The biggest little amusement park in the world
A modest, 11-acre, squeaky-clean family park in Marshall, Wisconsin, Little Amerricka has been growing steadily, and rather unexpectedly, throughout its 19-year-history. Gary Kyriazi meets general manager Darrell Klompmaker and owner Lee Merrrick, whose name is responsible for that rather quirky spelling (A-Merrick-a).
“I think Little Amerricka is filling a much needed-void that the larger parks, such as at Wisconsin Dells, or Six Flags Great America to the south, can’t,” says Klompmaker. “Adults come here to relax, they don’t have to pay anything. And the kids just have fun in a small, well-attended area.”
Indeed, if you have young children …better yet, if you have young grandchildren or great-grandchildren, you can’t avoid taking them to Little Amerricka. Your enjoyment will be threefold: 1) enjoying a museum-piece amusement park in impeccable shape (perfect for a 1940s or ‘50s motion picture set); 2) watching euphoric children experience the park’s timeless rides and attractions; 3) telling the children “I used to ride that when I was a kid!” Not that they’ll care, of course, or even listen, but you’ll tell them anyway.
“Yeah, I’ve done a lot of scouting for old rides,” Darrell told me. “Lee (who turned 91 this year) and I go to a lot of auctions. We bought things we had to have such as a Tilt-A-Whirl and a Scrambler, but we might be at an auction and see a ride and think ‘Wow, that looks really cool!’ and we end up buying it. We did that with the Alan Herschell Mad Mouse. We’d gone to Enchanted Forest in Chesterton, Indiana, when it closed in 1992, to buy their Scrambler, but the Mad Mouse was an impulse buy. It was our biggest ride up to that point.”
Another impulse buy was from Peony Park in Omaha, Nebraska, which closed in 1993. “I went to buy their kiddie boat ride, but also ended up buying the monorail. Peony Park wondered how I was going to get it out of there, and it took about six trips back and forth with one truck. Lee had been in the dog food business for 75 years, so we had the trucks available. Those trucks were also handy when Dogpatch USA in Arkansas closed that same year. They had the prototype Chance Toboggan, which had the same specs as the road models, but it hadn’t been made transportable.”
A few Alan Herschell kiddie rides, including a Little Dipper rollercoaster, came from small parks, travelling shows and private owners in and around the Midwest. A Merry-Go-Round from Boston, a Tilt-A-Whirl possibly from Ohio (“I think,” Klompmaker said, “I can’t remember that one”) and a 12-Car Eli Ferris Wheel came from Wonderland Park in Amarillo, Texas, when Wonderland upgraded to a Giant Wheel. Klompmaker and Merrick restored them all carefully and lovingly, and the results are inspirational tributes to these classic rides.
“We’re particularly proud of our Roll-o-Plane, for which we paid $75,000 from a very small park in northern Indiana. After we restored it, the inspector who had inspected the same ride in Indiana, didn’t even recognise it. He had to check the serial number to be sure.”
The only ride Klompmaker and Merrick purchased new was a Red Baron, from Sampson. “We needed one, and as popular as that ride is, they’re tough to find used.”
Of course, you can’t always get what you want. Klompmaker and Merrick wanted a flume and thought they had found one at another park that was closing, Old Indiana, in the state of the same name. “They had a small log flume, smallest I’ve ever seen, but perfect for us. The bidding started at 85,000, and it was in bad shape, so we passed. Then I flew to Miracle Strip in Panama Beach when they closed in 2004. Their flume there was bigger, but I knew I we could use the smaller of the two lifts. So I made a very small offer, hoping they’d call me and say ‘Hey, take it off our hands!’ But they never called back.”
Log flume or not, what might sound like a patchwork effort to make an amusement park, even a small family park, has resulted in a well-situated and unified package, with its two-mile train ride as its centrepiece. Which is fitting, because that’s what started it all, and that was how Darrell Klompmaker met Lee Merrick.
“I was a musician, but I’d always loved trains,” Klompmaker explains, “and I wanted to build my own miniature railroad. That was how I met Lee in 1987. He’d just bought the property that is now the amusement park, and he put up his own miniature train, which at that time only went around the pond. He sold Christmas trees in the winter. People would come to his land, ride the train out to where the Christmas trees were, pick out a tree, and ride back with the tree in the train. It was very popular. I began by running the train, and soon Lee added a second tree building, where the park is now. That second building became our main concession building and our offices, the genesis of Little Amerricka.”
“Lee had already purchased four rides, which were in storage: the Ferris Wheel, Tilt-A-Whirl, a fire truck ride and bumper cars. So we started talking about a fully-fledged park. He offered me a job in 1989, and since I’d just been laid off from my previous job, I accepted.
“I kind of fell into the amusement industry. Lee didn’t really have a plan, he just had the railroad. He thought that if we added a miniature golf course and a couple of rides alongside the train, it might draw people in and keep them longer. So we opened in 1991 with extended train ride, the miniature golf course and the four rides.”
On the Radio
“Ninety-ninety-three was a big year for us because we added the Mad Mouse, Little Dipper and Toboggan. At that time our pitch was accidental: some guy totally unconnected with Little Amerricka was on the radio, and he said that we were the only park in Wisconsin that had the only permanent rollercoaster. Actually, the Mad Mouse isn’t really permanent, but at the time there were no such coasters at Wisconsin Dells. We had our biggest increase that year.
“Neither Lee nor I ever saw the park becoming what it is. It just happened. We just threw things together based on our past, what we’d enjoyed as kids, and what we’d want to enjoy with my kids and Lee’s grandkids and great-grandkids. We’d buy a ride and place it in the park. As a result, there’s been some shifting around. Our Tilt-A-Whirl has been moved twice.”
The eventual big step was to add a wooden rollercoaster. Family-style of course. Enter the Meteor, which Merrick and Klompmaker purchased and moved from Hillcrest Park near Chicago, which closed in 2003. The coaster was originally built in 1957 for Kiddytown in Chicago, and in 1967 it was moved to Hillcrest Park.
“It’s the only wood coaster that’s been moved twice,” Klompmaker says proudly. “We added a lot more new lumber to the coaster than we expected, about 75%. But it was still cheaper than buying new, and it was the perfect fit for our park.”
Given the usual boost that major, wood coasters give to parks, did the Meteor, however small, do the same thing for Little Amerricka?
“I would say we were up about 10%. But we couldn’t presume it was the coaster that did it. Was it the new Meteor coaster, and the Wisconsin governor coming out for its opening? Or was it our change in advertising, which began with the opening of the coaster? Truthfully, I have to say it was weather.”
“I believe the coaster is very important to the park,” he continues. “We spent about $100,000 for it, and I’m glad we did it. Lee’s happy we did it. It made 25,000 trips in our 2008 season. Grandma and Grandpa can ride it with the youngest grandchild. By comparison the Mad Mouse is rough, a real thrill ride.”
And do teenagers fit into this picture?
“There is no teen crowd. The teenagers are surprised that the park is only open until 6pm. After 6, the teenagers would come and hang out and not spend any money, and with no gate admission, we’d lose money. But our business is the young families. After they spent the day with us, they need to go home for supper, and that’s the end of the day.”
While Little Amerricka is, by anyone’s standards, a success, the actual number of visitors elude them. “The adults don’t have to pay anything, just sit and relax. And we’re not able to determine what our ride numbers are, short of installing turnstiles in every ride. We track individual tickets, of course, as well as the pay-one-price ride bands. We do know that the Mad Mouse and Bumper Cars beat everything else, prior to the Meteor. Rollo Plane was the first ride the kids looked at and said ‘I don’t think I’m going to ride that.’ But after a while, they might dare themselves and realise it’s not that bad. But it’s still our ‘tough’ ride.”
“We still have to wonder if we’re hurting ourselves by not having teenagers. Up to this point, we’ve paid cash for everything, and that’s been the reason we don’t have teenage rides. We don’t want to take a loan for a major teen ride. But I also wonder, would we enjoy running the park as much if we started catering to the teenagers.” He pauses for a moment. “I don’t think so. We’re going to keep marketing ourselves as we have been.”
So how do you market a small park?
“That’s been our main effort, recently. When we started in 1991 we spent $300 a week for marketing. That was a lot of money for us, and Lee had a tough time with it, but it was ultimately worth it. We look slicker now in our marketing. The Little Amerricka branding started in 1993 with TV commercials featuring an old train engineer, he became our park character, and that’s when people became familiar with us. Then we went for a more nostalgic-type commercial for a couple of years, using slide shows and black and white photos. But the audience didn’t recognise that it was Little Americka. So we went back to the train engineer.”
And what’s next for Little Amerricka?
“We’re thinking of adding games. I used to be against games, because it tends to bring back the memories of travelling carnivals. But since then, the park has developed more of a permanent look, not just a few flat rides like when we started out. So I think we can now get some kid-oriented games for maybe a dollar, and keep the prize ratio pretty high, so that there’s a pretty decent prize return for the kids. I bought a shooting gallery from a New Jersey pier, and we’re going to start with that.”
While Darrell Klompmaker says he wants to learn all he can about the amusement industry, he’s thinking that maybe his and Lee Merrick’s trial-and-error approach may be the only way to go.
“Shortly after we opened Little Amerricka, I went to the IAAPA trade show in Orlando, and registered for the small park seminar. I wanted to learn all I could from the other small park owners …not mid-sized, but small like us. It turns out, they were all asking me questions! I guess Lee and I will just have to keep moving ahead the way we have been.”
Indeed, serendipity has worked well for near-20-year-old Little Amerricka. There’s no point in changing that now.
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.