Feature - Fun with Nature - July 2018


Nature-based attractions turn to traditional rides to boost business

by Jim Futrell

In 1998, Steve Beckley realized his dream by purchasing Fairy Caves, located on a mountaintop outside Glenwood Springs, Colorado. He first heard about the cave as a college student and spent 16 years trying to get access to the property and convince the owner to sell it. He thought giving tours would be the perfect small business for him and his wife. But on opening day, more than 500 people showed up; by 2003, 100,000 visitors were arriving annually. Despite increasing capacity at the cave, waits for tours often extended to three hours. Beckley knew he had to increase his offerings to accommodate the growing crowds.

He took inspiration from Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri. Its roots date back to 1950 when Hugo and Mary Herschend leased Marvel Cave in the Ozark Mountains. In 1960, the family complemented the cave with an 1880s Ozark mountain village, which formed the heart of the Silver Dollar City theme park. Today, the park is the flagship of Herschend Family Entertainment, one of the world’s largest attraction operators. 

“The first people who mastered it were at Silver Dollar City,” says Beckley, who notes he often looks there for inspiration.

The story of what is now known as Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park is just one example of a nature-based attraction complementing its core offering with more traditional attractions. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 750 privately owned businesses in the United States are identified as “nature parks and other similar institutions,” a broad classification that includes natural wonder tourist attractions, caverns, waterfalls, nature centers and preserves, and wildlife sanctuaries. They have a wide-ranging appeal by offering a chance to experience something unique and not manmade. 


"Mine Wheel" is a ferris wheel-style ride offered at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, in addition to more than a dozen other attractions. (Credit: Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park)

Build the Business

Glenwood Caverns’ first move to take advantage of its mountain was to install the first Alpine Coaster in North America in 2005. Beckley recalls he had trouble convincing Wiegand Sports GmbH to sell him the ride as Wiegand was concerned with the limited scope of the operation. Beckley ended up flying to Europe to make his case. “That springboarded us to an attraction,” says Beckley, noting that the Alpine Coaster now shares top billing with the cave as the park’s most popular attraction.

Glenwood Caverns has since grown into a full-blown theme park with more than a dozen attractions. In most cases, Beckley has sought to take advantage of the park’s stunning location 7,100 feet above sea level. 

“I became fascinated with figuring out unique ways to entertain,” he says.

Most notable are the S&S Screamin’ Swing and SBF swing rides perched on the edge of a 1,300-foot-tall cliff. “Anytime we can use the cliff to make something special, we do,” Beckley says. Most recently, the park added the world’s only underground drop tower, carving a 110-foot-deep hole into the mountain.

Today, Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park draws more than 200,000 visitors annually, a number Beckley sees exceeding 500,000 as more attractions are added to take advantage of the park’s unique location. “The only way we can compete is to take a standard ride and make it special,” he says.

One of the primary advantages Beckley has seen with his strategy is combining the educational value of the cave tours with a fun experience. It is also critical in driving repeat visitation. “The problem with a cave is how often in a year can you do a cave?” he asks.


 Built in 1929, the Royal Gorge Bridge spans across a 1,000-foot-deep gorge. Today, Royal Gorge Bridge & Park has grown to include a zipline, children's playland, and gondolas. (Credit: Jim Futrell)

Enhance Your Base

While Glenwood Caverns leveraged traditional attractions to evolve into a larger operation, others see them as a way to enhance what they already have. Royal Gorge Bridge & Park has been a popular destination since a bridge was constructed across a 1,000-foot-deep gorge in 1929 near Cañon City, Colorado. As the park evolved, other attractions debuted, including an incline railway in 1931, gondola ride over the gorge in 1969, and a miniature train and carousel. The park added a dozen new attractions between 2000 and 2013, such as a Skycoaster and Soaring Eagle zipline that each suspended riders above the gorge. “We wanted to keep people in the park longer,” says Peggy Gair, public relations manager at the park, noting the park’s desire to double the length of stay to more than four hours.

When a June 2013 brush fire destroyed 90 percent of the park, the management company, HMH Capital Group, saw the opportunity to re-evaluate the facility’s offerings. The park posted on Facebook to see what attractions the guests wanted back, and the gondolas and carousel were the top two mentions. 

As a result, a dedicated children’s area, Tommy Knocker Playland, was one of the first attractions built. In addition to a new carousel, the area features a three-story play area and a splash pad. “We saw a need for things for the kids to do. They are not always enamored with the bridge,” says Gair. 

A gondola ride from Poma was also installed along with a 2,400-foot-long zipline from ZipRider that crosses the gorge. HMH Capital Vice President Brent Hargrave says it’s the highest zipline in North America, and at 15,000 to 20,000 riders annually, it had a one-year payback. Combined with the “Royal Rush Skycoaster,” the “Cloudscraper Zip Line” has made the park a destination for thrillseekers. 

The park will be in the rebuilding stage for the next several years, but Hargrave says its additions will be “educational, of the environment and a family experience.” 

“We want to provide a different way to experience something that was there forever,” he says. “We don’t want a bunch of iron rides.”

Among the Treetops

About 350 miles north of San Francisco in the heart of California’s Redwood Empire is Trees of Mystery. Founded in 1931, the attraction has been drawing visitors with its up-close views of massive redwood and unusually shaped trees with names like the Cathedral Tree, Candelabra Tree, and Elephant Tree. Since acquiring the facility in 1946, the Thompson family increased the size of the operation, adding a 49-foot-tall statue of Paul Bunyan that greets visitors, a Native American museum, a restaurant, and a motel. In 1975, the size of the operation increased from 40 to 120 acres with the purchase of an adjacent parcel containing the Brotherhood Tree, a 300-foot-tall, 20-foot-diameter redwood estimated to be about 3,000 years old.

President John Thompson had long pondered what to do with the property. He briefly considered a flume ride, but the site was too steep. Then his general manager suggested a sky ride. In 2001, Trees of Mystery opened the “SkyTrail,” a 1/3-mile-long Poma gondola ride that transports guests to an observation deck and trail at the top. With towers ranging from 100 to 130 feet tall, the ride transports riders through the tree canopy. 

“It provides a unique perspective of the forest. You can’t get there any other way than being a bird,” says Thompson. 

The addition was an immediate success, more than doubling business to 400,000 visitors annually. But Thompson says the future of the operation is all about the forest and “how to access it, how to experience it.” 

“It’s not about the ride, it’s about the trees,” he says.

A Matter of Survival

For other operators of nature attractions, the addition of traditional rides has a more practical purpose. “It was simply a matter of survival,” says Tom Hagen, owner of Rush Mountain Adventure Park in South Dakota’s Black Hills. 

The site had been an attraction since 1927 when tours were offered of what was then called Hermosa Crystal Caverns. By the time Hagen purchased it in 2008, his major competitors were two caves owned by the National Park Service. Since they were subsidized by the federal government, they were the lowest-priced cave tours in the country. Hagen says his options were dropping his price, maintaining the price and losing market share, or thinking outside the box.

Inspired by Glenwood Caverns, what was now Rushmore Cave added a Soaring Eagle zipline in 2011, hoping it would help the cave business; Rush Mountain recovered its investment in 72 days. The park followed with an interactive Triotech dark ride, and Hagen had a revelation: “We decided doing above-ground attractions is fun!”

In 2016, Rush Mountain added a Wiegand mountain coaster. Attendance went from 52,000 in 2010 to 120,000 in 2017 with about half of those visitors visiting the cave. “The Soaring Eagle boosted the cave business, but it has flattened as other attractions were added,” says Hagen.

A challenge course will debut this year, and Hagen envisions moving into family entertainment center attractions such as an arcade, go-karts, and a laser maze.

Hagen learned several lessons as he expanded into new attractions. He says the purchases need to be inclusive to families, accommodate a wide variety of riders, and not require too many staff members. He has also taken a different view of the weather. As a cave attraction, Hagen wanted extreme weather to drive people to the cave, but now, the park roots for fair weather, as extreme weather hurts business. 

“We are no longer a cave with some attractions—we’re an attractions park with a cave,” he says.

Jim Futrell has been researching the industry for 40 years. He has written extensively on the topic and oversees IAAPA’s Oral History Project. His eighth book “Images of America: Seabreeze Park,” will be released in July.