Joyland opened for the last time in Wichita 10 years ago, but Wichitans can’t seem to get enough of it.
Every time a new book features the old park or a new drone video emerges showing the park as it is now, thousands of Wichitans reminisce about their childhoods.
Jason Knipp sent a question to The Eagle for its series “Curious Wichita”: Will Wichita ever get an amusement park again?
Knipp went to Joyland as a child and brought his son when he was 2. He loved the Whacky Shack and the KSBI opening weekends, when admission was free. But Joyland closed before his son rode his favorite rides.
He didn’t take his son to the bigger expensive parks in Kansas City and Oklahoma City, but he did go to parks in Tulsa and Des Moines. The parks there were similar to Joyland, he said. “So why don’t we have one?” he wants to know.
For a couple of years after Joyland closed, it looked as if the new owners might bring the park back to its former glory. But the more that the park has fallen into disrepair, the more it’s clear that if joy is going to return to Doo-Dah land, the city is going to have to start fresh.
One of the major problems is just inertia: The U.S. hasn’t been building any parks since the 1980s, according to Dennis Speigel, president and CEO of International Theme Park Services.
“And the reason is there is a major theme park typically within a 2.5-hour drive of every major metropolitan city in the U.S.,” he said.
Silverwood Theme Park in Idaho is just an hour’s drive from Spokane, Wash., a city comparable to Wichita in size. But there are no other major theme parks in any direction for hours. So it draws roughly 500,000 visitors annually, according to Speigel, not just from the entire Spokane market but from hundreds of miles of rural Washington, Idaho, Montana and Canada.
Wichita has more competition. Frontier Village in Oklahoma City would probably cost around $200 million to build new, and Worlds of Fun in Kansas City would cost around $300 million to $500 million, Speigel said. So it would take a lot of money to lure customers from very far outside of Wichita.
“And that’s a very expensive proposition, a big gamble,” Speigel said. “So you don’t see companies stepping up.
“They’re not rushing out and saying, ‘Let’s get to Wichita, we’ve got to build there.’ ”
One of the few sites being considered for expansion right now, according to Speigel, is in the Dakotas, near Mount Rushmore and the Badlands. And the reason is that, even though the area doesn’t have enough population to support a theme park, some people think the addition of so many tourists could make it profitable.
But Wichita doesn’t draw the same number of tourists.
Wild West World
From 2005 to 2007, Thomas Etheredge, who started Prairie Rose Chuckwagon, managed to do the nearly impossible and convince a new group of investors to spend millions of dollars on a new theme park.
Wild West World cost around $24 million and failed in just two months. Although critics say there were a number of problems with the park, one of the major reasons it failed as soon as it did is that Etheredge ran out of money.
And this was after Etheredge appeared to have scraped every penny he could out of local investors and banks, begging friends and church members up to the last minute to get more money to keep the park open, and even mortgaging his own business and home. He was eventually sent to prison for misleading some investors about his background and the financial prospects of the park.
Other critics said the failure of the park was because many of its attractions were family-oriented, so it wasn’t that different from Joyland and wasn’t in keeping with the trend toward bigger and more exciting rides. One of the companies that proposed taking over the park planned to rebrand the park with a more thrilling image.
After the park closed, many of the employees at Wild West World pointed to a different culprit: Etheredge himself.
While he was a good salesman, they said, he didn’t listen to employees who had more experience in the theme park business. He was railroaded by contractors who charged too much.
And he didn’t do the math right, so when bad weather struck during the park’s opening, there was no cushion to keep the park open.
All Star Sports
Tom Smith, who has managed All Star Sports in east Wichita since 2001, said he thinks management is critical to a theme park.
That’s why he thinks Joyland failed when a new owner took over and why Wild West World never got off the ground.
When a California company bought All Star Sports from Cornejo & Sons, Smith said, the park lost its allure because the company didn’t invest back into the park.
When it was purchased again by a Florida company, the firm immediately spent $500,000 to get the park cleaned up, and that helped him bring people back.
All Star Sports is a small amusement park that people typically visit for hours rather than a full day. It has go-carts, arcade games, a driving range, a large miniature golf course, bumper boats and a few smaller rides.
But it’s not on the scale of Joyland and there is no entrance fee, so people pay for only what they use.
But it’s a busy life for Smith. He rarely visits the competition in Oklahoma City or Kansas City, because he works 75 to 80 hours during the summer.
When there are big corporate events, he’s the one who flips 500 hamburgers and hotdogs on the grill. He can teach his best employees to run most of the park on their own, but it’s not easy to run a huge grill like that with no experience.
And getting good employees to fill 120 jobs during the summer is his biggest challenge right now. Last year he had to hire, train and fire more people by July 1 than he did the entire previous year.
He has to fire employees who are caught on their phones while operating rides. And many employees just stop showing up without notice.
“The work ethic is completely different,” he said. “I’m not going to say that against all of them, because we do have some good kids.
“It’s a matter that they don’t care, they don’t care how they look, they don’t care what they do. … I always sit back and think ‘What is the next 10 years like?’ That’s why companies are trying to develop robots. “
It also means he tailors his hours very carefully for when he knows he can make a profit: All Star Sports will open Friday and Saturday evenings, during spring break and then seven days a week once school is out. But he keeps only 10 to 12 employees year round.
And now amusement parks are facing more competition from other forms of entertainment, Smith said.
“I don’t think people go places and have fun like they used to 30 years ago,” Smith said. “I think it’s so much more connected. You can come in here on a Saturday, and kids playing games are on their phones.
“The interaction isn’t there as much as I remember it years ago.”
So Smith is constantly doing promotions to try to recapture patrons’ attention, through e-mail and Facebook. He will send out an e-mail blast to loyal customers twice a month, detailing how they can buy $50 worth of tokens for $30.
Customers are more demanding, too, Smith said.
“We’re in Wichita, Kansas. … We’re a small park; we’re not near what Worlds of Fun is,” Smith said. “And we have to work harder to please everyone and make sure everyone has a good time.”
That means on Sundays, he has to deal with customers complaining about video game machines that other customers jammed up on Saturday night.
And it means during windstorms and hail, he has to do thousands of dollars in repairs to the park’s lights and, after last year’s ice storm, fix the nets around the driving range. And during the 110-degree days, some of the rides break down, so he has to rush to get them fixed or else people feel like their money wasn’t well spent.
The costs are going up, too. He said he has to buy about 650 new tires for go-carts every year. In 2001, they were $7.50 each; now they’re $20 apiece.
One way Wichita could get a new park would be to expand its current park into something bigger.
But it’s hard to make the math work to justify spending $900,000 on a large Ferris wheel in Wichita, Smith said.
“How much more does it make me?” Smith said he always asks himself.
In addition to paying for the ride, about 8 percent of total revenue goes toward insurance and about 5 percent toward the maintenance of each ride. One of the cables on his smaller rides has to be replaced every year and costs $900.
The center has three inspections: one from the corporate owners, one from insurance representatives and, for the first time this year, one from the state.
In 2011, Worlds of Fun added a $14 million ride, Smith said, but the gate price went up only a dollar.
“How many more do you (need to) get through the gate this year than last year to get through that one ride?”
Each ride at All Star Sports costs $3 for a ticket. So Smith would have to either increase the prices a lot or sell a lot more ride tickets to pay for a large roller-coaster.
Even the arcade games often cost upwards of $25,000 each. That’s why it helps to be owned by a company that has 17 locations, so it can rotate the games and kids have a reason to keep coming back.
It also means it can order items in bulk at a discount, buying 10,000 golfing putters rather than 200, Smith said.
But the expensive rides are important, Smith said, for helping to draw big corporate events that keep 500 people spread out and happy.
“I used to laugh and say buying amusement ride parks is like buying medical equipment; the cost of this stuff is kind of crazy,” Smith said. “You only have a certain amount of manufacturers that produce for these kinds of rides, and parts can be extremely expensive.”
One of the few U.S. manufacturers of large rides is right in Wichita: Chance Rides Manufacturing. It built several of the rides at Joyland and Wild West World.
The company has about 100 employees who work on 20 to 25 projects per year, according to Lisa Hargrove, the marketing manager.
But the business isn’t what it used to be. In 1991, Chance employed 400 workers, with plans to expand to 620 by 1995.
It does business all over the country and the world – most of the biggest theme parks in recent years have been built overseas.
One of its cheapest rides, a miniature train, costs $200,000 for the locomotive and $55,000 for each coach behind it. So a typical train with six coaches costs about $530,000, Hargrove said.
Chance also builds roller-coasters that cost between $1 million and $10 million, which the company customizes to each park.
In the past, when the smaller amusement park market was bigger, Chance used to produce some standard rides 10 or 12 times per year, Hargrove said.
“Things now are much more customized, with their specific color, the name,” Hargrove said.
One of the current projects for SeaWorld includes interactive TVs. But the only recent project in Wichita was the revitalization of a train ride at the city-owned Watson Park.
“We’ve had discussions with other locations,” Hargrove said. “But we’re not involved in trying to bring an amusement park to Wichita.”
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