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Miniature Golf - July 2016

As miniature golf turns 100, Funworld shares trends and tips for a thoroughly modern experience

by Mike Bederka

Barnacle Bill’s miniature golf felt the full fury of Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. Smack in the crosshairs, the Ortley Beach, New Jersey, course suffered almost total destruction from the torrents of rain and violent wind, except for its namesake mascot—a towering fiberglass statue in storage at the time.

The owners, however, knew despite the monumental task at hand, shuttering the 50-year-old institution for good wouldn’t be an option. In fact, they wanted to reopen before the end of May 2013. To do otherwise would disappoint legions of longtime local customers and tourists.

Yes, these owners wanted to resurrect businesses wiped away by Mother Nature. But, more importantly, they felt the return of miniature golf—a community pillar—would help bring back some much-needed sanity and normalcy to the area, says Bob Lahey, vice president of business development for Harris Miniature Golf, the Wildwood, New Jersey, company hired to rebuild Barnacle Bill’s and many other ravaged courses.

“Mini-golf is a part of people’s lives,” he says.

Someone could have easily uttered that sentiment decades ago. Mini-golf, a game that has united countless friends, families, couples, and coworkers for generations, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

While simple at its core, mini-golf courses (like most attractions) have added novel wrinkles over the years to help generate additional business and attract new audiences.

As the industry celebrates this milestone, Funworld looks forward at some of the trends and industry shifts that might impact the game for the next 100 years:

Familiar Faces

Larger hotel chains, cruise ships, and other spacious venues have started to integrate licensed products into their courses, says Arne Lundmark, CEO and chief designer for Adventure Golf Services in Traverse City, Michigan. The fees and royalties involved would likely preclude many mom-and-pop operations from joining in on this development, but including these characters brings a familiar theming element that augments the overall guest experience.

Brand Awareness

Rather than thrusting guests into a pirate or jungle adventure, forward-thinking companies could tell the story of their businesses through mini-golf, Lahey says. These types of original courses can take players from a company’s startup days to product introductions to acquisitions and other milestones.

Go for a Spin

Interactive games can add a twist to some holes, Lahey says. Guests spin a wheel and the arrow lands on fun commands like putt with eyes closed while hopping on one foot or left-handed.

A Full Sensory Experience

Today, some owners and operators use specialty lighting and enhanced sound effects to create more excitement on the course, Lahey says. “You used to hit the ball into the cup and a bell would ring. Now, [sound] is more in line with the particular setting, like a dinosaur roar.” Along these lines, he also sees more ancillary animatronics being incorporated into courses. So, not only must guests navigate the ball between a growling creature’s legs, they also see bears moving in caves to the side of the course. “It’s like walking through a movie set,” Lahey says.

Unusual Suspects

In what Lundmark dubs a “maturing of the business,” more courses have emerged in previously unexplored places, including farm stands, ice cream shops, and water parks. The game has become more modular, too, with temporary courses appearing at arenas and campgrounds. In a prime example, groups of artists now create pop-up courses in parks in big cities around the United States, using mini-golf as an artistic medium, says Amanda Kulkoski, producer/director of the movie “Through the Windmill” (see sidebar on p. 62). On one unique course she saw, a player putts the ball into a drill press that makes a hole in the ball’s center. The player then must use the disfigured ball for the rest of the round. “There’s excitement for the future,” Kulkoski says.

Arne Lundmark of Adventure Golf Services launched a Facebook page to celebrate the 100th anniversary of mini-golf. Here, he urges people to share promotional ideas and old photos of their courses. Check it out at http://tinyurl. com/MiniGolfonFacebook.

More Tech

Both Lahey and Lundmark see a stronger presence of technology integrating into mini-golf—for today (more folks turning to apps to keep score) and tomorrow (think of a digitalized 3-D experience or, for increased personalization, obstacles changing color to match the shade of the ball). “We’re just scratching the surface,” Lahey says.

Even with the new bells and whistles of modern technology, though, the classic game will always have a place in the hearts of fun seekers.

“When you look at the history, it’s still the same game it was at the beginning—just packaged a little differently,” says Lundmark. “You’ve got a ball, a putter, paper, and a pencil. That’s it. It will evolve some more, but the basic idea of family fun is not going away.” 

Avoid the Location Trap

In addition to considering the trends mentioned here, mini-golf courses in the planning stages should take heed to an important lesson. Complement the area, stresses Bob Lahey of Harris Miniature Golf, who uses the housing and real estate market as an example: “If you build a $2 million home around a bunch of $200,000 ones, you might have a beautiful place, but it doesn’t make good business sense. It’s going to take a long time for you to recoup your capital investment.”

He says people looking to construct a course in smaller towns without much in terms of entertainment competition should consider a less lavish, yet still beautiful, facility: “If it’s not a great course, people won’t come back. Do some water features, but not the 30-foot-tall volcano. You will still be successful.”

In highly competitive areas or beachfront locations, he believes owners should go all out to create “an experience” for guests—that could mean elements like over-the-top theming or massive obstacles. “You’re playing to the vacation traveler,” Lahey notes.

Regardless of the particular audience or the facility size and scope, owners and operators need to make their courses special, says Chris Boznos, who operates Skill Golf in Lincolnshire, Illinois. His course features a hole with a miniature Willis Tower that includes a working ball elevator. “It has to be something they can’t find on their phone or TV,” he says. “It has to remove them from their environment and bring them somewhere magical. If you can achieve that, you’re going to do well.”

New Documentary Puts Mini-Golf in the Limelight

A child of the ’80s, Amanda Kulkoski grew up puttin’ around miniature-golf courses with her family and friends. “Whenever we were on vacation, I just wanted to play,” she recalls. When Kulkoski turned 16, it seemed natural for her first job to be at the neighborhood spot, Fort Fun Amusements in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Her love of the game only grew from there, and along with it, an idea blossomed. Kulkoski, now a film professor at Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia, has spent nearly the last three years making “Through the Windmill,” a feature-length documentary that explores the history and influence of mini-golf in the United States.

“I love the kitsch artwork and the Americana aspect to it—the idea of the roadside attraction,” explains Kulkoski, a self-described “inconsistent” mini-golfer. “It also doesn’t matter how good you are. Anyone can play.”

The 37-year-old producer/director of “Through the Windmill” traveled to roughly 40 courses around the country to create the movie, including one in a library and another in a funeral home.

“They had an extra room in the basement and turned it into a rec room,” she says of the latter. “They close it during funerals, but if someone calls and nothing is happening, they will let them in.”

Kulkoski, whose movie credits include “Magic Mike XXL” and “Dirty Grandpa,” anticipates a summer release to coincide with the game’s 100th anniversary—a date she didn’t even realize until the filming began. The exact outlet still needs to be determined; however, Netflix and the Golf Channel would be her first choices.