On July 11, 1997, I decided that I was going to… do something on the Internet. Google was still a research project at the time, and the domain name google.com had not even been registered yet. I think that’s important, for context.
I was two years out of college, and a year into my first “real” job, which is to say not one that was in retail or radio. When I graduated from Ashland University in Ohio, in 1995, I fancied myself a radio station mogul, without any particular plan about how I would get there. I started to work commercially at the end of my junior year, and I landed a gig in Cleveland a few months after graduation at WZJM, “Jammin’ 92.3.” I promptly lost that job in early 1996 when they shuffled people around to hide a guy with a contract with terrible midday ratings, putting him on overnights. I was bumped back down to part-time, which I did for one more weekend before I left the business for good.
From there I went back to retail for a few months, selling computers at CompUSA, a chain that did very well, nationally, selling hardware from the likes of Packard Bell, NEC, Apple and others. I couldn’t really afford to move out on those wages, but at least I had health insurance. By July I landed a new position with the City of Medina, Ohio, as their first Cable TV Coordinator. I was charged with building a government access facility, which seemed easy enough since I had a blueprint from neighboring Brunswick, where I worked part-time since high school. It was the perfect job for a 23-year-old kid who thought he knew everything.
I had first seen the World Wide Web during my senior year of college. Tim Frye, our chief engineer in the radio/TV program, and my advisor, let me mess with his desktop computer, trying to figure out how to make it work. The school had already begun to network the campus, but few people had their own computer. Windows didn’t have support for TCP/IP at the time, the fundamental protocol that the Internet runs on, so we had to find something called “winsock” and then figure out how to download Mosaic, the browser that would go on to become Netscape. Knowing what I know now, I’m not sure how we made any of it work, but nights of drinking the malt beverage Zima pointed me to the first commercial URL I had ever seen on a product label: http://www.zima.com. Imagine our delight when we saw that graphical fridge slowly load on to the screen!
In my last days of retail at CompUSA, I bought the book HTML For Dummies. I remember the software department manager saying, “That doesn’t seem like something a dummy would be interested in.” HTML stands for hypertext markup language, the stuff that defines the structure of a web page in a way that browsers understand. People mistakenly consider this “coding,” but it doesn’t really do anything. It’s like making a blueprint, in that it defines structure and text, but that’s it. Regardless, I never really did anything with that book. Most of what you really need to know about HTML can probably be summed up in a few paragraphs.
Things went really slowly in the first year of running a government TV outfit, and I had to do it alone for almost a year before I could hire someone. I was still missing radio, and I thought, maybe I can build sites for radio stations. Maybe I can build sites for anyone! Entertainment seemed like the market I wanted to work with, and some line of thinking around pop music, pop culture, and maybe just being popular, I arrived at “Pop World” for a company name, officially “POP World Media.” I don’t know why I always capitalized the “POP.” On July 11, 1997, I registered popworld.com at an extraordinary cost of $150, and I started hosting the domain on a shared server account for $20 per month. That $150 was a lot of money for me at the time, but I would eventually make that money back, hundreds of times over.
Somehow I networked my way to a company that manufactured electrical bus equipment, basically huge blocks of copper to conduct massive amounts of electricity. I sold them a corporate site for $449, which was a really big deal. It was basically an extra week’s pay for work that took me a few hours.
I had no idea how to sell services beyond that. It was a lot of work to find the business, and I already had a full-time job. But that Internet was clearly not going to go away, and as someone who double-majored in college in journalism and radio/TV, I couldn’t help but think that the Web was an enormous opportunity, another kind of media. I could put something out there that stood on its own and potentially had equal footing with things published by traditional media.
A part of the appeal too was the ego boost that came with having recognized media impact. Radio had shitty pay, but every time I played that God-forsaken “Macarena,” I was making a party for someone. The phone calls I would take were like little dopamine hits that had surprisingly the same high that calling radio stations as a 14-year-old had for me. The money didn’t matter when you were a little famous.
But that fame didn’t always feel right, either. First off, it made people into assholes. Some years later, I was at a roller coaster media day, and I overheard a couple of reporters talking about their market size as if they were comparing the length and girth of their sex organs (and one of them was a woman!). On-air people ranged from market legends to virtual nobodies in terms of pay, with few people in between. Radio was worse, because while you got to hang out with Janet Jackson if you were lucky, you’d drive home from the show in your rusty Dodge Dart. A lot of good that kind of fame did for you.
The darker side was the fans. Everyone had stalkers. During my senior year, working at WYHT in Mansfield, Ohio, they sent me out on a few remotes when everyone else was booked. I did one at the local mall, and some very strange girl, probably not 18 and frankly challenged in the area of hygiene, kept checking in with me for the two hours I was there. She was a regular caller, and she was convinced she knew me. It creeped me the fuck out.
In 1997, “Internet famous” and “micro-celebrity” weren’t things yet. My high school fantasy about being popular had largely been replaced with a need to create things. I was a creative kid, and the joy I felt in creating things is what I really wanted. And hey, if I were to adopt any kind of naive artistic integrity, it would be to not care about whether or not anyone liked my art.
I had been going to Cedar Point, the historic amusement park west of Cleveland, for most of the years of my life from the time I could walk. I remember going when I was 3, with my pregnant mom and her also-pregnant friend. Corkscrew was the new ride, but all I remember riding was the double Ferris wheel.
During my college years, I didn’t go to the park every summer, but I did apply to work there when they brought the campus tour to my school. I wasn’t offered a job, which was not surprising because I told them I didn’t want to work anything but rides.
In 1998, a school group from Medina was going to the park for physics day, and I thought it would be fun to shoot video of them there for our monthly show about the schools. My second in command, Allison Davis, and I drove up there, and arranged comp tickets in advance. I didn’t really plan it out, and as a result, never did find the group. But Allison and I were there, so we made a day of it on the city’s dime.
That trip came with a shocking realization: I was a grownup. My history of going to the park to that point was going with family, or because it’s what you did the day after prom (which I did not attend). But now, I could buy a season pass and go as much as I wanted to. With my almost-wife Stephanie, we bought the passes and braved the new Power Tower drop ride.
This new found adulthood realization also meant that I could pursue one of my high school and college passions: photography. I bought a Canon Elan IIe, my first SLR camera. Film wasn’t cheap, but the margin for error was less than it was in the old days of using my dad’s original Nikon F, a camera that was older than me. These new electronic things took a lot of the guesswork out of exposure.
This new found ability to visit Cedar Point at will, with the rediscovery of my love for photography, plus that lingering desire to put something on the Internet, had obvious consequences.
There was another discovery that came at the same time. There was an entire subculture out there of people who were really, really into roller coasters. They were generally weird, but it was a very accepting culture of weirdos. I kind of liked it. Some of these guys (and they were mostly guys) had traveled all over the place to ride the latest things, so I would hear all about how these new rides were being built.
It was settled then. I was going to build a site that paid homage to the great and historic Cedar Point. I’d load it with photos, because that’s what I wanted to share.
On May 28, 1998, I uploaded the first ever Guide to The Point: The Unofficial Guide to Cedar Point. It quickly became “GTTP” to a lot of people. I already had the popworld.com domain name, so I just put “/thepoint” at the end of the URL and put the site there. It was ambitious, because I had written some short articles for the sake of park visiting strategy, and put a ton of photos in there. Keep in mind, this was all static content, with no databases or content management of any kind. Every single page was hand crafted and linked to with more manual work.
In those days, it was all the rage to install a hit counter, a little box at the bottom of your home page with a number that incremented every time someone viewed the page. I had let some people on a Usenet group, rec.roller-coaster, know about the site, which was met with objections that I was spamming them. There was no Google yet, so inbound links came from other sites who knew you, or one of the manually curated site directories. So imagine my surprise as that little counter started clicking up by as much as 100 in one day!
By the end of the year, I realized that I could probably make a few dollars with advertising, maybe even enough to cover the twenty bucks to host it. In the B.G. days (before Google), one arrived at things largely through a series of links between sites. That’s why they called it “surfing” the Web, because you could spend hours going from one thing to the next. One of those sessions, over a dial-up modem on a telephone landline, led me to a company called ValueClick, then a month later, Burst Media. Once approved, you put some HTML tags in your pages, and banners would appear that were counted and would lead to money! Neat!
I was roughly familiar with advertising terminology as it applied to print media, one of the few useful things I got out of that college double major, so the concept of CPM, or cost per thousand, was familiar enough. Burst had these ads that were worth $3 or more for every thousand views. To my surprise, I made a dollar on my first day with advertising. I was on pace to not only cover my $20 cost, but make $10! Even more exciting, they sent you insertion orders, which were a total throwback to print. You actually had to sign them electronically.
There was a ton of cost adding up to produce the site, so my intention with advertising wasn’t because I wanted to sell out or something similar that 20-somethings care about in that stage of life. Again, all of the photography was based on film, and after you paid for the roll, you paid to have it processed. If that weren’t bad enough, at some point I bought an HP film scanner for several hundred dollars. It required that you edit out all of the dust from the scan, which was frustrating and time consuming. A year later I spent $800 on a Nikon scanner that used some kind of infrared detection to filter out the dust optically. This hobby was not cheap.
It was during this time that I met some interesting people virtually who were also publishing roller coaster stuff on the Intertubes. Joe Schwartz ran a site called Joy Rides that easily had the best roller coaster photography on the Internet. Eric Giezel had established Ultimate Rollercoaster a month or two after I started GTTP. Duane Marden founded RCDB in early 1999, and it’s still the highest authority in roller coaster data. All had interesting stories to tell about the growth of their sites.
I moved the site around between domain names quite a bit. Toward the end of 1998, a company started selling .nu domain names, the top-level domain name for the island nation of Niue in the South Pacific. I snapped up rollercoaster.nu and cedarpoint.nu. I never actually used the latter, because my knowledge of trademark law (and frankly a little common sense) made me realize that it would be a bad idea. The rollercoaster.nu domain worked out for me though for the next ten months, until I realized that the best choice was just to use the name that everyone had gotten used to. In October, 1999, I registered guidetothepoint.com, and that’s where GTTP lived.
The trademark thing was always something I was very conscious about. It was perfectly ambiguous to use “guide to the point” and not piss-off anyone giving Cedar Fair legal advice. I mean, literally, what’s the point, right? As it turned out, it was a really good name, and the GTTP acronym enjoyed wide adoption.
Trademark dodging also made for a great T-shirt. I sold hundreds of them, printed by a volleyball parent that had a screening business (I started coaching in 1997). In big, blue Arial Heavy font, the shirts said, “W8 4ME @CP,” with all caps “GUIDE TO THE POINT” and “www.rollercoaster.nu” underneath.
I was getting a ton of email from random people who wanted to talk about Cedar Point. Web-based forums were already becoming fairly common at that point. My level of expertise, however, was not great when it came to doing anything other than uploading text and photos to build a site, so forums were a bit of a challenge for me. Little did I know that the forums would not only be the thing that made these sites take off, but the software itself would be the thing that grounded me in technology for decades.
Some other site I frequented at the time had something called UltimateBB, a bulletin board package (nobody called them apps then, especially when running on a site) that facilitated what we could argue is the foundation of all forums since. The instructions for installing it on a Web server were fairly straight forward, and there was a free version to try out. The thing was written in Perl, a scripting language that was fairly popular at the time, considering there weren’t a ton of options.
I got it up and running without a lot of friction, called it “CP Place,” and behold, Guide to The Point now had a forum. It was glorious. Traffic quickly started to rise to the tune of 50,000 page views per month.
As the site continued to grow in 1999, I started looking for ways to use a database to manage all of that content, and I figured some things out. That summer I left the government TV gig for the world of business-to-business magazines and trade shows, joining Penton Media in Cleveland. They too were pretty sure that Internet thing was going to be important, so they started hiring all kinds of people like me, marginally capable of building out stuff without being full on software developers. But I wanted to be a full on software developer, and this was the perfect transition job.
I got the job because of Guide to The Point. Perry Trunick was the chief editor for a magazine called Transportation & Distribution, and as unusual as it seems now, he was in charge of picking the “webmaster” for the magazine. Traditional media didn’t really understand the Internet. While Perry was a hard core journalist in the classic sense, and frankly an authority on logistics, I felt like he was one of the rare editorial people who could “get it,” and didn’t see the Internet as an obligation or “value add.” He looked at it as an opportunity, a new way to engage an audience and probably make some more money.
The interview went just OK, but having a degree in journalism likely helped. Then as we were waiting for an elevator, I noticed a sign posted for the company picnic, which would be at Cedar Point that year. On the sign, my T-shirt phrase: “W8 4ME @CP.” I turned to Perry, “That’s me, that’s on the T-shirts I sell for Guide to The Point.”
Later I found out that my understanding of online community figured favorably in the decision to hire me over a guy who had more technical experience. This was a fundamental lesson in professional development that has been with me ever since: Soft skills matter, sometimes more than actual hard skills in your field of expertise. It’s a blessing and a curse, because it means a lot of people acquire jobs, and stay in them, because they’re charming, not because they’re any good at the work. But if you can excel in hard and soft skills, you’ll always work. Unless there’s a recession.
After starting work, I searched my user database to find that I had two people with penton.com email addresses in the system. One of them was Tim Walsh (the other his wife, Lois, who also worked there), and he was the one organizing the company picnic. He appeared in CP Place as “Old Timer Tim,” and some years earlier worked in sales at the park after being a seasonal. We became good friends after that, and he would go on to be an usher for my first wedding, and best man at my second. It’s one of dozens of connections that were made possible by the communities I started.
My start at Penton Media was really the start of my career in software. Working internally with a technology group, and managing the interaction of it with my own group of editorial and sales staff in the supply chain group, I learned about the development process. Meanwhile, I could see the way features came together and apply it to my own personal lab, the sites that I still operate. Even after two decades, they’re the proving ground for new skills that I want to learn. It’s probably even more critical for me now, because I’m deep into management and don’t write code in my day job. I still want to have some street cred though, so I keep writing software.
Right around Thanksgiving, in 1999, I ditched the Ultimate Bulletin Board, the core of the community and growth for GTTP, and replaced it with my own forum, called POP Forums. This is how I learn: come up with a real use case, figure out how to apply it. A forum is essentially just four tables of information... users, forums, topics and posts. Why keep paying for someone else’s product when I could do it myself? (For reference, after two decades, there are 40-ish tables of information needed to run the forum.)
That forum sure has a strange way of staying with me, and it’s enabled opportunities for me. It gave me the background I needed to write my software book in 2004 (Maximizing ASP.NET, ISBN: 9780321294470). When I went to work for Microsoft in Redmond in 2009, wouldn’t you know it, I worked on the MSDN Forums. That forum, used in the developer network, generated 100 million page views per month. Just working at Microsoft has in turn opened countless other doors.
There’s no way I could have deliberately orchestrated all of that intentionally. I would not predict that starting a Cedar Point fan site would seed my entire career. As it turns out, it would also seed deep, long-standing relationships and a fascinating look into an industry.
The amusement industry is a surprisingly small community, provided you’re not including Disney. My first introduction to people working in the business was naturally at Cedar Point, which was a good place to start, since some would say it’s the top.
Guide to The Point had been on the air for about five months when it caught the eye of someone with the address email@example.com, who sent me an email. This wasn’t actually a park employee, it was Katie Bruno, whose new company, Website Design and Development, or WDD, built Cedar Point’s first site. If my involvement in the industry had a strange path, I don’t know what you call hers, because she has a PhD in polymer science.
Katie and I exchanged quite a bit of email about what people would like to see on the official site, and my own. I don’t know a lot about her early relationship with the park, but it was clear that she believed the official site could be more than just an online brochure. The park was a special place to a lot of people, and I think she wanted to honor that. I, of course, had no customers to satisfy, and GTTP existed entirely to honor the fandom.
This initial contact actually led to some contract work for me. Video on the web was still tricky, because squeezing out high quality when some people were still connecting to the web via modems on phone lines wasn’t easy. I had the right software, a fast computer and just enough video hardware to encode video with the right results. I billed by the minute of finished video, and it was a solid side gig for awhile.
About a month after first contact, after the park closed for the 1998 season, some random guy at Michigan State posted what was essentially the plans for Camp Snoopy at Cedar Point on his university personal page. He contacted me directly to indicate where he found the information. He just typed in “cedarpoint.com/campsnoopy” into his web browser, and there it was, in its entirety. Parent company Cedar Fair had just bought Knott’s Berry Farm, so everyone knew Cedar Point was likely to brand something with the newly acquired Peanuts license. Knott’s had their Camp Snoopy for more than a decade. What Katie and the park didn’t expect was that college kids were pretty clever at poking around for things that were staged and ready for release. It never happened again with Cedar Point, but it did with other parks, almost annually.
I then received a frantic voicemail from Janice Lifke-Witherow, one of the PR managers at Cedar Point. She basically asked that I remove the information, please, as a gesture of goodwill and the start of a constructive relationship. That was followed up with an email from a guy named Stephen, whose title isn’t clear from the email record. He lectured me about doing the right thing, and how the information I posted was incorrect and could harm the park. You can imagine how I received this information because it was quite literally information from the park itself, just not ready for release.
The patronizing tone of that email really put me off, and frankly swayed me in the opposite direction of the call from Janice. Ultimately, I removed the Camp Snoopy information, which was released shortly thereafter anyway, exactly the way it was presented in the draft web material. This did set up an interesting situation, however. Generating over 100,000 page views per month at that point (and making more than a hundred bucks, which seemed like a lot), meant that I had a bona fide audience. It was a wakeup call that there was going to be a conversation about Cedar Point with or without the park’s involvement, and it’s something that would be a delicate balance for years. It was a healthy tension, because I agreed to play ball when I didn’t have to, and that was the basis for a great relationship that has gone on for more than two decades.
Stephen left the park in April of 1999. Before he left, I had a number of email exchanges with him, but I don’t think I ever met him in person. The general tone of his email always had a strange tone, but he did share a lot about the inner workings of the park and its planning cycle. When he left, it was Janice that served as my primary contact.
I also looked at the change as an opportunity. What if I could land that job? It seemed like a junior-ish position, and I could learn from others there. It wasn’t a huge departure from media work. I sent them a resume, but nothing became of it. I’m thankful for that, to say the least, because the Penton Media gig came up shortly thereafter.
The relationship with Janice was better from the start. With her hectic schedule, we didn’t meet in person until late June, for lunch, but she took me seriously, even though in the back of my mind I still felt like I was just some dumb 20-something with a web site. At one point, she even told me off the record that they were trying to button up their 2000 announcement, saying it would be worth waiting for.
Shortly after the park opened for the 1999 season, I wrote a review of Camp Snoopy. That was a strange exercise, because I had never written an opinion piece about an attraction, let alone one intended for kids and young families. It was a very complimentary review, because honestly it felt like a turning point for what the park could do if given a modest budget to tie together a light theme.
That’s when I heard from John Hildebrandt for the first time. His entire professional history was with Cedar Point, and in 1999 he was the director of marketing. He loved the review, and printed out a copy to give to Don Miears, who was the general manager. Don in turn brought it to a meeting of the Cedar Fair board of directors, who happened to be meeting there at the time. Maybe I was just a dumb 20-something, but I sure was getting a lot of attention that I didn’t expect.
Consider my journey to this point. I felt as though I had “failed” at radio, mostly because I wasn’t ready to suffer in that terrible line of work. I was still in TV, but doing it for local government, which was not as sexy as commercial TV (though infinitely more sane in hours, benefits and flexibility). I also felt like my job had nowhere left to go, a feeling made worse when the high school principal suggested she looked at me as “one of the kids” and not the media professional that I was. Getting praise from a group of people running an iconic business, over something I was doing for fun, no less, was exactly what I needed at the time.
I returned the favor by spreading some love of my own. I emailed John and Don, complementing the work that Janice had done to keep me in the loop and fostering a positive relationship.
Janice gave me advanced notice about the 2000 announcement, which is to say she gave me the date. Millennium Force was announced on July 22, 1999, with a physical media kit that had press releases and artist renderings, mailed to arrive that day. It was glorious. Site traffic spiked to tens of thousands of page views per day. The conversation on GTTP was insane. This coaster was going to be a very big deal.
The sheer volume of contact I had with the park from the announcement of Millennium Force through the summer it opened was unexpected. There was an interesting dynamic, and it’s one that John Hildebrandt talks about in his book, Always Cedar Point (ISBN: 099675041X). The PR and marketing game was mostly about shaping the conversation, but with the web, and online fan sites, there was going to be a conversation whether you liked it or not. You were going to get honest feedback, and it might be brutal. John said that he always thought we did a good job managing our community, and I’m humbled by his compliments.
John would later become the general manager of Cedar Point, after a single season as GM of Dorney Park in Allentown, PA. He retired in 2013 from the same company where he started 40 years earlier. I remember one year in particular, I had a rough experience in one of the Lighthouse Point cottages during closing weekend. It wasn’t clean, and the mattresses were pretty tired and uncomfortable (a defining characteristic of the Dick Kinzel era when it came to resorts). For some reason that experience came up in a conversation with John on the midway, and he gave me his cell phone number and asked me to call him if I had an issue staying there a few weeks later. I did, I called, and the issue was resolved in under 30 minutes. I felt bad calling in a favor, but he insisted it was necessary feedback that he wanted to have. That’s why I always tell people that he was an ideal steward for the park.
I continued to have a good relationship with Janice as well, and then Bryan Edwards, who worked in PR for years.
There were others that I met in that early period that turned out to be long-time friends as well. Mike Graham was building model coasters that landed in museums and soda shops, eventually landing an engineering job at Custom Coasters, Inc., then starting The Gravity Group with his partners when CCI folded. I met this tall coaster nerd, then a senior in high school in Muskegon, Michigan, named Kara (Dhuse) Paul, who would go on to run PR at Valleyfair, and eventually be a driving force at expanding the Coasting For Kids event for Give Kids The World. I was a “bridesbro” in her wedding, and she lives on the opposite side of Walt Disney World from me now. Pete Babic, a boater and long-time software guy at Case Western Reserve University, was the smiling guy on the midway that was always anxious to get a beer with you or hang out on his boat in the Cedar Point Marina. Pete died in late 2018, unfortunately, but I feel fortunate to have known him.
Of course, one of the key people I met through the park was Walt Schmidt. He ran a site called Virtual Midway that also paid homage to Cedar Point. We were both photography nerds, slinging film and scanning photos. At some point, it seemed like a good idea that we combine our efforts. This was an ideal partnership, because he has a lot of creative energy, and I like building the technology. So in 2004, we combined Guide to The Point and Virtual Midway and launched PointBuzz. This partnership endures to this day. It’s a good thing, too, because it’s hard to make content about Cedar Point when you live 11,000 feet from Cinderella Castle!