Theme Park, Amusement Park and Attractions Industry News

Michigan’s Adventure

It all started with a log flume

Gary Kyriazi knew as soon as he met the 15-year-old Camille Jourden that she shared her father Roger’s passion for the amusement industry. Twenty-seven-years later he returns to visit her as general manager of Michigan’s Adventure, a park now under the ownership of Cedar Fair. In many ways though, it’s still business as usual down in Muskegon.

I was working the Arrow Huss booth at the 1981 IAAPA trade show in Kansas City when a fit, middle-aged man confidently strode up, positioned himself in front of me, and declared “I want to buy a log flume!”

His name tag read Roger Jourden, and I knew who he was. He’d purchased a small animal park, Deer Park, in Muskegon, Michigan, in 1968. The park had originally opened in 1956 with 100 deer, a petting zoo and a train. Jourden added kiddie rides, a few adult flat rides, renamed it “Deer Park Funland,” and then in 1978, added a standard Arrow Corkscrew. At Arrow, we didn’t understand the incongruity of such a ride in such a park, but nobody argued. A sale is a sale.

“Well sure,” I responded to Roger Jourden, “we can do a flume for you, but can I show you some drawings of a new ride we’re just developing? It’s a revival of the old Shoot-The-Chutes ride, and it…”

“Hey, do you want to sell me a log flume or don’t you?”

Forget the Shoot-The-Chutes.

“And by the way,” he continued, still nose-to-nose with me, “how much is this going to set me back? I spent over a million dollars for your Corkscrew!”

“Well, a flume can cost as much or as little as you want. The cheapest way is to purchase the logs, a standard lift and drop, and then keep the rest of the ride on the ground, pouring a concrete flume to our specifications…”

“No! I want a big flume, up in the air! With one small drop, and one big drop at the end!”

There goes another one and a-half million. At least. We sat down and got it going.

A month later I visited him at Deer Park Funland, and amidst a blanket of snow he gave me a tour. We’d become comfortable with each other from our initial meeting, and I asked him something many of us at Arrow had wondered about.

“Roger, wasn’t that a pretty big gamble, buying a Corkscrew? Most people would have started off with a Galaxy, or maybe a used Herschell Mad Mouse. Why jump right in with a Corkscrew in what is essentially an animal park?”

“Why not?” was his inarguable reply.

I shut up.

That night I took him, his wife Mary Lynn, and their two daughters, then ages 16 and 15, out to dinner. At one point I thanked the girls for joining us.

“Oh, Dad made us come!” the older daughter Lisa gave a humoured sigh. She clearly would rather have been someplace else.

“So neither of you are interested in the amusement industry?” I asked the girls.

“Oh, she is!” Roger pointed to his younger daughter, Camille. I then realised that the cute teenage girl had hung onto every word of the dinner conversation, which was exclusively about the amusement industry.

Daddy’s Girl Done Good

Twenty-seven-years later, last summer to be precise, vice-president and general manager Camille Jourden-Mark, 42 years old and beautiful, sat with me in her office above the main gate of Michigan’s Adventure.

“Yeah, that’s my dad all right!” she laughed when I told her how we’d met. “My dad’s thing with the Corkscrew, and the log flume was that our guests during the early Deer Park Funland days were always telling us about Cedar Point, how great it was. And of course we’d been to Cedar Point too, and we knew it well. But my dad decided to make Cedar Point his competition. Sure, we shared some of the same market, but how could we possibly compete with Cedar Point? How could anybody our size compete with Cedar Point?”

The battle of David and Goliath comes to mind.

“Well, we did it by jumping in big with a Corkscrew, two years after Cedar Point added its Corkscrew (Cedar Point elongated the standard Corkscrew with a speed bump and vertical loop). And you know something, my dad signed that contract with Arrow before he had the financing!”

“And then two years later he bought an Arrow flume,” I continued.

“That was another thing. He could have saved a lot of money keeping the flume on the ground, as you suggested, but he wanted a bigger flume than Cedar Point had, and it was!”

Roger Jourden’s two big rolls of the dice worked, and Deer Park Funland’s attendance increased steadily.

“My dad’s a gambler, yes, but he was always very smart about money.” Camille learned a very important money lesson from her dad when she was nine years old. “I was working at the duck pond, and one afternoon I wandered away and left my cash box unattended. Well, my dad happened by, saw the cash box, and took it. When I got back to the pond and found my money was gone, I was devastated. How was I going to tell him? Later that day he gave me the cash box and told me ‘Never walk away from your money!’”

Camille eventually worked nearly every job in the ever-growing Deer Park Funland, leaving only to go to college. “I thought I would be getting my degree in sociology, and go into social work. But I soon realised I don’t have the temperament for it, I would have taken my work home with me. So instead I got my degree in business in 1988, the same year we changed our name to Michigan’s Adventure.”

Also in 1988, Roger Jourden took what by now is considered to be a very safe gamble when he opened the park’s first wooden rollercoaster, the Wolverine Wildcat. “My dad did a lot of shopping around, and when he rode Knoebels Amusement Resort’s Phoenix, which Dick Knoebel had moved from San Antonio’s Playland Park, my dad decided that was the type of wood coaster he wanted, so he and Curtis D Summers made some modifications on that basic design.”

Wooden Wonder

And did adding a major wooden coaster provide the attendance boost it does at most parks?

“Definitely. It was our best season ever up to that point!”

“When all this was happening, my goal was to open my own advertising agency in Indianapolis, Indiana, but my dad asked me if I could commit to a full time job for one year with Michigan’s Adventure. He must have known this business is in my blood, long before I was aware of it. But I agreed to do it. It was a challenge, working for my dad. Even though I was general manager, it still was, after all, his park. And he’s authoritative and opinionated, but he’s so smart, he has such a natural business sense, that you can get past everything else and learn from him.”

Camille learned from her father. A lot. She and Roger continued expanding Michigan’s Adventure and maintained a healthy competition with Cedar Point (though Cedar Point may not have paid much mind at the time, in the middle of its own competition with Kings Island).

“Ten years after the Wolverine Wildcat had opened, we decided it was time for another wooden coaster. Our first thought was, ‘What can we build that Cedar Point can’t build? Well, we knew that Cedar Point is tight for space, and in fact they’ve often had to build on top of their existing attractions, and even remove some older rides to make room for new ones. So we determined that we’d build a giant out-and-back wood coaster, with lots of air time.”

Shivering Timbers, built by Custom Coasters International in 1998, worked its magic and provided Michigan’s Adventure with its best season ever up to that point. Two years later, the waterpark was added, attendance continued to soar, and Michigan’s Adventure had jumped into the big league of major American amusement parks.

By this time Camille had married Steve Mark; they’d met when they were 15 years old, when he started working at the park. “Steve went to college and then taught for one year, but he decided the amusement industry was more fun, so he returned and became maintenance manager. Our first child, Zach, was born in 1992. He was my dad’s first grandchild, and so he proudly named our second wood coaster, built in ’94 by Custom Coasters International, ‘Zach’s Zoomer.’” Zach’s Zoomer was a small, family coaster, and as such, while it may not have given the park the attendance boost of 1988’s Wolverine Wildcat, it filled a niche and maintained the momentum. “Our attendance just kept increasing every year. We only had two years in particular that we didn’t increase, probably due to bad weather. I do remember my dad saying ‘Only two years! That’s all!’ Otherwise we kept going up and up.”

It would appear that Roger Jourden, his children, and his grandchildren would forever grow and maintain what was becoming one of America’s largest family-owned amusement parks, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Cedar Fair Comes Knocking

“We were constantly being approached by potential buyers by this time, and my dad would always proudly say ‘No, this is our park, and that’s the way we’re going to keep it!’ But you know, we live in a very litigious society, and it can be scary for a family to be the sole owners of a park this size. So, it was ironic when Cedar Fair – our rivals no less! – made my father an offer he couldn’t refuse in 2001.”

Was that a difficult decision for Roger Jourden to make?

“Oh, he agonised over it! In fact, the very night before he had to sign the contract, he talked to us and said ‘Are we sure this is what we want to do?’ After all, this was his baby, his child, he’d nurtured and watched it grow for 32 years! How could he just let it go? But if he had to sell it, he didn’t want anyone to have it but Cedar Fair. We’d already seen how Cedar Fair maintains the integrity and basic style of the parks that it acquires, so we knew that the essence of Michigan’s Adventure would remain intact.”

I recounted to Camille what Cedar Fair CEO Dick Kinzel had told me in 2003: “It’s pride of ownership with each general manager and his park,” he said. “While it’s true that each park is a Cedar Fair park, it’s also its own park, and I respect that and allow each general manager his autonomy. I guide them within the budget, we have our planning meetings, we walk the park. But what might work at one park won’t work at another. And if I were to force-feed each park, that’s where we’d run into the danger of creating cookie-cutter parks.”

“That’s absolutely true,” Camille agreed, “in more ways than we would have expected. Cedar Fair asked me to stay as vice-president of marketing and park operations, and in June 2001 they brought Larry MacKenzie from Dorney Park to be general manager. Well, as the previous general manager, I’d been able to raise my family while running Michigan’s Adventure. I had the big, corner office, with an attached room where my kids played; there was a piano in there for my daughter to practice. It was the perfect working mother situation. When Larry saw the set-up I had for my kids, he didn’t take the big office, as would have been his right. He just quipped, ‘Well, I guess you’re keeping the corner office!’ He and Cedar Fair were wonderful.”

This situation lasted just two months until Larry MacKenzie went to Valleyfair as its new general manager and Camille became, once again, general manager of Michigan’s Adventure. Her husband Steve became vice-president of maintenance and construction. “They must have realised,” Camille said, “in that short period of time, that I did have the talent, that it wasn’t just because my dad had owned the park. During that summer, they sent me to Cedar Point for a week of ‘cross-training,’ where I spent one-half or a full day in each department, crash-coursing on everything. Later that fall, I spent a week at Knott’s Berry Farm during their Halloween Haunt, doing the same thing. It was a dream come true. I used to ask my dad if I could go to some of the other large parks for a season and absorb everything I could, but how I could I leave our park during the season?”

The big question, one many people had wondered: Had Camille becoming general manager of Michigan’s Adventure been part of the deal with Cedar Fair?

“A lot of people thought it was,” Camille smiled with her usual candour, “but no, it never was. It just all fell into place.”

And how different was it working your own park to working for Cedar Fair’s park?

“I was able to start making decisions, more so than I could with my dad when it was his park. Cedar Fair listened to me and respected my ideas.”

The first order of business was to soften Michigan’s Adventure, as was evident when Camille gave me a tour.

“My dad did everything himself, including pouring the concrete, planting the lawns and flowers, there was no way he was going to pay someone else, even though a professional landscaper might have done a, well, a more professional job. Even now we’re still changing Dad’s backyard do-it-yourself look to more of a softer, theme-park feel.”

I pointed out the length of a split rail fence along the walkway, which originally ran throughout the entire park. I struggled with the right word to describe the use of split-rail fencing in a major park, other than perhaps as theming for an Old West section.

“’Cheap’ is the word you’re looking for!” Camille laughed. “My dad put all his money in on the rides; everything else he literally did himself.”

But Roger Jourden’s hands-on, do-it-yourself, full-speed-ahead, gutsy ambition paid off. In 40 years Michigan’s Adventure has grown from Roger’s dream, a train ride and a small herd of deer, to one of America’s largest and most successful amusement parks. With his daughter Camille still firmly at the helm, and with Cedar Fair’s impeccable guidance, the park continues to be an adventure in Michigan.

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.

 

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