On the last day of that year, in 1972, Gary, our boss, called them back to ask how they’d done. When asked about Kings Island’s performance, he was so pleased to tell them it had surpassed his expectations. This was a first ever outside Disney Land and World. 

Today we are working on over 500 projects. In China, for example, we are collaborating on 5 amusement parks and 75 family entertainment centers. There are over 100 theme parks being planned.

One time Walt Disney said, “It all started with a mouse.” What a visionary! He would never believe what an industry it has become. It is an industry in constant change. Recently in Shanghai, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” has been constructed. We went to see it. It is all computer designed. One ride cost them $225M to build. We rode it and got back on again and again because we couldn’t believe the technology of the “underwater experience of spinning around.”  

Today there are 233M people going to theme and water parks. That’s more than the draw of sports. It is truly the greatest American pastime. There are parks planned in the future for the US, Europe, Saudi Arabia (with our help), the Middle East, and China. The Middle East unfortunately has experienced a drop in guest attendance from 30,000 – 50,000 each day to 200 – 300. We are also planning projects with sports enterprises. Did you know there are more people in China who speak English than there are people in the US? 

To conclude Mr. S showed some pictures on the screen of Old Coney. Long ago people came to Coney from downtown on the “Island Queen” riverboat.  After it was retired, it was in Pittsburgh and it exploded. Some lady was said to have found a cash register three blocks away. The SunLite Pool had sand on one side for a real beach experience. There were pictures of the Land of Oz walk through, of the BarX Ranch with horses to ride, and other pictures of Old Noah’s Ark. The Flying Scooter is in Charlotte now. Finally a big surprise: there was a picture of a Mickie and Minnie Mouse couple at our own Coney Island. Yes, it was a more primitive version than the beloved couple made famous by Disney, but it was 10 – 15 years prior to Disney’s use!

1. Wasn’t Gary Wachs a member of Rotary? I will tell him to come back. (Ira Abrahamson)

2. MoonLite Gardens attracted over 600,000 people to Coney. Their biggest night was when All Hirt played. More than 20,000 came. There were seats set up all along the Mall with ballroom dancing EVERYWHERE! Other big name visitors were Chuck Connors and Uncle Al. 

3. Today a ticket to Kings Island costs $56, but no one pays full price thanks to discount coupons at Kroger. When it opened, Kings Island cost $5.95. At the end of the first season, they decided to raise the price. At that time they thought it would never break $10.

4. In the industry, there is $700M in buying and selling parks. Remember Kings Island cost $37M. In 2006, Cedar Fair went for $300M. Apparently the owner paid too much because soon after the CEO lost his job. Typically, though, “everyone who came in got a good deal and everyone who exited did so with more money.” 

5. Security?  Safety is our hallmark. We can’t even bear it if you stub your toe! We are now setting up a committee to study security issues. Thus far we have noted that not a single episode has occurred in a theme park. If it did happen, it would drive people away for more than 18 months. 

6. Wildcat Safari has 300 acres. Having animals is extremely expensive because they require 24 hour care. Attendance has been falling. 

Lion Country Safari (located in the Palm Beaches of Florida is North America’s first “cage less zoo” with over 1,200 animals) is experiencing annual attendance increases in its 30th year, but is looking at a sale.

7. We hire more than 7,000 employees each season. 

8. The old “Dodge ‘em” car is in my office. 

Think about this, “We don’t pollute, we just put smiles on people’s faces!”