Cedar Fair Writes a New Book - April 2016

How one of the largest operators in the world is reshaping the experience it delivers to guests

By Jeremy Schoolfield

On a crisp, sunny morning in mid-October of last year, a group of Cedar Fair executives pile into the “Thunder Run” mine train at Canada’s Wonderland. After they sit down and secure their lap bars, they don virtual-reality headsets—essentially a massive pair of goggles attached to a Samsung smartphone that fills their fields of vision with a digital image.

Mere moments later, these industry veterans are howling with delight as the experience on this 35-year-old family ride turns on its head. The VR Coaster system—a collaboration between Mack Rides and EMIS—syncs a digital movie to the movements of the train, allowing riders to feel the physical sensations of a coaster while tricking their brains into thinking they’re traveling through an imaginary world. Mack Rides says this is a way to breathe new life into older rides; judging by the reactions this morning, that’s absolutely true.

Canada’s Wonderland, located in the Toronto suburbs, experimented with this cutting-edge technology in limited capacity during the 2015 season, but Cedar Fair President and CEO Matt Ouimet wanted to experience it first hand. After taking a few spins on “Thunder Run” behind those goggles, he’s convinced the system works—but does it work to scale? He wants to see more testing in 2016 before a decision is made. Whether Cedar Fair ever fully embraces the VR Coaster concept or not, it’s the mere willingness to try that signifies how much the company’s changed under Ouimet’s leadership.

“The full management team has taken a step back and treated the guest experience as a blank page. We started over,” says Rob Decker, Cedar Fair’s senior vice president of planning and design, who’s been with the company since 1999. “When Matt came in, it was a fresh start for many of us.”

It’s obvious Ouimet has good rapport with his staff. He’s quick to joke with them and is effusive in his praise for their work, but also gives firm correction when he sees something he doesn’t like. He’s proud that most of his top executives were already with the company when he arrived—he just moved them into some new roles.

He seems to be pushing all the right buttons, because 2015 marked the company’s sixth consecutive year of record profits and growth from its 11 regional amusement parks and three water parks across North America. He’s “extremely optimistic” about the prospects for 2016, too, with a another record-breaking roller coaster going in at Cedar Point—the company’s flagship park in Sandusky, Ohio—as well as a revamped wooden coaster reopening at Knott’s Berry Farm in California, and two brand-new media-based attractions debuting at parks on both coasts.

“We’re not in a new chapter for Cedar Fair—we’re in a new book,” Ouimet says. “The last few years have been about proving this management team could do well with the assets we inherited. There’s at least a whole other book to be written now.”

A ‘House of Brands’
Ouimet became Cedar Fair’s president in June 2011 as part of a transitional period between himself and former president and CEO Dick Kinzel, who retired after 40 years with the company. By the time Ouimet was fully installed as president and CEO in January 2012, he was already making his mark.

Ouimet acknowledges Cedar Fair is a “house of brands,” where each park has its own unique relationship to its customer base, which can be quite different from one another. He wanted to better understand what makes current and potential customers tick, so in November 2011 he launched a market-research study to examine each park in the system, one at a time.

To facilitate this massive undertaking, in February 2012 Ouimet hired a former Disney colleague, Kelley Semmelroth, as executive vice president and chief marketing officer—a new position for Cedar Fair. Semmelroth specializes in brand strategy and customer relationship management, or CRM, and so for the past four years she’s been diving deep into guest data and studying the markets surrounding four of Cedar Fair’s largest parks, starting with Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California—just a stone’s throw from Disneyland.

“Each of our parks has their own story to tell, their own personalities and experiences,” Semmelroth says. “We had to understand and define each park’s identity, and what their brand promise is going to be to their market.”

Knott’s Berry Farm’s promise, Semmelroth discovered, is to provide a unique Southern California experience for its guests, “where fun comes easy.”

“We had definitely lost our identity out there. Folks didn’t know what we were anymore, and they stopped going,” she says of Knott’s, which joined the Cedar Fair system in 1997 and is approaching its centennial in 2020. “It’s not a thrill park, necessarily—this one is more about celebrating California’s roots.”

In 2013 and 2014, Knott’s didn’t install any flashy new roller coasters. Instead, it lovingly refurbished its classic log flume and mine ride, while also spending time and money on various beautification projects throughout the park. 2015’s “Voyage to the Iron Reef” dark ride was the capper, an immersive, interactive experience whose story was built around the park’s iconography. All of these improvements came straight out of the market research, company officials say; it’s likely no coincidence, then, that last year also proved to be Knott’s Berry Farm’s most successful in its history.

“We now know what Knott’s is, and we can stay true to that,” Semmelroth says. “It is Southern California’s theme park, and we just needed to embrace that and be who we were meant to be.”

Cedar Fair learned much the same from its research into Carowinds, which calls Charlotte, North Carolina, home but has the unique claim to fame of straddling the border between North and South Carolina. Despite multiple ownership changes since its founding in 1973, Carowinds always found strength in playing to the local market; like Knott’s, the park drifted away from that dynamic in recent years.

“The only two things that North and South Carolinians really share are a football team and Carowinds,” says Semmelroth, who now works out of Cedar Fair’s Charlotte office. “So we knew how powerful the Carowinds brand is to the marketplace, and people said it’s where the Carolinas come together. It was clear to us there was a lot of emotional connection to the park.”

Cedar Fair used the 2015 debut of the park’s new giga coaster, “Fury 325,” as a platform to tell its customers Carowinds was going back to its roots. “We looked at everything—the music, the food, how people are greeted when they arrive at the park,” Semmelroth says. This market research also played a role in the rebranding and relaunch of Carowinds’ water park, which will open this year as Carolina Harbor and feature attractions that all honor the region.

Cedar Point’s study demonstrated it had no issues with brand identity as the “Roller Coaster Capital of the World”; improvements there were about taking the park “to the next level,” Semmelroth says. Consider the dramatically refurbished Hotel Breakers the first phase of that plan. She says the market research on Canada’s Wonderland just concluded, and those results are factoring into plans for 2016 and beyond, even as Semmelroth’s team moves on to its next park.

Digital Development
In addition to market research, Cedar Fair conducted a “gap analysis” for each park, Ouimet says, with the goal of better balancing the attraction mix across the system. While giant coasters such as “Fury 325” and the forthcoming “Valravn” at Cedar Point demonstrate the company will never stray too far from its bread and butter, recent investments show a new side to Cedar Fair’s attraction development.

“Our vocal interest and adoption of digital entertainment into the amusement park business got everybody’s heads to pop up,” Ouimet says, referring to “Wonder Mountain’s Guardian” at Canada’s Wonderland (2014), and “Voyage to the Iron Reef.” Both of those rides use Triotech’s interactive gaming system and were Cedar Fair’s first forays into media-based dark rides. The company will take another step further into that realm in 2016 with two theater-based experiences themed to popular videogame franchises: California’s Great America receives a “4-D holographic experience” themed to “Mass Effect,” while Carowinds opens an interactive, team-based game in a special-effects theater themed to “Plants vs. Zombies.”

These two new attractions also mark Cedar Fair’s first licensed intellectual properties (IP) outside of the Peanuts franchise since Ouimet joined the company, signaling a slight shift in philosophy for him: “I still don’t think we need IP for a roller coaster, because it’s so intuitive and markets itself. Where I had to cross over is when an attraction is digitally based—dark rides are hard for us to market without intellectual property. When I say ‘Plants vs. Zombies,’ people get it right away.”

These digital attractions are also more cost-efficient from a capital perspective, says CFO Brian Witherow, whose been with the company for more than 20 years. Not only are they a third the cost of a steel roller coaster (or less), but their content can change at a moment’s notice—for relatively little money—to extend the rides’ lifespans.

Ouimet says the biggest challenge with these media-based attractions is taking them to scale for parks that can draw 50,000 guests per day: “I’m not sure we’ve found the sweet spot yet. If you can do it in your home or in your neighborhood, that shouldn’t be a product we provide at our parks. Ours has to be differentiated in scale, but that is really hard to pull off. We will learn more this year, but it’s a tough tension point.”

“We think there’s a bigger role for digital attractions in our future,” concurs COO Richard Zimmerman, a 30-year industry veteran. “We’re trying to figure it out like everybody else, so we’re testing a lot of different concepts.”

‘Food and Beverage Is a Core Part of the Guest Experience’

No matter how many spectacular new roller coasters or dark rides Cedar Fair installs, there will still be a subset of guests who are non-riders—grandparents, young children, or people who just don’t feel like launching from 0 to 120 mph in four seconds. In the past, Cedar Fair parks didn’t cater to these individuals as much as they are now, officials say, starting with the dining options each park offers.

“Food and beverage is a core part of the guest experience—that’s one of the things that’s meaningfully changed for us over the last few years,” Witherow says.

Cedar Fair began a food-quality initiative in 2012; Ouimet wasn’t going to lower food prices in the parks, but he felt the company could do a better job in the culinary experiences it delivers for those prices.

“We’ve aligned resources behind [F&B],” Zimmerman affirms. “We’ve put higher-level chefs in almost all of our parks, and we’ve been able to upgrade the totality of our guest experience.”

In 2014, for example, Carowinds unveiled Harmony Hall, an indoor cafeteria-style eatery offering food with a “home-cooked” feel beyond the traditional amusement-park fare of burgers and chicken fingers. Cedar Fair also rolled out all-day and season-long dining plans; Zimmerman says the latter has already started changing the way guests “use the park,” such as season-pass holders stopping by simply for a meal like they would any normal restaurant. “It’s stepping more toward an all-inclusive environment,” he says.

“We want this to be a place to have fun, and food is associated with having fun,” Ouimet adds.

ICYMI: The Power of Seasonal Events
Cedar Fair’s commitment to higher food quality dovetails with another of its major new initiatives: seasonal events.

Recently the company launched food-themed multi-week festivals on both coasts—the “Boysenberry Festival” at Knott’s and “Taste of the Carolinas” at Carowinds. Officials say events like these drive urgency in the customer base and bring additional value to season passes.

“One of the things we’re finding—especially with millennials—is there’s this fear of missing out,” says Semmelroth. “So, if we can create that feeling and make sure there’s something special going on at the park for a limited time, that drives urgency to visit and gives us an advantage. Having these events early in the season gets people off the couch and back into the park.”

With “Knott’s Scary Farm” as the chain’s progenitor, Cedar Fair’s Halloween business remains highly successful (“Our biggest Saturdays of the year are always during October,” Zimmerman notes). The company is now investing capital dollars each year to build permanent maze structures in some of its parks. At Canada’s Wonderland, for example, there are two standing mazes on the ground floor of Wonder Mountain.

“The cost—in terms of seasonal labor dollars—to put those mazes up and down adds up over the years,” Witherow says. “If we can make that a permanent structure and use it for storage during the non-haunt season, it’s very cost-efficient and a better product.”

Cedar Fair is now looking past Halloween to the Christmas season, as well. Again using Knott’s and its “Merry Farm” festival as a template, the company will roll out “WinterFest” in 2016 at California’s Great America, with additional “WinterFests” planned for 2017.

Ouimet says all of these seasonal activities make Cedar Fair parks feel more dynamic: “We are a business that basically shuts down and reopens. We’re not in your psyche six months of the year, so if we’re not careful, the park experience looks static.”

Extended Stays
As Cedar Fair undertakes all these new initiatives to improve the guest experience, it’s also looking beyond the borders of the parks. Expect to see more emphasis on resort accommodations at the company’s properties as officials seek to extend guest stays and expand upon the idea of what it means to visit their parks.

The template for such improvements is the aforementioned Hotel Breakers, the century-old hotel at Cedar Point that underwent a dramatic refurbishment prior to the 2015 season. “We got a little lazy in reinvesting back into that property,” Witherow says. “It was no longer Cedar Point-quality, and we knew we had to fix it.”

Hotel Breakers features newly out­fitted rooms, a new lounge in its five-story rotunda (including a Starbucks), an expanded pool deck, a new water-play area, the new Surf Lounge bar, as well as special-event space and entertainment out on the Lake Erie beach—something Ouimet’s wanted since joining the company.

Cedar Fair owns three other hotels at Cedar Point, plus one at Knott’s Berry Farm; in addition, there are campgrounds at Carowinds, Cedar Point, Kings Dominion in Virginia, and Worlds of Fun in Missouri. The success Breakers experienced in 2015—both in terms of reservation numbers and guest feedback—has company officials re-examining the rest of their portfolio.

“The success of Hotel Breakers this past season reinforced there’s value in resort accommodations for us—maybe more than we were giving ourselves credit for,” Witherow says. “We’re in the process right now of reviewing with our management teams and board of directors a more aggressive look at the accommodation side of our business. You’ll see us continue to focus on it over the next several years.”

The New Book
If Cedar Fair truly is writing a new book as Ouimet says, the preface was composed over the past couple seasons with all of these new initiatives and attractions.

“We were previously defined by how tall or how fast. We’ve now broadened our spectrum of innovation,” Ouimet says. “There are things we’ll do to make the guest experience better that may not market as easily as a new roller coaster, but the ultimate filter is: Do we think it’s going to be fun?”

“Our future is in our own hands to define,” adds Zimmerman. “Let’s go be who we are. If we do that, I think the future will be bright.”

Meet the Cedar Fair Executives Interviewed for this Story

Matt Ouimet, President and CEO

Ouimet joined Cedar Fair in June 2011 as president, then became CEO in January 2012. He spent 17 years with The Walt Disney Company, where he served as president of Disney Cruise Line and president of the Disneyland Resort, among other roles.

Richard Zimmerman, COO

Zimmerman was GM of Kings Dominion in Virginia when the park was purchased in 2006 by Cedar Fair; afterward, he was promoted first to regional vice president and then executive vice president before named COO in 2011.

Ouimet on Zimmerman: “No better operator in the industry, period. Much of what we’ve accomplished, he started before I got here.”

Brian Witherow, Executive Vice President and CFO

Witherow has been with Cedar Fair for 21 years. Prior to becoming CFO in 2012, corporate roles included controller, treasurer, and director of investor relations.

Ouimet on Witherow: “A great partner for all of us who always asks the key questions.”

Kelly Semmelroth, Executive Vice President and CMO

Semmelroth joined Cedar Fair as chief marketing officer in 2012. Her experience spans 25 years in marketing and customer relationship management roles for TD Bank, Bank of America, and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

Ouimet on Semmelroth: “Kelley is part scientist, part artist, and part mind reader.”

Rob Decker, Senior Vice President, Planning and Design

Decker joined Cedar Fair in 1999 as director of planning and design. He was promoted to senior vice president in 2002, where he guides all new physical projects across the company, from rides to accommodations to placemaking within the parks and more.

Ouimet on Decker: “‘Deckerating’ is the internal term used for Rob’s influence on the placemaking surrounding our major new rides.”

Game Point

Cedar Fair President and CEO Matt Ouimet feels the attractions industry has been a bit behind the times in its licensing of videogame brands. For decades, he says, our business has used films and TV shows to produce rides and shows, while gaming—a huge portion of the entertainment spectrum—went largely untapped. Ouimet points to Universal Parks & Resorts recently acquiring the rights to Nintendo and Cedar Fair partnering with Electronic Arts for new theater-based attractions in 2016 as signs of a shift.

“The industry is starting to recognize if you want a story or a marketing leverage point, you don’t have to just go to the movies,” he says.

Refurbished Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant Reopens this Spring

In accordance with its market research on Knott’s Berry Farm and its commitment to upgrade culinary experiences at all its parks, Cedar Fair is dramatically refurbishing Knott’s Berry Farm’s iconic dining locale.

This spring, Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant will reopen with all-new … everything (except the recipes). Furniture, flooring, lighting, decor—it’s all being updated and enhanced, including a large dining room evoking a look “inspired by
Mrs. Knott’s kitchen pantry.” There will be new outdoor seating, a new lobby, a casual bar, and more.

“We are going back behind the studs in the walls,” says Cedar Fair President and CEO Matt Ouimet, dubbing it “a complete renovation.”