IAAPA 2001: Holiday World's Will Koch: The CoasterBuzz Interview

Posted | Contributed by Jeff

Holiday World, a small family-run amusement park in Southern Indiana, has been the talk of the industry following a number of moves that made people stand up and take note that guest experience is one of the most important aspects of any day at a park. The park's two wood coasters, The Raven and The Legend are regarded as two of the best in the world. Guests are treated to unlimited amounts of soda during their stay. They've won the Golden Ticket Awards for friendliest and cleanest park. Why all the attention? We asked Holiday World president Will Koch what it takes to be one of the most respected operations in the business.

CB: Describe Holiday World before Raven was built. Why did the park decide to take on a relatively large investment for such a small park?

WK: Holiday World had been growing prior to the addition of The Raven. In 1984, we added our Frightful Falls Log Flume, and changed our name to Holiday World. In 1986, we added a Chance Falling Star that we call The Banshee. In 1990, we added an O. D. Hopkins White Water Rapids Ride. In 1993, we started on our Splashin' Safari Water Park. Prior to adding The Raven in 1995, our attendance had already grown from 100,000 (1975) to nearly 400,000 in 1994, the year before we added Raven. Since then, we've further increased our attendance to (in 2001) 627,435.

CB: Did you expect the ride to get the attention it has?

WK: The attention The Raven has received has exceeded my expectations!

CB: At what point thereafter was it obvious you had to build Legend?

WK: We decided to build Legend during IAAPA in 1998. Once we made the decision, we moved very quickly to get CCI out on site and started on a design, etc. We really like the idea of being the world capital of great wooden roller coasters.

CB: Tell me a little bit about the design process for Legend, specifically about the involvement of enthusiasts.

WK: When we contacted CCI, they did an initial site visit and we started brainstorming ideas for the ride. We had two different potential station locations, one of which is the one that was chosen. We talked with them about where generally the ride would need to go, and what terrain we could take advantage of. Then, we followed up by posting the design on our double secret Web site, and we invited enthusiasts to view the preliminary design and make comments and suggestions to improve the ride. We received over 200 e-mails, letters, and phone calls. I reviewed the suggestions and summarized them, and sat down with Denise Dinn-Larrick to review them. Many of the comments were included in the final design. Specifics include the "double up" and the full enclosure of the tunnels (that is, the tunnels have solid bottoms).

CB: What possible incentive did you have to retrofit the ride for 2002 with two train operation and new PTC's?

WK: Two trains will speed up operations and shorten lines. People are not having fun when they're standing in line. We believe that the PTC's will be a better train in the long run, and will require less maintenance. In addition, enthusiast input has been very strongly in favor of the PTC's ever since we built Legend. We hope enthusiasts will like the change.

CB: For 2002, you've decided to build a gigantic water slide. Why was that the best "next move?"

WK: We haven't done a major project in the water park since 1998. Doing a major project in the water park allows us to shift our marketing focus back to the water park for 2002. Splashin' Safari has been a huge factor in our growth since it opened in 1993. It was time.

CB: Describe your audience a little bit, both in terms of demographics and where they're coming from.

WK: We draw families. Virtually every group of guests coming in our park will have at least one child age 14 or under. Geographically, they come from Southern Indiana, Southern Illinois, and Western Kentucky.

CB: The focus of your local marketing, and the attention you get nationally, is largely focused on the family atmosphere, friendly people and cleanliness of the park. Is this the "company culture" you inspire?

WK: Our entire park organization is focused on being a great family park. We believe that we can't have the largest, tallest, or fastest rides, but that we can be the friendliest, cleanest park anywhere. This spirit pervades our culture.

CB: Would you and your family ever consider selling the park, and under what circumstances?

WK: We like the park business, and we seem to be doing pretty well at it. We're certainly not looking to do anything in the foreseeable future.

CB: Do you think the media attention to ride safety is deserved or largely overblown? What does Holiday World do to make sure safety standards are held in the highest regard?

WK: I think a lot of the media attention to safety is based on faulty data that has been blown out of proportion by the CPSC and Representative Markey (D-Mass). I don't believe that the incident rate of injuries in parks has increased dramatically in the past few years. We emphasize safety in every aspect of everything that we do. From my point of view, the big issue is walking the talk by prioritizing safety issues over other items when I need to in order to show that safety really is number one.

CB: Tell me about free soda. Why did you do it, how do you pay for it and what has the response been from the public? This is normally a high-margin item for most parks. Are you moving the income to something else or letting it go?

WK: The primary reason for free unlimited soft drinks was strategic. We wanted to do something that would set us apart from the larger, "corporate" theme parks. We believe that it has worked very well. The public has responded very positively. Park guests frequently stop me in the park and say, "Thank you for the free drinks." The year we introduced free unlimited soft drinks was also the year we added The Legend. We took the general admission price up $4.00 that year. Part of that increase was for The Legend and part was for free unlimited soft drinks. We've been very happy with the results.

CB: Finally, what do you think draws people from all over the country to tiny Santa Claus, Indiana, a place that isn't really close to any major city?

WK: I really believe deep down that there is a niche for a high quality, family-oriented, friendly, clean park like Holiday World. I believe that as long as we remain true to our identity, our mission, and our core values, that we can continue to grow and expand, and to draw more visitors to Santa Claus, Indiana. An additional, but important, component, is that I also believe that we can add quality attractions as we grow to keep our wait times at a "reasonable" level. By "reasonable," I mean reasonable by the guest's standard, not by the "corporate park" standard.

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