Tuesday, April 14, 2009

NPN Exclusive: An Interview with Wild Adventures' General Manager

When Herschend Family Entertainment purchased Wild Adventures Theme Park in 2007, they wasted no time in bringing the beleaguered park up to company standards. Since then, the Valdosta park has been bustling with activity and one might speculate that the world has received but a small taste of what HFE has planned for this property. NewsPlusNotes had an opportunity to catch up with Bob Montgomery, Wild Adventures' General Manager, to learn more about how the park has been adapted by the new management team and what lies ahead.

NPN: Wild Adventures and Splash Island Water Park are about to begin their second season under the ownership of Herschend Family Entertainment. Up to this point, how have the local community and the public responded to the management change? Have you noted any significant changes in your attendance or financial figures since the HFE era began?

Bob: From the beginning, the local community has been very supportive of Herschend Family Entertainment and the changes that we have made in the park. The park has grown from a small petting zoo into a regional water and theme park with the support of the surrounding communities and we are very grateful to have their continued support. Park surveys from the guests have been very positive and show marked improvement in all areas of operation.

HFE has made several changes within the park to provide a family friendly adventure for all guests and to create memories worth repeating. These positive changes have attracted both new and returning guests to the park to experience Wild Adventures under HFE ownership. We feel that they are pleased with the changes and that they will return again and again to experience the great thrill rides, roller coasters, water park, exotic animals and more, all at a great value.

NPN: One of the first major changes introduced by HFE was the transition from year-round operation to a more typical park schedule which incorporates a couple months of "off-season" time to be used for maintenance and rehab activities. How has this schedule change affected Wild Adventures' business and operations?

Bob: Moving to a traditional theme park calendar has been a good move for us and a benefit to the guest. We are able to provide a better, stronger entertainment experience when we are open. We can have more shows, more stores and food areas open and provide a better selection. It has also given us an opportunity to do a great job of refurbishing the park while it is closed and make some wonderful park improvements. This year we built an interactive aviary, changed and improved landscaping, added more shade and color, completely revamped the water park and more to enhance the park’s infrastructure.

Interactive animal experiences are an exciting addition to the park. When guests enter the park, they immediately get face-to-face exposure to exotic animals, such as this young serval.

NPN: Wild Adventures began as a petting zoo, and animals continue to be an integral part of the park's identity and offerings. In terms of animal attractions, what sets Wild Adventures apart from other theme parks which feature animals, such as Busch Gardens and SeaWorld?

Bob: Wild Adventures’ many exotic animal interactive experiences make the park different from other theme parks which feature animals. While we still have over 50 rides and attractions in the park, including Splash Island, the Lorikeet Landing exotic bird aviary, guided pony rides, animal meet and greets, interactive animal shows, giraffe feedings and roaming animals set Wild Adventures apart from other parks. We take pride in our park animals and strive to provide more opportunities for guests to interact with exotic animals.

Our animals are a point of differentiation for WA that the guests continue to tell us they enjoy. Especially for families with young children, it makes us very special.

NPN: HFE owns and operates a broad range of attractions. But to my knowledge, they had no prior experience managing a property which specializes in animals. What kinds of challenges did this present for the new management team? Was it a smooth transition?

Bob: The management team here at the park has a broad skill set and is able to adapt to any situation. Managing a property that has animals is something new to HFE and has been a welcomed challenge. We have added two aquariums to our company, at about the same time we acquired Wild Adventures, so we feel we are growing in our expertise and insight into this wonderful aspect of the industry. We also believe it is an area that will continue to gain strength and provide options for future growth.

NPN: As Wild Adventures and Splash Island continue to expand, do you foresee the animal component being de-emphasized in favor of bigger and better rides and water attractions?

Bob: Animals will continue to be a part of Wild Adventures and Splash Island. Guests enjoy interacting with exotic animals, engaging in the animal shows and seeing the animals throughout the park. As the many aspects in the park change and improve, we will change and improve the animal aspects as well. The animal component was part of the founding vision for the park and we intend to protect and enhance that mission in the future.

Our biggest and most thrilling addition to the park…the Wahee Cyclone! Dare to ride this enormous ride where four people can experience it at once! Swishes, splashes, speed, drops, and waves are all a part of this incredible thrill ride.

NPN: Splash Island will welcome a ProSlide Tornado, the Wahee Cyclone, in 2009. Why was this particular ride selected? And as a side note, whatever happened to the originally announced "Bombora" name?

Bob: Splash Island Water Park has many great water rides and elements that interest all kinds of guests. There was a need for a high thrill water ride to accommodate more riders at one time. The Wahee Cyclone accommodates up to four, offering an exhilarating experience for families and friends. It’s a family ride, but also a thrill ride, so we felt it would be enjoyed by a wide variety of ages, too. We like rides that engage groups of riders together. That’s what it’s all about.

Ride names are always challenging, but we finally decided on Wahee Cyclone because we felt it conveyed the water park experience a little better.

NPN: In addition to the Wahee Cyclone, Splash Island is receiving a total facelift this year, complete with new Polynesian theming and updated facilities. What prompted these fantastic upgrades?

Bob: Well, we all know it’s hot in south Georgia and northern Florida in the summer, so the logical place for our guests to be is in the water park. We found the water park was very popular and everyone gravitates there during the peak of the summer. Splash Island Water Park is such a great place for families to relax and enjoy their time together, and we felt that the environment should match that. The tropical elements added to the water park help bring excitement and fun into the park.

NPN: Back in 2006, Wild Adventures announced that it would celebrate its 10th anniversary by adding the "Shaka Zula River Adventure", a log flume ride relocated from the defunct Miracle Strip Amusement Park. However, this plan never came to fruition. Is this project dead in the water (to use a really bad pun), or does HFE plan to reconsider it at some point in the future?

Bob: Currently, it is not in our plans to place that particular ride in the park. However, we see Wild Adventures as a park with a great deal of immediate potential as well as poised for future growth. It is an area where the local population is growing steadily and the economy, even in these challenging times is relatively healthy. We’re committed to investing and growing our business here, and adding some exciting rides and attractions is certainly in the plans.

NPN: Wild Adventures is a veritable showroom for Vekoma roller coasters. Any chance you'll expand that collection to include some other big names in the coming years?

Bob: HFE is always looking into the future to create bigger and better memories for guests at every property. We like to keep our guests in suspense and always on their toes. You will have to stay tuned to see what we may add!

NPN: Kent Buescher, founder of Wild Adventures, introduced the concept of free [with admission] concerts to fill a void in the local market, which lacked legitimate venues for such events. This tradition is still going strong today, with artists such as Keith Urban and Vince Gill scheduled to perform at the park in 2009. How much of a draw are these concerts? Do they attract a primarily local audience, or do folks travel significant distances to visit Wild Adventures on these dates?

Bob: Our park guests embrace the concerts season after season. Many of the star performers we have had at the park have attracted guests from as far as West Palm Beach and Atlanta. We are able to bring great entertainers to the park to perform at a tremendous value to park guests. Wild Adventures likes to focus on entertainment for a great value, and including concerts in park admission is a huge value. Guests enjoy spending time at the park during the day and enjoying a star performance in the evening. It is all about creating an enjoyable environment at a great value.

Saddle Up Pony Rides are a wonderful way for kids to experience something out of the ordinary! Wild Adventures Animal Staff will guide your young cowboy on a pony down a trail.

NPN: Many parks have the equivalent of a "kiddie land" designed especially for younger children, but Wild Adventures takes this concept a step further by offering a summer-long festival called "Kidzpalooza" which features everything from specialty shows to scavenger hunts. How much emphasis does the park place on children's rides and entertainment as compared to "adult-sized" thrill rides?

Bob: Wild Adventures has always been a family friendly park, providing rides, shows, attractions and concerts to guests of all ages. A successful theme park incorporates elements that excite children, teenagers, adults and seniors. We will always strive to maintain a balance between offerings for the young and old, big and small, thrill seekers and the tame.

NPN: Under HFE management, Wild Adventures' annual Christmas Wonderland event was greatly expanded and renamed "Festival of Lights". The popular "Phobia" Halloween event also received significant upgrades and additions for 2008. Were these plans already in the works when HFE purchased the park, or were they a direct result of the new HFE vision? Are there plans to further expand these events in the coming years?

Bob: Prior to HFE, Wild Adventures produced seasonal events, such as Christmas Wonderland and Phobia. We felt that these were events worth continuing at the park and added some HFE charm and sparkle. Especially at Christmas, we found that our guests were still interested in riding rides and having one more traditional visit during the December school break. We adapted to the guests' request for more rides and made sure we had as many operating as possible. In 2009, we plan to open two weeks in December and will focus more on rides and less on the seasonal theme. In all of our decisions, we are listening to the guests' preferences and try to give them what they are asking for.

Another new animal attraction this year, Lorikeet Landing gives guests the opportunity to step into a bird’s paradise. Don’t be startled when a bird flies past you or lands on your shoulder. You can even feed the birds nectar!

NPN: When you look at everything that HFE has accomplished at Wild Adventures and Splash Island, it's hard to believe that the company has owned this property for just a little over a year. How much of the credit goes to HFE upper management, and how much goes to the on-site management team at Wild Adventures? Which entity is primarily responsible for the proposal and development of new rides and attractions?

Bob: One entity does not function without the other. Both HFE’s upper management and the on-site management team at the park share credit for the changes over the last two years. Incorporating the years of theme park experience and the ideas of those on-site and not, has contributed to the path of success the park is on today. The management of the park locally is clearly close to the guest and best able to identify a need, but it is a great advantage to a property this size to have the experience and resources of a capable corporate support team and the history of the many successes in our other properties.

NPN: With regard to Wild Adventures and Splash Island specifically, what are HFE's primary goals and objectives in the coming years?

Bob: To continue to operate a viable, regional theme park, grow the business and create memories worth repeating with every visit! We want to be a core business in Lowndes County and contribute to the health and well being of the economy for decades to come.

NPN: Do you have any additional comments or information you'd like to share with our readers?

Bob: We want to thank all of the families who have supported us during the past 18 months. Without the support of the community, from employees of the park to guests and visitors from all over the region, we would not be successful. So we continue to give thanks to the people who believe in us and hope we can continue to serve them for many years to come.

NewPlusNotes sincerely thanks Bob Montgomery for taking the time to share his thoughts with us. We also would like to extend our warmest thanks to Micha Froehlich, Wild Adventures' Public Relations Coordinator, for coordinating this interview and providing the great photos which accompany it. Wild Adventures surely has a bright future under HFE and its superb new management team, and we look forward to watching this park grow and prosper!


Chris said...

It's really terrific to read this. Thank you! I am very interested in seeing the park grow in the future, but I agree that it was important for them to spend some time improving the existing facilities before expanding. Hopefully we will see a larger ride installation that isn't Vekoma. Perhaps the park should inquire about some of the rides from their former sister park, Cypress Gardens. I think a log flume would make a lot of sense, especially given the summer humidity.

I appreciate the GM's candor about keeping the park closed for a few months a year. I think going at this rate, the park will no longer be only a half day type of venue. Concerts are nice for some people, but for others (like me), I'd rather they save that money and use it for something else.

It's an interview that Cedar Fair executives should read, because it's antithetical to their "divest/spin off what isn't the same"- referring to their unwillingness to operate an animal park after they acquired Geauga Lake, or their unwillingness to operate a themed venue (e.g., Star Trek the Experience), or their disdain for paying royalties for franchises (Tomb Raider, Borg Assimilator, Top Gun).

Nicholas Tucker said...

Hello. Do you know how I can get in contact with Bob? Or what the email format is for Wild Adventures employees? Thanks!