Sunday, August 31, 2003

Cedar Point stays atop top-park list

Rated best in nation; coaster fans agree

By John Byczkowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

For a guy who runs amusement parks, Dick Kinzel isn't much good at spinning.

Kinzel is CEO of Cedar Fair LP of Sandusky, Ohio, owner of Cedar Point, one of the nation's largest amusement parks. Every other year, the park unveils a tallest or fastest something, setting the standard for parks worldwide.

He's trying to argue that his coasters aren't scary, brushing off suggestions that people are drawn to big rides for the visceral wham of shooting up a rail at 120 mph or of falling 300 feet.

And he's not doing a very good job of it. "They're fun rides," he insists. "They're not rides that really shake you."

Russ Johnson of Dayton, Ohio,just laughs when he hears this. A coaster enthusiast who's ridden more than 200 coasters, Johnson makes the journey to Cedar Point at least twice a year. With 16 coasters and a succession of record-breaking rides, the park is a coaster freak's mecca. "It's pretty much the ultimate place to go," he said.

Florida might have Disney World, but Ohio has Cedar Point - by many measures the nation's largest amusement park, and by one measure, the best. This year, for the sixth year in a row, the park was rated the nation's best amusement park by Amusement Today, a monthly industry publication.

Cedar Point has more rides than any other park. Its 68 rides can move 100,000 people an hour. The park draws 3 million visitors a year to Northeast Ohio.

Gary Slade, publisher of Amusement Today, said the park is spotless and safe, but it's the thrills that keep customers coming back.

• Business: Owns and operates six amusement parks and five waterparks. Major properties include Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, and Knott's Berry Farm near Los Angeles. Also operates Camp Snoopy, an indoor amusement park at the Mall of America.

• Headquarters: Sandusky, Ohio.

• Chief executive: Dick Kinzel, CEO since 1986.

• Employees: 1,400 full time and 10,000 seasonal.

• Ticker/market: FUN/NYSE.

• 52-week high/low: $28.43 (6/3/03)/$20.30 (10/10/02).

• Revenues (2002): $502.8 million.

Profits (2002): $71.4 million.

"Cedar Point will spend the money to put the tallest/longest/fastest stamp on whatever ride they're building because their customer has come to expect it," he said. "They know how to get the right mix of rides to bring the people in. And that's what it's all about - bringing people in the front gate."

Cedar Point is the gem of owner Cedar Fair, a company that has grown to more than $500 million in annual revenue. It owns six amusement parks and five water parks, and operates Camp Snoopy, a 7-acre children's amusement park inside Minnesota's Mall of America. Other major parks include Knott's Berry Farm outside Los Angeles and Dorney Park in Allentown, Pa.

Kinzel has been the company's CEO since 1986 and last year was paid more than $2 million in salary, bonus and stock. He started with the company in 1972 as a food service supervisor. He spent his first day on the job spinning cotton candy for park-goers.

"We have a very simple philosophy, and that's we give the public what they want," he said. And what they've wanted since the mid-1970s is roller coasters that are ever bigger, ever faster.

"Until they tell us that they're not interested in roller coasters and thrill rides, why, we'll continue giving them the same thing."

Cedar Point has had coasters for more than 100 years, but the park's success wasn't always based on those rides. The park opened in 1870 on a 364-acre peninsula jutting into Lake Erie. It was a popular beach with many resorts, accessible only by steamboat. The first roller coaster, the Switchback Railway, debuted in 1892.

The park lost money until it was bought in 1897 by George Arthur Boeckling, an Indiana railway executive who envisioned it as a destination for rail travelers. Over the next several decades, he built up the park in every way, adding gardens, rides and the famous Hotel Breakers, which was built in 1905 and is still there today.

By the 1950s, however, the park's popularity waned. Two businessmen, George Roos of Toledo and Emile Legros of Cleveland, led a group of investors who bought the park in 1956, intending to raze it and build homes. When the state threatened to take the peninsula by eminent domain so it would remain a park, Roos and Legros decided they would keep it as an amusement park. Early investments paid off, and in 1960, inspired by the success of Disneyland in California, they announced they'd invest $16 million to make Cedar Point a major attraction.

The park grew through the 1960s as more rides and attractions were added. The turning point for Cedar Point - and the rest of the amusement park industry - came in 1976. That year, Cedar Point unveiled the Corkscrew, a $1.75 million steel roller coaster that turned riders upside down an unprecedented three times.

Attendance ballooned. "That took us from about 2.5 million to over 3 million in one year," Kinzel said. "That started the roller coast craze here at Cedar Point."

New coasters set new landmarks, in height, speed and cost:

• Gemini opened in 1978 at a cost of $3.4 million. With a big hill of 125 feet, it was the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world.

• Magnum XL-200, the world's first 200-foot-tall coaster, opened in 1989. Costing $8 million, it was also the first to travel more than 70 mph.

• Millennium Force, the world's first 300-foot-tall coaster, opened in 2000. It cost $25 million and reaches a speed of 93 mph.

• This year brought the first 400-foot-tall coaster, Top Thrill Dragster, a $25 million coaster that shoots riders down a rail at 120 mph and up a 420-foot hill.

Kinzel won't discuss what comes next, only acknowledging that Cedar Point needs a new, major ride about every other year.

"It's a pretty capital-intensive business," he said. "We have to give people a reason to come back. We look to try to keep Cedar Point the premier amusement park in the United States."

Johnson agrees. Other parks boast great coasters, and Six Flags Magic Mountain in Los Angeles has 16 coasters, as many as Cedar Point. But, he said, he's been disappointed on trips to other parks when he finds coasters aren't working that day. At Cedar Point, he'll almost always find all 16 coasters up and running, he said.

"It's my favorite park," Johnson said. "They have the best staff. It's friendly and clean. It's got everything Disney World has, but better rides."

Amusement Today's Slade said other parks can build big coasters, but none can match Cedar Point's diversity. With 68 rides, "there is truly something for everyone at Cedar Point. If you don't like roller coasters, there's a lot of other things to do," he said.

Though the emphasis is on the rides, Kinzel said, "we also have 1,400 hotel rooms, a marina, a camper village; we've got cottages and cabins; we've got two TGI Friday's."

For next year, the park is expanding campgrounds and building an indoor water park, to try to keep people coming year round.


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