It all started with a fast food restaurant. The awesomely energetic 75-year-old Ken Cormier (pictured) turned a drive-in into an FEC, then an amusement park. Gary Kyriazi meets the man that keeps the family at the heart of everything he does. And he’s still dreaming…
“In the amusement industry, if you can make it in Maine, you can make it anywhere,” Ken Cormier told me. The owner of Funtown Splashtown USA in Saco, Maine, followed that credo with another: “You’ll never get to second base with your foot on first.”
Cormier has been hitting home runs in Maine all of his life. Not despite, but because of a difficult childhood, he has succeeded. His parents divorced when he was five, he rarely saw his mother and he lived with his father, a lumberjack who was often away working the Maine forests. Ken basically raised himself – through high school he lived in a boarding house – and was able to avoid the bad choices which can come to a child in that situation. Instead he took advantage of Maine’s Old Orchard Beach, a beachfront Mecca of the East Coast from the early 1900s.
“In the early part of the century, Old Orchard Beach was all about fancy hotels and piers,” he recalls. “But by the 1940s and ‘50s the hotels and piers had burned down and, if they were rebuilt at all, it wasn’t to their previous elegance.” Eventually motels, bars, food stands and amusements crowded the once-fashionable Old Orchard Beach, along with the resultant motorcycle gangs.
But Cormier was able to make that work for him. At 15 he was thumbing rides to Old Orchard Beach during the summers to take advantage of whatever opportunities he could find, including shining shoes, selling hot dogs and scouring under the wooden rollercoaster structure for loose change. During school he worked 60 hours a week at a laundromat. Having discovered his natural tendency for entrepreneurship, he considered leaving high school. “I learned a lot of lessons growing up like I did,” he says, “but the most valuable one was from a co-worker at the laundromat, an older and wiser friend, who advised me to stay in school, graduate, then find a way to go to college.”
After high school graduation in 1950, Ken married his high school sweetheart, Violet, a young woman who matched his energy and drive. Ken worked and studied at the University of New England, Violet worked full time, and together they raised six children. After receiving his BA in accounting, Ken worked as an accountant and controller, but his entrepreneurship overcame him, and in 1960 he and Violet bought a summertime fast-food drive-in, which they named the Marvel Drive-In. “This was before McDonald’s,” he reminded me, “when independent drive-ins were all there was. We served hamburgers, hot dogs, lobster rolls, fried clam dinners and ice cream. Our location on US Highway 1 in Saco was a good one, but still, we lost money our first three years.”
But as a man who knows no alternative to perseverance, Ken managed to keep the stand open, working at it evenings and weekends, while he maintained his full time job as treasurer at the University of New England. During the winter, when the stand was closed, he supplemented his full time job with a part time job at the Mammoth Mart in Saco, where Violet also worked full time. “She worked in hardware, I worked in lingerie. Go figure!”
By 1963 Ken, with his ever-supportive Violet, felt augmenting the Marvel Drive-In with family amusements would increase attendance, so they opened batting cages and go-karts behind the stand. It worked. They started making money. By 1967 Ken quit his full time job and Violet’s brother, Andre Dallaire, who had already built a miniature golf course adjacent to the drive-in, joined them in expanding their blossoming Family Entertainment Centre (FEC) with a 15-lane giant slide, skeet shooting and an archery range, complete with a mechanical running deer.
“People thought we had rocks in our head to move in this direction. After all, being on a good route is fine for a drive-in, but the area was considered dead as far as an FEC was concerned. Also, there still were amusements on Old Orchard Beach, just three miles away, on the beach no less. Why should people come to us?”
In a word: family. Ken Cormier’s humble FEC was very clearly a family venture, and it showed; particularly when compared to the independent ride-and-game vendors at Old Orchard Beach. Even the adjacent beach couldn’t soften its carnival-on-the-asphalt appearance. “They started to go down as we started to go up,” Ken nodded humbly.
Move On Up
By 1967 Ken quit his full time job to spend all his time turning the newly Christened Funtown USA from an FEC into an amusement park. He sold the Marvel Drive-In at a tidy profit and by the early 1970s had added a small Hampton umbrella ride, a Theel merry-go-round, Scrambler, Tilt-A-Whirl, bumper cars, Bradley and Kaye Red Baron and a gift shop.
“But it was our addition of the Zipper that got us to thinking about which way we wanted to go.” Ken’s quandary about the very popular Zipper was less because of the serious problems Zipper owners were having during the 1970s, than because of its carnival look. “I’d watch the Zipper not only as a high-level thrill ride but how it looked, and realised that’s not the direction we want to go. We got rid of it after three years. Our emphasis by that time was on better theming, a better presentation and providing more of a permanent park feel. Our goal was to become a theme park. We emphasised the grounds, while managing to put in one ride per year throughout the ’70s and ’80s.”
In 1978, Ken bought out Andre Dallaire’s interest, and Dallaire took his profits and built a small waterpark in front of Funtown, on the spot where the old Marvel Drive-In had stood. The complement between the two parks worked perfectly.
In 1984, Ken added a log flume from OD Hopkins, who in 1981 had become the first competitor to the Arrow Development Company, which had invented the log flume and, up to that point, held the monopoly on it. Hopkins offered a less expensive version, wherein a park owner could buy the lift, the drop and the logs, and then pour the concrete flume per OD Hopkins’ specifications. That’s just what Ken did, and their log flume, with its lush theming, secured Funtown USA in the family theme park category. When, in 1996, Ken bought the waterpark from his brother-in-law, the 78-acre Funtown Splashtown USA was born.
They had their family theme park, they had the waterpark, “but still, the amusement industry, whether your park is large or small, is about rollercoasters,” Ken conceded. They had added a steel Galaxy coaster in 1978, but it didn’t help that a vendor at the nearby and still-active Old Orchard Beach amusements added a Galaxy in shortly thereafter. So in 1998 Ken asked Custom Coasters to create what he envisioned “an exciting coaster for families, not one that would rip your butt off.” Ken knew it was a major gamble, but based on what he saw with all the other small parks that added a major wooden coaster, he determined that “if you’re a gambler, the odds of adding a wood coaster are 90% success, only 10% failure.”
The 85-foot-high, 2900ft-long Excalibur was a success, “greater than we anticipated,” Ken happily recalls. “It gave us an attendance boost of over 100,000, a 73% increase from 1997 to 1998.”
While Funtown Splashtown USA had now joined the big league, Ken and Violet Cormier knew, as anyone in the amusement industry knows, it’s never over. “I feel like a juggler,” Ken said, more from an invigorated standpoint than a tired one, “juggling five balls in the air, and I can’t drop one. In order to make this park successful, I’ve got to do things that will keep people coming into the park. I’d like to put something in every year, but it’s not always possible, though it’s necessary to realise our goal. And sure, I’d love to add a Chance CP Huntington train, or a huge Ferris Wheel. Those rides are beautiful, and they would fall into our game plan of maintaining the soft, family atmosphere. But they don’t bring the crowds in, especially now that we’ve become more aggressive with our marketing. We can’t sell a train or a Ferris Wheel to the public.”
Ken says he’ll get those rides some day, but for now, “all our attention is on the waterpark.” The park was a basic nuts-and-bolts operation when Ken purchased it from his brother-in-law in 1996. Ken changed the colour scheme, added hundreds of lawn chairs and lounges, a few more slides, and then took the big plunge, literally, when he purchased the Mammoth and the Tornado from ProSlide in 2007. “That boosted our season pass sales by 90.3% from 2006 to 2007.”
Still, I found myself asking, as a desert-dweller, isn’t a waterpark in Maine rather risky?
“No doubt,” Ken agreed. “First of all, weather aside, Maine isn’t a great state for income, so people are very frugal with their dollar. But of course weather is our number one challenge. Much as the tourists flock here, a summer vacation in Maine can mean a lot of rain. If you lose the 4th of July weekend, that’s business you never get back. They won’t return that season. In 2006 we had horrible weather in May and June, and it hurt our group sales. Our group sales can bring in 3,000 to 4,000 on a single day, but if it rains, we lose them. We give them back their deposits. It hurts, sure, but we can usually plan on them rebooking at another time. It’s about perseverance, and,” Ken adds another of his credos, “perseverance is the only measure by which to achieve success.”
Perseverance, and family. After 48 years in the park business, Ken Cormier’s ultimate support is his family. “We have three generations here. Five of our six children work in the park [the sixth became a nurse], and four of our eight grandchildren work here. There’s also three generations in our employees’ families. Couples have met here, got married, and now their kids work here.”
When Ken gave me a tour of his wonderful, perfectly clean park, I saw the park man come out, a real Walt Disney in his own park, proud and always dreaming.
“Look at that train ride,” he pointed to an unpretentious miniature kiddie train ride that meandered on its short course through two-dimensional cut-outs of houses and commercial buildings. “It’s so simple. And yet look at those kids, ages two to four, they’re happy! They’re excited. As adults we often forget what it’s like to be a kid, what excites them. We have to look at a child on one of the kiddie rides to keep our goal in perspective. It’s about our children, it’s about our families.”
Ken and Violet Cormier, their children and their grandchildren, are well maintaining that perspective in Funtown Splashtown USA.
Gary Kyriazi is the author of The Great American Amusement Parks, A Pictorial History, and has been a researcher and writer for the amusement industry for more than 30 years.