Florida’s ‘little guy on the block’
Orlando, Florida, is unarguably the amusement park Mecca of the world. So, who would dare open a modest, traditional amusement park here? John Arie Snr dared, and now his two Fun Spot parks are performing remarkably well in the company of some very large neighbours. Gary Kyriazi meets him.
only is Florida home to four Disney parks at Walt Disney World, including the historic, definitive and iconic Magic Kingdom, but it’s also the home to Universal Studio, Islands of Adventure and Sea World. A little over an hour away in Tampa, Florida, is Busch Gardens. And now Legoland too, less than 60 minutes’ drive. So where did John Arie enter the picture?
As a Florida teenager in the 1960s, his first job as a $40-per-week go-kart track operator hooked him on the amusement industry, and he’s been a dynamo since. In 1997 he purchased five acres in Orlando, opening Fun ‘N Wheels, an FEC containing multi-level go-kart tracks and the standard associated arcade and flat rides.
In 2004 Arie purchased the 300ft high SkyCoaster swing – the world’s highest – from Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Adventures and installed it in Kissimmee, Florida, just 20 miles away from Orlando. In 2007, Arie expanded that SkyCoaster concession into an eight-acre FEC, with his patented multi-level go-kart tracks and more rides, including a spinning coaster from Zamperla.
The Kissimmee park, formerly Fun Spot USA but now trading as Fun Spot America like the operation in Orlando, borders a pre-existing amusement park called Old Town, a shopping and dining center with family attractions. “Our first intention was to do a seamless combination with Old Town, them having the soft attractions and us having the hard rides. But they rejected that idea so we went ahead and developed our own, complete park.”
In 2013, Arie moved the former Fun Spot Action Park to a 15-acre parcel of land just down the street from the original five in Orlando, re-naming it Fun Spot America. The reason for the move: to give himself room for the big rides, coasters in particular. The resultant $25 million dollar expansion included a steel-supported wood coaster from Great Coasters International ($3.5 million), a suspended coaster from Chance/Vekoma ($5 million), and, operating as a concession, the world’s second tallest (250ft) SkyCoaster.
Such aggressive expansion, and adding major coasters in particular, had a very positive effect on Fun Spot America, the Orlando location in particular, but with the open gate, exact numbers are hard to come by. “With our free admission we don’t have turnstiles, so it’s hard to get numbers. However, every now and then we do count the numbers of people leaving the park, and from that we’re able to determine a per-capita spending. We found we did 20 percent more income from 2012 to 2013. That puts us at a million annual attendance at the Orlando park.”
We’re already breathless just observing what John Arie Snr, 64, has done, but even so we asked him, just where does he go from here?
“We just bought an additional 10 acres across the street from the Orlando park, and that now gives us a total of 25 acres. We’re considering opening a water park on those ten acres. Plus we have two untouched acres on the original 15, giving us plenty of room for more rides. And at the Kissimmee location we’re considering expanding beyond our eight acres.”
Among all this expansion, Arie is well familiar that the term is amusement park. “Our immediate concern at both parks is getting more greenery, more trees and shrubs. We’re well developed at this point with the hardware, but we don’t have enough greenery, and we’re trying to get that. That’s our major goal right now.”
So with two parks about a 30 minute drive from each other, how do they work with each other, or might they possibly work against each other?
“Our two parks definitely complement each other, not compete. If Fun Spot America had created its own destination area, then the two parks would indeed be more competitive. But as it is we’re pulling mainly from central Florida, we have very little media presence in Jacksonville, Miami, and Tampa. So localizing ourselves in central Florida, our visitors are going to frequent whichever park is closer. We’re very ‘convenient’ parks, very family friendly, with easy in, easy out, free parking, and free admission, you only pay for the rides. Given that, the two parks work well with each other.
“We have three types of visitors: Tourists, locals, and visitors that come from out of town to visit the locals. Our marketing goal is to convince the locals that either park is ‘their’ amusement park. The locals will hopefully bring their visitors, and along with that, we hope to get some tourists. After all, in addition to our two parks complementing each other, we’re also complementing the big parks, Walt Disney World and Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure. In fact, our Orlando park is just a mile from Universal.”
And just who are the locals? “We haven’t gone after the teens, we’re concentrating on the families, which of course would include the pre-teens. To that end we’ve made our advertising very family-oriented, identifying ourselves as a family operation. We’re the family-owned park for the Florida families. My son John Arie Jnr, besides being the chief operating officer, is our media spokesman, appearing in the television and radio spots, and his likeness is on our signage. Our TV commercials [see below] aren’t quick and slick, the presentation is simple and down-homey, and based on our numbers, it’s working.”
With families as Fun Spot America’s target, sales of season passes have also spiked. “Last year we did a two-for-one season pass starting Black Friday [the day after Thanksgiving, the largest shopping day in America[ through Christmas. It was very successful.”
“Additionally, in December 2013 we hired an entire sales department to pursue group sales. We’re gotten more group sales the first quarter of 2014 than we did in all of 2013.”
Given this healthy increase in attendance and a strong regular following, Fun Spot America has firmly established itself in Florida as the new, tough, little guy on the block.
“We’re players in the amusement industry now,” Arie says happily. “I feel we’ve arrived.”
Gary Kyriazi is the author of The Great American Amusement Parks, and the writer/producer of America Screams, the first pictorial history and television special about American amusement parks. He has been a researcher and historian on American amusement parks for 40 years.