The Greek success story in Wisconsin Dells
It all started with a hot dog stand. But how did a family of Greek immigrants build up a successful theme park, waterpark and hotel business in Wisconsin Dells? Gary Kyriazi reveals the Laskaris’ fascinating story.
The story reads like a James Michener multi-generational novel. In 1935, a young Greek boy by the name of Dimitrius Laskaris comes to America to join his uncle, newly an American citizen himself. Dimitrius, or Jim (the American name he gave himself upon arriving in the States), manages to make it through to the tenth grade while learning to speak English. After serving in the Navy he lands in Chicago, he briefly owns a bar, which he closes the day after a customer breaks a beer bottle over his head.
Now sporting an attractive scar on his forehead, Dimitrius meets and marries Fatoula, herself a Greek immigrant. They have two children, Penny and Nick, and in typical Greek American food service entrepreneurship, they open a hot dog stand in downtown Chicago named Big Nick’s. The young Laskaris family lives in the apartment above the hot dog stand, and the kids work at the stand as soon as they can walk. Dimitrius is still working on his English.
The hours at Big Nick’s are long, but the Laskaris family still finds time to attend baseball games at Wrigley Field, swim in Lake Michigan and visit one of America’s premier amusement parks, Riverview Park. The Chicago institution makes an indelible impression on Dimitrius, and in the spring of 1970, three years after Riverview Park had closed, the Laskaris family visits Wisconsin Dells, a busy lakeside resort little over 150 miles northwest of Chicago.
While Big Nick’s is still a great success, the neighborhood is getting rough, and Dimitrius and Fatoula want to raise their young children in a safer environment. So Dimitrius says “Hey, this would be a good place to open a hot dog stand. Let’s close the one in Chicago and move here!”
Dimitrius purchases a dilapidated food stand just off the Wisconsin Dells strip, renovates it and prepares it for the 1970 summer season. But what should he name the new Wisconsin Dells venture? That’s easy enough. Dimitrius had recently purchased a 25ft tall fibreglass Indian, just because he liked it, although he didn’t know what he would do with it. Problem solved: he places his proud Indian statue in front of his new hot dog/hamburger stand and names it Big Chief Hot Dogs.
“Yeah, that was Pop!” Nick Laskaris smiles today. “He made decisions that way, but they were always good ones. He saw what Wisconsin Dells was, but more importantly, what it would become. He decided to get in on the ground floor, quickly.”
But it looked like that ground floor would cave in just as quickly. Big Chief Hot Dogs opened in June of 1970, and made five dollars on the first day.
“The next day Pop fired all the employees, and he and my mother ran the stand. That second day they didn’t make a penny. Nothing. Pop said ‘Well, I guess we’re going to have to move back to Chicago!’”
Big Chief’s Next Stand
The Laskaris family started packing up for the move, and in the midst of moving the furniture, a sock fell out from under a cushion of the couch. It hit the floor with a resounding thud. Inside the sock was $700.
“My mom said ‘Oh, I forgot about that! I was hiding money in that sock in case we ever needed it for an emergency. I guess I stuck it in the couch and just forgot about it!’ Well, dad saw that sock as a gift, an omen that we were meant to stay in Wisconsin Dells.”
The Wisconsin Dells summer season had started just a few days after Big Chief Hot Dogs opened, so business got better. In fact, it did well enough for Dimitrius to eventually purchase 20 acres of land next to Big Chief. There were four cabins on the land; Dimitrius built four more himself and opened a modest resort.
But what to do with the rest of the land? There were two young men that frequented Big Chief Hot Dogs, and they convinced him to let them operate a three-wheeler recreational vehicle track around the property. With Dimitrius’ healthy percentage of the successful three-wheeler business, he leased a piece of property, less than acre, on the Wisconsin Dells Parkway, in 1975. Now, the Laskaris family was actually on “The Strip,” a 2+ mile stretch of motels, souvenir shops, hamburger stands, kiddie lands, pony rides, swimming pools, miniature golf and unabashed tourist rip-off attractions.
What to enter the Wisconsin Dells Big League with? Dimitrius asked his landlord if he could install a go-kart track, and he asked the two young men who were running the three-wheeler track, Ken and Dennis, to be partners. Two weeks before the 1971 July 4th weekend, Ken and Dennis purchased eight go-karts and Dimitrius built the track. Big Chief Go-Karts was born.
“Pop knew that a go-kart was a go-kart,” Nick says, “but if you made a track attractive, it would bring in the customers. It’s just like miniature golf; you’re still putting a ball into a hole, but if you can wow the customer with visuals, they’ll come in.” This was amusement park wisdom from New York’s Coney Island back in the 1860s. It always worked, it always will, and in razzle-dazzle style, Dimitrius built a figure-eight go-kart track, with a bridge.
“But Pop made a crucial mistake. He made the bridge one lane wide both over and under, and since it was a two-lane track, the go-karts collided on the merge, and after the first day all eight go-karts were demolished. We had to close the track, reconstruct the bridge into a two lane bridge and repair all the cars.”
With young Nick as the mechanic and operator and his sister Penny as the ticket seller, they re-opened two weeks later and, in typical Laskaris style, were turning away business. By 1977 they bought out Ken and Dennis, and from that point on the Laskaris family conquered Wisconsin Dells.
“We needed more room, so we left that leased property in 1980 and went back to the original property where the hot dog joint was. With those 20 acres we could build a much larger track. We built a cloverleaf for the visual appeal. But Pop made another mistake: the go-karts weren’t powerful enough to make it up the hill, so we had to shut the cloverleaf section of the track. Still, the visual brought people in. Our go-kart riders asked why they couldn’t go up the hill of the cloverleaf, so we just lied that we couldn’t use the hill for insurance reasons. They rode the karts anyway.” More Coney Island wisdom.
“While Pop stumbled into the amusement industry, I think it was already in his blood. He was a simple man in many ways, but he knew entertainment, he knew customers, he knew people. He knew what would work, or if it didn’t work, he knew how to fix it so it would. So we operated for two years with the cloverleaf that nobody could ride, until we lowered the hill so they could. But we were doing turnaway business on that track, whether or not they could ride the hill, and we added two more tracks on that property, in 1983 and 1984.”
Advertising for Big Chief Go-Karts was another gift to the Laskaris family. The amphibious tanks from World War II, named “ducks,” were a very popular attraction at Wisconsin Dells, taking riders in and out of the various waters and swamps around the Dells.
“The duck rides surrounded our property,” Nick says, “and so every three minutes there were 20 people riding a duck, and they would see this very unique go-kart track, so they would ask the duck driver ‘How do we get to that go-kart track?’ They’d ride the ducks and then come over to us.”
Though Big Chief Go-Karts prospered, Nick himself wasn’t particularly crazy about the business. “I was working 10 to 12-hour days, and I hated go-karts. It’s a very rowdy business, go-karts are always breaking down. This was during the Johnson Kart Manufacturing era. The bumpers on those karts would bend so bad until you couldn’t turn the wheel. We used a sledge hammer to straighten out those bent bumpers.”
“Through all this Pop would tell me ‘I don’t ever want you to be a mechanic! As long as you’re doing it for yourself, you’re okay, but not for anyone else. Always work for yourself! Still, our family had found a business that we were successful in, and you don’t walk away from that.”
“Now my sister Penny was much better in school than I was. She was the smart one, and in fact eventually became an attorney. I was the dummy in school, but a natural mechanic. Pop wasn’t paying me or my sister much while we worked for him, but I wanted to make some money too. So starting in 1988 I built all of the go-karts myself, became my own manufacturer. We just had just a little shop, I put in the lathes and the welders, moulded our own bodies and gas tanks. I called our go-karts the ‘Laskari,’ without the ‘S’ on the end to sound like an Italian race car.”
By 1985, the Laskaris family had torn down the original hot dog stand and built a four-level go-kart track, the biggest in Wisconsin Dells. As their fame and fortune grow, so did their opposition.
“Pop was a very proud Greek,” remember Nick. “He’d been captured by the Germans from his village during World War II, escaped, and carried his Greek pride with him. He would always say ‘The Greeks should always be number one,’ and I think his attitude made him some enemies in the Dells. Here was my dad, a foreigner who had come into a community that was controlled by three or four families, and here he was ‘poking’ them, competing with them. The original hot dog stand was acceptable, but Big Chief Go-Karts was something else, beating all the competition.”
The first sign of opposition came when the company running the ducks, who had been providing Big Chief Go-Karts with all that free advertising, decided to change their trails.
“They were definitely trying to do us out of business. Pop responded by purchasing 35 acres right on the strip, and it ended up being the best thing we ever did. The duck company didn’t know it, but they actually did us a favour.”
Around this time Nick was 25 years year old, and beset with his own personal opposition: a brain tumour. It was inoperable, and he was given three months to live. But like his father, Nick was tough, didn’t take no for an answer, and met his opposition head-on.
“I went to Mayo clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, underwent a new type of chemotherapy, a first-time experiment …but what did I have to lose? I signed the release, and the tumour shrunk without any operation other than the biopsy.”
Nick returned in time to open Big Chief Go-Karts on The Wisconsin Dells Strip. This big, new track was extravagant, probably the first track of its kind. The track wound through lush landscapes, went under a waterfall, and was a huge hit, doing more business than the eight tracks on the original property.
“We became the benchmark for go-kart tracks for Wisconsin Dells. In fact, I caught the owners of other tracks on our property measuring our bridges, using our specs. Their parks mimicked our park.”
It was time for Big Chief Go-Karts to up the ante.
The Coaster Cometh
“In 1994 I met Denise and Randy Larrick of Custom Coasters. I’d always wanted to build a rollercoaster, and convinced the Larricks to come to the Dells. Pop disagreed, and he didn’t listen to the increased numbers that coasters always give to parks. Finally he – I was as persistent as he was – and the Larricks looked at our property. They gave us a cheap price for the Cyclops in 1995, $400,000. One train, no transfer track. Our attendance increased about 45%, and we killed our competition. We built Pegasus in 1996, and attendance increased about 20%. In 1997 it was Zeus, another big increase. So my passion for the amusement industry ignited due to the coasters, in a way the go-karts hadn’t. And Pop, with his usual Greek stubbornness, had a hard time admitting he was wrong.”
In 1998, the Laskaris family bought more property, another 28 acres, for $2.8 million, along the Strip.
“While we’d had plenty of acreage, we only had 250 actual frontage feet on the strip. This purchase gave us more frontage than any single property owner along the strip. That allowed us to build our Trojan Horse, giving us the visual we needed on The Strip.”
The go-karts climbed up to and travelled through the hollow cavity of the famous horse from Greek mythology. The next year, 1999, the Laskaris bought out their go-kart neighbours for $4 million, giving them another 25 acres.
With all this success, young Nick still had his battles. The brain tumour returned in 2001, sending him back to the Mayo Clinic. The tumour was removed and Nick went through a stem cell transplant.
“That was the roughest period of my life, getting through the surgery, the chemotherapy, but I recovered well.”
Nick managed to keep the business going, with his parents helping, but now from afar. They had moved to Florida, joining their daughter Penny and her family. But on November 27, 2004, Dimitrius Laskaris died at the age of 63, struck by a car while taking his daily 14-mile walk. Fatoula survived him for exactly four years, joining her husband on November 27, 2008. Their 39-year-old son Nick was now on his own. He carried on.
“I was now the boss, alone, but now I was able to express my vision. I had never liked the Big Chief name – after all, Pop had named our hot dog stand that just because he had the statue – so in appreciation of our family heritage, as well as the theme that we now had with the Trojan Horse, we became Mt Olympus Theme Park. I was thinking about that name for years, but Pop’s response was ‘Would Pepsi ever change their name?’ My mom and sister Penny were against the name change, out of respect for Pop, but I felt it was the right thing to do. I bought out Penny, and not only changed the name of the park, but spent millions on landscaping, concrete sidewalks etc.”
Just Add Water
Also in 2004, Nick entered into an $80 million merger with two other major Wisconsin Dells attractions, the Bay of Dreams indoor waterpark and Family Land outdoor waterpark, both owned by the local Mattei family. “It was the perfect fit,” Nick recalls. “Mt Olympus had been a dry park, but suddenly, with the merger, we had water. Our customers could have fun in any kind of weather.”
As expected, business went up for the combined parks, making more together than they had separately. This continued for three years until Nick, in typical Laskaris fashion, bought out the Mattei family. The same year (2007) he purchased an adjoining 365-room hotel and renamed it Hotel Rome. The Poseidon’s Rage wave pool also opened that year, followed in 2008 by the River Troy raft ride. Mt Olympus Water & Theme Park now had a 3/4-mile-long frontage on the Wisconsin Dells strip, and a total 165 acres.
“Plus we built the Mt Olympus Mall, including the arcade, food stands, and, due mostly to the experience of my wife, the retail stores.”
The beautiful Eva Laskaris (neé Vlahokis) had worked for the women’s clothing store The Limited.
“Eva brought all the retail to Mt Olympus. She understood the market, selling to the crowd, though she learned quickly that she can’t sell fancy dresses and name-brand items at an amusement park. She learned to sell T-shirts!”
Nick and Eva had two daughters, Fotini and Maria, now 11 and 13.
“We make both our girls work like my parents made me work, very hard. They put long days in the retail stores, yet they still get to play with their friends. They enjoy it.”
Does either of them have the amusement industry in her blood?
“Fotini, I think. She seems to understand the wider spectrum of the amusement industry.”
Today, Nick Laskaris, big, likable and humorous, but also tough, confident, determined, and seemingly indomitable, appears mythical in his own right. Does he ever rest?
“Well, my hobby is my work,” he admits, “but still I take vacations. We go to the Bahamas once a year. I haven’t changed running Mt Olympus from the way my father ran Big Chief. Everything is done in-house, our marketing, construction, even the furniture in Hotel Rome.”
The breakneck speed with which Big Chief/Mt Olympus grew seems to have ebbed a bit, with just one addition in 2009, a Sky Coaster concession called Almighty Hermes.
“We’re concentrating more on our marketing and growing wisely,” adds Nick. “With the theme park, the waterpark, and the hotel, we’re offering packages with the smaller parks and hotels. It’s a community effort. It helps both the small properties and us. After all,” Nick shrugs, “we were once small ourselves.”
Night at the Theme Park
While there will be no new rides at Mt Olympus for 2010, an experiment owner Nick Laskaris tried in 2009 will continue. “I took my kids to see the movie Night at the Museum, and they loved it,” he explains. “It gave me an idea to do Night at the Theme Park. We close the park at its normal time of 10pm, and then reopen from 11pm to 2am. We use subdued lighting and moodier music to create a mythological atmosphere, and we have Greek characters roam the park: The Titans, Zeus, Hades and Poseidon. It’s a big hit. And surprisingly, it’s all families, very few if any teenagers.”
Gary Kyriazi is the author The Great American Amusement Parks A Pictorial History and writer/producer America Screams starring Vincent Price, the first book and TV special on amusement parks. He lives in Arizona and has been a writer, researcher, and consultant for the amusement industry for 35 years.
Pictured below (left to right): Eva, Fotina, Maria and Nick Laskaris.