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The world's first theme park devoted entirely to rock ‘n’ roll, Hard Rock Park is turning up the volume in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Paul Ruben reports on the largest new park to open in America for almost a decade.
Although the Hard Rock brand extends to approximately 125 restaurants around the world, this is the only theme park ever to carry the name, as well as being the first major new park to appear in the States since the 1999 appearance of both Universal's Islands of Adventure and Legoland California.
This 55-acre new facility celebrates the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll with more than 55 attractions, including 13 major rides. In addition to five rollercoasters, there are shows, children's play, restaurants, retail and – this is a rock ‘n’ roll theme park after all – a multi-purpose music amphitheatre. After dark, guests can also enjoy a Bohemian Rhapsody firework show. The attractions are spread out over six "rock environs" themed to a specific genre of music, including the Entry Plaza, Rock and Roll Heaven, British Invasion, Lost in the '70s, Born in the USA and Cool Country.
Built at a cost of more than $400 million (€255m), Hard Rock Park is the single largest tourism investment in South Carolina’s history and, unusually for a park this far north, it is open almost year-round – closed only in January and February. A total of 200 full-time staff will be joined during by an additional 3,000 seasonal employees.
“Hard Rock Park has to be authentic," contends senior vice-president and general manager Dale Kaetzel. "We want people to leave saying that as a family it was the best day they ever had, and people have told me that. To some members of the family it might be they had a great meal, to others it might be because of our coasters. Someone else may have enjoyed one of our shows. We’re also going to be programming a series of emerging artists in our amphitheatre, so maybe a couple of years from now they’ll look back and go 'Wow, I saw that band for the first time at Hard Rock Park’.”
Located less than three miles from the ocean in Myrtle Beach, one of the most popular family vacation destinations in the United States, attracting 14 million people annually, Hard Rock Park expects to draw "millions" of these visitors. Management won’t be drawn on exactly how many, but whatever the forecasts, it seems likely to boost the area’s overall appeal and increase the number of travellers. However, drawing guests from the beach during the daytime appears to be Hard Rock Park's biggest challenge.
The town has one existing amusement park, Family Kingdom, which comes to life each evening during spring and summer. Myrtle Beach Pavilion, which operated successfully in the centre of town from 1948 through to 2006, is now just a grassy field. Memories from the park and a few of its old rides are now preserved at the Pavilion Nostalgia Park inside a nearby mall. Magic Harbor, meanwhile, operated four miles south of the city from the mid-60s through to the mid-90s, including a period during the '70s when it was owned by Blackpool Pleasure Beach. The land is now just a campground.
"Myrtle Beach, in my opinion, was the last major destination that did not have a major theme park," says Hard Rock Park chief creative officer Jon Binkowski. "The market is fantastic, with 14 million vacationers a year for an average length of stay that is longer than in Orlando. The weather is beautiful, the location is awesome, and the people are here to have a great time.”
“There are a couple of reasons why there has not been a theme park here until now,” he continues. “First, there was a lack of road infrastructure, but over the last few years that has changed. The State of South Carolina invested billions, creating easy access to our park. Second, there are few companies that actually build theme parks from scratch. Sure, Disney and Universal do, but they chose not to invest heavily in Myrtle Beach since they believe it would 'cannibalise' their Central Florida market."
Eight Years’ Planning
The seeds for Hard Rock Park were planted eight years ago, when Binkowski bought the nearby Ice House and produced a skating show. But the show wasn't as successful as he had hoped: "We didn't start out to build a Hard Rock Park," he recalls, "'Rock' found us. It started with me purchasing a theatre on this pre-developed property, then getting together with my neighbours to pool our properties and money to develop an amusement park around the existing lagoon."
Binkowski started planning a small park as a way to bring people to his ice rink. But then he talked with Steve Goodwin, who at the time was vice-president of strategic development for Hard Rock Cafe International and is now the park’s chief executive officer and chief financial officer. Goodwin advised Binkowski that, "It's easier to raise $400 million than $40 million." Rather than purchasing 10 acres they decided to add 140. After first considering a theme park based on popular movies, they opted instead for rock 'n' roll. "And it turns out that rock 'n' roll has been the most natural layering of a theme on any park I've ever worked on," Binkowski admits, "and I've worked on them all. "
"Keeping the family in mind,” he adds, “we chose not to do a '50s area, a '60s area and so forth. Rather, we wanted to create environs that play to many styles of music. We don't have a kiddie zone at one end of the park and then a teen zone at the other. That would break up the family.”
Dale Kaetzel agrees: "Rock and roll is multi-generational. Led Zeppelin’s first album came out in 1968. If you were 25 then, you’re 65 now and you can share the experience with your children and grandchildren. In fact, it's amazing to watch kids, they’re listening to some of the great rock ‘n’ roll bands that I grew up with as if they just came out today!”
Striking The Right Note
"This park was built with the guest in mind," believes Kaetzel, who started in the industry at Paramount’s King’s Dominion as vice-president of marketing, then performed the same role at both King’s Island and Carowinds, where he moved on to become assistant general manager, before becoming general manager of Canada’s Wonderland, all of them ex-Paramount properties. "Hard Rock Park is flexible and evolving. Our employees, who we call ‘rockers,’ are empowered to do the right thing by the guest at all times, and our commitment to them is to allow the freedom and flexibility to do that."
Kaetzel also understands the importance of theming, much of which was carried out at Hard Rock Park by The Nassal Company of Orlando. "Forty-plus years ago when regional theme parks were founded, they were an equal mix of entertainment and rides. Over the years entertainment has been replaced by bigger and bigger pieces of hardware. What we’ve done at Hard Rock Park is reinstate that equal mix, using the wonderful palette that rock ‘n’ roll provides us. Our show package here rivals any theme park in North America and our ride package is designed to have something for every member of the family."
As well as world-class rides and entertainment, Hard Rock Park guests can also expect quality cuisine and eclectic audio. “We have an executive chef,” reveal Kaetzel. “We’re attempting to get away from the typical pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers that you see at many parks and we think that’s a very important part of our offer. We also have 350 speakers throughout the park arranged so the music just seamlessly goes from one era to the other. British Invasion is a great example. It isn’t just the original bands such as the Beatles and the Stones, it also groups through the generations including U2 and Coldplay. Each of our environs has a mix of classic and contemporary music."
Kaetzel's enthusiasm extends to the park’s merchandise too: "Our number one selling t-shirt has been Led Zeppelin – The Ride, and our number two has been Bob Marley. Hard Rock Cafes have been in the pin business for years, and we’re also seeing annual pass holders are coming to the park looking for our pins as soon as they enter the front gate."
In order to attract families, the target audience, Hard Rock Park has prominent billboard advertising in Mytle Beach, and Kaetzel says they’ll be working with local hotels and tour planners. "We want to make sure that everybody that visits Myrtle Beach spends one or two days of their vacation with us. We’re also talking to the Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Colombia, Savannah, Charleston and Wilmington areas, advertising in those markets either for a single-day or long weekend visit."
Between early September and the end of December the park will present many special events, including a major Halloween attraction and a Christmas celebration. While there is room to expand the park, Kaetzel prefers to see first how guests react to what is currently on offer. "We’re going to be guided by the guests to figure out what potential opportunities there are for capital investment. There are plenty of pockets and opportunities within our 55 acres."
Hard Rock Park, a theme park with attitude, is a natural extension of the Hard Rock culture, and an entertaining family environment. Long live rock 'n' roll!
Soon after the grand opening of Hard Rock Park, in early June, Dale Kaetzel departed, to be replaced by existing member of staff Mike Cross.
Hard Rock Rides
Five rollercoasters, five flat rides, a dark ride, four interactive attractions and two kiddie rides highlight Hard Rock Park's ride and attraction package. Here they are, area by area:
Rock 'n' Roll Heaven
Led Zeppelin – The Ride by Bolliger & Mabillard (B&M). Towering 155ft into the sky, Hard Rock Park’s signature rollercoaster thrills riders with six inversions, the largest 120ft high. Like other rides at Hard Rock Park, the attraction features an on-board audio system for each passenger, as well as a video capture system by CDRide.
Reggae River Falls by SCS Interactive. Set in a Jamaican fantasyland, this water playground features a variety of swings, rope pulls, hoses, water blasters and a large tipping bucket. Guest are advised to bring a swimming costume.
Born in the USA
Slippery When Wet by Premier Rides is an interactive suspended coaster featuring water cannons at ground level for passers-by, however riders can settle the score by giving shooters a taste of their own medicine.
Designed for children and 'tweens, Garage Jam! by SCS Interactive is a multi-level playground resembling the inside of an auto shop-turned-rehearsal space and featuring a foam ball play element.
Shake Rattle ‘n’ Rollercoaster. This junior coaster by Vekoma/Chance Morgan takes youngsters back to the sun and fun days of Coney Island and Palisades Park.
Maximum RPM! Delayed at opening, this convertible car coaster by Premier Rides features a first-of-its-kind Ferris Wheel in place of a lift hill, which hoists riders and their cars into place and ready for descent. Cars are released onto a high-speed test track, hurtling through steeply banked turns and a carwash at the end!
Nights in White Satin – The Trip. A psychedelic dark ride by Sally Corp and one of the park’s highlights (see separate profile over the page). This mind-bending journey masterfully blends sights, sounds and smells to immerse riders in one of rock’s most imaginative classics.
All the King’s Horses. A traditional carousel by Chance Morgan.
London Cab Ride. This Huss Breakdance simulates the crazy London traffic in Piccadilly Circus.
Magic Mushroom Garden. Another Huss ride, based on the firm’s Troika. The attraction also features a shaded toddler play area.
Two further attractions for children include The English Faire, a vintage-style English playground by Piazza and The Punk Pit by Inflatable Images, a custom-designed bounce house.
Life in the Fast Lane. An abandoned sawmill is home to this runaway coaster from Vekoma/Chance Morgan. Passengers ride to the accompaniment of the Eagles hit of the same name.
Muddin’ Monster Race by Huss. Mud-soaked trucks feature on this swinging flat ride, an adaptation of the same manufacturer’s Bee Bee ride.
Just A Swingin’. A themed Wave Swinger by Bertazzon.
Dune Buggies and Sole Train by Zamperla. Two temporary children's rides for young ones.