Tuesday, May 28, 2002

LeSourdsville Lake banks on nostalgia

Owner believes old park can make comeback

By Randy McNutt rmcnutt@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MONROE — It sits between the Great Miami River and Ohio 4 in Butler County, defying time and the suburban growth boom all around it. Now a new owner hopes to defy the odds. The renamed LeSourdsville Lake, the Great American Amusement Park, will reopen in June, trying to find a profitable niche with a throwback approach in an industry dominated by Goliaths such as Paramount's Kings Island.

Mike Mefford, the park's marketing director, stands at the new Zipper ride near one of the park's old roller coasters.
(Michael Snyder photos)
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        Owner Jerry Couch is unabashedly optimistic about his chances with the local icon. And some industry experts say he's on the right track.

        “All kinds of people tell me they had their prom here or a memorable family outing,” says Mr. Couch, a Butler County entrepreneur who grew up going to LeSourdsville Lake. “A couple told me they were married here 50 years ago. The park has quite a tradition.”

        The park, founded 80 years ago as LeSourdsville Lake, offers nostalgic appeal as it attempts a long-shot comeback in an era of super-roller coasters and futuristic virtual reality rides.

        Mr. Couch says the park will serve families, groups and individuals seeking a lower-cost alternative to parks like Kings Island.

        That's a good strategy for a smaller park, said Joel Cliff of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, a trade group in Arlington, Va.

        “Small parks attract local people, not tourists,” he said. “They offer lower prices. There's a difference between destination parks and drive-in parks. Drive-in parks (such as LeSourdsville Lake) seem recession-resistant.”

        Mr. Couch, a St. Clair Township camper dealer, leased the park to Pugh Shows of Lancaster, Ohio. The new team, which will keep the park open Thursdays through Sundays, is rushing to hire 250 to 300 employees. Mr. Couch says some already are on board.

The Screechin' Eagle roller coaster was built in 1927 for another Ohio park and moved to LeSourdsville in 1938.
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        “It's like going back to the beginning,” Mr. Couch says. “The rain has killed us, but we will rejuvenate the place and do it right when we do reopen.”

        Park officials plan to reopen either June 6 or June 13.

        Tim O'Brien, a writer for Amusement Business, a Nashville-based news weekly for the amusement park industry, says the effort will be a tough test for the new management.

        “The Pugh family ran one of the best carnivals in the country,” he said. “Now, whether they know how to run an amusement park is another matter. You have to maintain relationships and loyalty. That's a lot more difficult than just advertising and saying, "Come and get us.' They have to provide something that nobody else can — short lines and lower prices. But the Pughs know how to maintain rides, so it will be a clean, safe park.

        “I think people are ready for the park to open again. The only thing that will keep that park going is people. They will be the best advertising.”

        LeSourdsville Lake won't compete with Kings Island, said Harrison Price of Palm Springs, Calif., a consultant to the attractions business for 50 years.

        “It's a different product, a different market, a different experience,” he said. “I've seen small parks on the laps of major enterprises drawing a million a year. Small parks are 40 percent of business in terms of attendance. It's a niche market and it can work.”

Strategic pricing

        It helps that LeSourdsville Lake evokes feelings of nostalgia in Butler and Warren counties. The Screechin' Eagle, a rough-and-tumble roller coaster built in 1927, is engraved in the memories of people from 17 to 87.

        Among 40 park rides, 10 new ones will include the Swinging Pirate Ship, the Zipper (a rotating ride) and an old-fashioned “fun house.”

        Admission will be $2.95 per person. Visitors will “pay as they play,” with most ride and game tickets costing $1 and a few major rides $2. All-ride passes will cost $14.95, and $9.95 after 4 p.m.

        Jeffrey Siebert, a spokesman for Kings Island, wishes LeSourdsville success. “Obviously, there's room for many parks in this area,” he said. “The Cincinnati marketplace has welcomed a number of different parks.”

        In the 20th century, in fact, the region supported a dozen or so amusement parks, according to Scott Fowler, a local writer and park enthusiast who's writing a book on the Berni family, owners of LeSourdsville Lake for decades. Mr. Fowler co-founded the Southwest Ohio Amusement Park Historical Society, a non-profit group dedicated to preserving the memories of parks in the region.

        He says they've included Chester Park (Cincinnati), Pee Wee Park (Evendale), Fairview Park (Dayton), Frankie's Forest Park (Dayton), Kissel Brothers Park (Colerain Township), Lakeside (Dayton) and Woodsdale Island Park (Middletown). LeSourds ville even once had a smaller competitor, Fantasy Farm, next door.

Happy memories

        Mr. Couch has happy memories of LeSourdsville Lake. When he bought it in May 2000 he vowed to reopen a new Stardust Gardens, the park's legendary dance hall, where big bands once played while couples danced summer evenings away. He has restored another old building near the park's entrance and renamed it Stardust Gardens.

  • 1922: Edgar Streifthau opens LeSourdsville Lake for swimming, camping and boating.
  • 1960: Mr. Streifthau sells his interest in the park and starts developing Fantasy Farm Amusement Park next to LeSourdsville.
  • 1972: Kings Island, a theme park, opens in Warren County.
  • 1974: Some 5,000 Teamsters consume 44 barrels of beer at a LeSourdsville Lake picnic.
  • 1975: Attendance tops 600,000, one of the biggest years in the park's recent history.
  • 1975: Despite inflationary pressures, LeSourdsville Lake maintains a 50-cent entrance fee, compared with Kings Island's $7.
  • 1978: Park changes its name to Americana.
  • 1996: Americana sold to Park River Corp., owners of Coney Island.
  • 1999: Americana purchased by Jerry Couch, a St. Clair Township camper dealer.
  • 2002: Park to re-open under the name LeSourdsville Lake.
        “We've stripped it all down to the original wood and decor,” he said. “Stardust will be a banquet hall and other things. We'll have old park photos on the walls to remember the glory days.”

        Those came in the 1950s and '60s, when founder Edgar Streifthau, a Middletown businessman and motorcycle manufacturer, operated the park. By the time he sold his interest in 1960, LeSourdsville Lake had become a busy Tristate attraction.

        But Mr. Streifthau wasn't finished. He opened Fantasy Farm, a small amusement park geared to young families, with animals and a motel next to LeSourdsville Lake.

        After several changes in ownership and the opening of Kings Island in 1972, LeSourdsville Lake floundered. Inflation hurt business. Insurance costs rose. More people drifted to the Eiffel Tower. In 1990, fire destroyed Stardust Gardens and an arcade with food stands, causing $4 mil lion in damage.

        By 1999, Americana attracted more than 300,000 people. That's less than one-tenth of Kings Island's annual gate. Though they had invested $4 million improving the park after buying it in 1996, Park River Corp. closed Americana after the '99 season.

Bullish on profits

        But Mr. Couch thinks LeSourdsville Lake can be profitable again.

        “It will fill a much-needed void,” he said. “Time will bring it back. We'll extend the season longer into the fall to make up for lost time.”

        Of the nation's estimated 450 amusement parks, Mr. Cliff said, only 50 attract more than a million visitors annually. With about 40 rides, LeSourdsville Lake is larger than many parks but still small by megapark standards.

        Smaller means intimate — and memorable. So revered is the park that fans have an unofficial Internet site at www.americanaamusementpark.com, featuring photographs, details of rides and reminiscences from dozens of satisfied customers.

        Ben Botts of Sarasota, Fla., wrote that the sand on LeSourdsville's old swimming beach was as white as sugar.

        “Every Friday our gang from the class of '45 gathered there and listened to some great bands, danced to some great songs and drank some of the best beer there ever was,” he said.

        Patricia Foster and her friends from Carlisle and Franklin went to the park every Friday and Saturday night to see big-name rock performers — the Four Seasons, Bobby Vinton, the Young Rascals — at Stardust Gardens.

        “We saw a lot of rock-and-roll singers there,” she said. “It was a wholesome, fun place for teens to hang out on the weekends. A friend and I once rode the roller coaster 17 times in a row one summer.”

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