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Family-owned attractions - November 2016


by Jim Futrell

Perhaps it’s the geographic isolation. Maybe it’s the rainy weather. It could be the freewheeling frontier spirit. But whatever the reason, the attractions industry in the Pacific Northwest region of North America has a personality like no other. 

While it shares a common heritage with most of the industry (family-owned operations dominated much of the mid-20th century), this region’s family businesses set themselves apart by often overseeing multiple operations at once. A single family may have run an amusement park, operated rides at fairgrounds, and even dabbled in manufacturing its own products.

While these families are now historical footnotes, their legacies remain not only in their surviving facilities, but with a new generation of families who continue to thrive.

Oaks Amusement Park: A Walk Through Time

Along the shores of the Willamette River, just south of downtown Portland, Oaks Amusement Park has been hosting visitors since 1905. The second oldest amusement park in the western United States, Oaks was built by the Oregon Water Power and Railway Company, making it one of 11 trolley parks still in operation.

In 1925, Oaks was acquired by Edward Bollinger, who had worked there since it opened. The Bollingers were the first family of the Pacific Northwest attractions industry and at one point had interests in three amusement parks, permanent rides at three fairgrounds, and one of the country’s largest carnivals. In 1985, Edward’s son, Robert Bollinger, turned ownership over to a nonprofit trust, the Oaks Park Association, with the charge of forever keeping it an amusement park.

The 44-acre facility remains a beloved institution with approximately 900,000 guests annually enjoying a sprawling picnic grove under towering oak trees. There are 23 rides, including a 1911 Herschell-Spillman Noah’s Ark Carousel, and a historic Dance Pavilion that is a popular year-round venue.

Oaks’ most popular attraction is the roller rink, which dates back to 1905 and is considered the oldest continuously operating roller rink in the United States. A massive Wurlitzer organ is suspended above the hardwood floor, which is designed to float in the event the Willamette River floods (as it has several times in the past). 

According to Senior Manager Mary Beth Coffey, the nonprofit designation was “a call to action to be part of our community,” one that guides the park’s strategy. “Our focus is families, but there are many ways to talk about families now-a-days,” she adds, citing how Oaks targets diverse audiences. While group outings remain important—the park hosts 800 to 900 picnics annually—events range from charity walks to even a handful of funerals. One of the more successful promotions is “Preschool Mornings,” where preschoolers and their parents enjoy the park’s kiddie rides, along with story time and refreshments, two days a week before the park opens. Up to 500 kids attend each day.


Playland: Entertaining Vancouver Since 1958

The Bollinger family influence also extends to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where Robert Bollinger was part of Burrard Amusements, the group that opened Playland in 1958 as part of the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) fairgrounds. While Playland and the PNE are owned by the city, they are governed by an independent board of directors.

According to Vice President of Operations Jeff Strickland, Playland has three distinct operating seasons. During its 100-day summer season, the park attracts approximately 380,000 people. The 15-day fair, where it is part of the midway, attracts 800,000, while a 17-day “Fright Nights” event in the fall brings in 80,000. “We are very regional. Most visitors live within 30 minutes of the park,” says Strickland.

The centerpiece of Playland remains the “Coaster,” a 75-foot-tall twisting wooden roller coaster built in 1958 by Carl Phare, who in addition to building coasters in the region also operated an amusement park outside Seattle. The “Coaster,” recognized as a historic landmark, remains the most popular of Playland’s 30 rides.

Several years ago, Playland hired design firm Forrec to develop a master plan for the facility. The firm found Playland was underperforming given the size of the market; the proper investment would allow it to penetrate much deeper into the region and become a destination.

As a result, Playland is in the initial stages of a 16-year, C$79 million makeover that would add more greenery, improve existing park infrastructure, bring in more permanent and aesthetically pleasing rides, and expand the footprint from 16 to 22 acres. While the overall concept is still in development, the plan is already guiding capital investments including the “Beast,” North America’s first KMG XXL pendulum ride, which debuted in 2015. Strickland says the plan should grow annual revenue from C$12 to C$27 million and attendance from 380,000 to 630,000 while reinforcing the park’s position as a local icon. “It’s a beloved piece of Vancouver,” he says.


Wild Waves: Newer Park, Deep Heritage

Outside Tacoma, Washington, Wild Waves opened in 1977 as a 12-acre storybook attraction named Enchanted Village. It was developed by Byron Betts, a second-generation park operator, continuing a family legacy that included amusement parks and roller rinks throughout the Seattle area.

In 1984, Betts supplemented the kiddie-oriented amusement park with Wild Waves, one of the region’s first water parks. He sold the facility to Jeff Stock in 1991, who combined the two parks. In 2000, it was caught up in the park consolidation wave and was purchased by Six Flags for $19 million. While it never carried the Six Flags name, the company did launch a $25 million expansion that added a dozen attractions, including the first wooden roller coaster to be built in Washington since the 1940s.

In 2007, the facility was sold to CNL Income Properties. CNL brought Stock back in 2011 to manage the now 70-acre facility, returning it to local control. Wild Waves General Manager Todd Suchan, who first started working at the park when the Betts family owned it, says Stock missed being involved in the park. “It was kind of a homecoming,” Suchan says.

Initially, the new management team focused on upgrading the existing facilities; much of the investment replaced aging water slides. But now Stock is looking to reemphasize the amusement park portion of the operation. “We are thought of as a water park with rides,” says Suchan. “We are trying to balance that. We need a big piece of iron as a draw.” A major attraction is planned in the next three to five years, he says.

Due to the water park, teens account for a large part of Wild Waves’ customer base. Suchan says the park offers discounted tickets online early in the season as a way to induce families with young kids to try out the park.


Enchanted Forest: A Walk in the Woods

The singular nature of the attractions industry in this region extends beyond the legacy of the original families, touching others who have a comparatively new presence. Outside Oregon’s state capital, Salem, just off Interstate 95, is Enchanted Forest. According to founder Roger Tofte, his inspiration was the lack of roadside attractions in the region similar to those he frequented on family vacations.

In 1964, while still working full time at the state highway department, Tofte started carving a path along a wooded 25-acre property. For the next seven years, he toiled evenings and weekends to bring his dream to life, erecting a series of storybook-themed attractions. 

The small park opened in August 1971; by Oct. 15, 500 people had trekked through the fledgling facility. In the first full season in 1972, attendance exceeded 80,000, and since that time, the story of the park has been one of continuous growth—nearly all of which springs from the imagination of Roger Tofte.

A Western town and haunted house followed in 1974, then came the “Ice Mountain” ride in 1983. Conceived as a bobsled-type attraction, it was originally outfitted with a fiberglass track and skateboard wheels on the cars, but was later converted to a traditional roller coaster. Other recent attractions include a log flume, an English Village, and the “Challenge of Mondor” dark ride.

Today, the park attracts 150,000 to 200,000 people annually. Tofte considers families with preteen children and grandparents to be his core audience, but tries to appeal to everyone. He is joined in the operation by nine other family members.


Remlinger Farms: A New Entrant in Agritourism

One of the newest entrants to the region’s attractions industry is Remlinger Farms, outside Seattle. Remlinger Farms represents one of the new trends in the attractions industry—agritourism—where farms add attractions. The business began as a roadside produce stand in 1965, operated by Gary and Bonnie Remlinger. They expanded into self-pick crops and soon realized they needed to diversify the operation—not only to keep people longer, but to expand the revenue stream. “You can’t survive on crops alone, unless you’re growing for the major food companies,” says co-owner Will Hart, the Remlingers’ son-in-law.

By 1980, a former corn packing plant and warehouse was -converted into a farmers market and restaurant, while an amusement park opened at the site. Today, the park represents the largest part of the operation, due to its six-week “Harvest Festival” each fall that generates one-third of Remlinger Farms’ revenues. Featuring a dozen kiddie and family rides, the park’s core market is young moms with kids under 11. The amusement park attracts about 125,000 guests annually.

While Remlinger Farms focused on growth initially, the strategy now emphasizes improving existing operations. “We’re very happy with the size of the business,” Hart says.