A Family Affair
Photos by Stephen Rutherford
As the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic started to become apparent in early 2020, the overseers of Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari faced a dilemma: Should they proceed with the construction of their highly anticipated water coaster, “Cheetah Chase,” and open the new ride as planned? Or should they postpone the new attraction to generate a bigger marketing and attendance bang after the virus was under control?
Their heads told them it would be prudent to wait. But their hearts won out.
“We started the conversation, but said, ‘We’re Holiday World. What are we talking about?’” says Leah Koch, the park’s director of communications and one of three women who are charting the course for the family-owned and -operated property. “Of course, we are going to open this attraction!”
How the booming theme and water park gained notoriety and achieved supersonic growth is a story within itself, best told from the family guiding the flourishing institution.
A Storybook Beginning
The park’s can-do spirit can be traced back 75 years when industrialist Louis J. Koch (pronounced “Cook”) opened Santa Claus Land in the proverbial middle of nowhere—Santa Claus, Indiana. (Yup, that’s the actual name of the town.) In a classic case of “build it and they will come”—it’s even nestled among cornfields that stretch in all directions—visitors began flocking to the charming, Christmas-themed park. It doesn’t hurt that despite its decidedly rural location, it’s centrally located within driving distance of Louisville, Kentucky; Cincinnati, Ohio; Indianapolis, Indiana; St. Louis, Missouri; and Nashville, Tennessee.
As years became decades, more and more visitors continued flocking to the park as it expanded and evolved under the careful stewardship of the Koch family. Louis’ son, Bill, took the reins; then Bill’s eldest son, Will, took over. Along the way, Santa Claus Land morphed into Holiday World, as the park began paying homage to Halloween, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving with themed expansions. By 1993, the Kochs were ready to add a water park; enter Splashin’ Safari to the mix. The included-with-admission water park has grown to become one of the industry’s largest, most attraction-packed slide and splash parks connected to a theme park.
Then, in the middle of a 20-year run as president and chief visionary of Holiday World, Will died unexpectedly in 2010, which sent reverberations through the family and suddenly thrust his wife, Lori, and their three young adult children—Lauren, Leah, and William—into the spotlight. Since then, the fourth generation of Kochs, especially Leah and Lauren, have begun to put their stamp on the burgeoning theme park and water park.
Joining the Family Business
It wasn’t always clear that Will’s kids would follow in their dad’s footsteps of operating a theme park and water park. All of them worked at the park as teens and expressed varying degrees of interest in one day taking on leadership roles.
“Once I got into high school, my intent was to get as far away from Santa Claus as possible and never come back,” says Lauren Crosby, the oldest of the three children, and the park’s director of entertainment and events. “I thought Holiday World was for my dad and my sister.”
When her father passed away, however, Lauren’s priorities and sentiments shifted. While still in college, she says that she felt the park’s tug at her heartstrings and knew she would need to come back home to help carry on her family’s tradition.
Similarly, Leah says that she was always interested in the park and had vague plans to someday help run the theme park and water park. Adding that she and her dad operated on a similar wavelength, Leah notes there was an understanding within her family that she was destined to work alongside him. Leah thought that she would seek other opportunities in the corporate world. When fate intervened, she too felt drawn back to Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari.
While their father and mother always supported their aspirations, Leah says others tended to dismiss their leadership potential based on their gender. “People assumed William would take over,” says Leah.
After Will’s passing, Leah and her sister returned to Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, known as “the kids,” she recalls. More dismissively, some referred to them simply as “the girls,” according to Leah. Lauren adds that they worked hard to stop the label and have only recently shed the stereotypes.
“Up until a few years ago, it was hard to find anyone who looked like us,” Leah says, referring to the small number of women executives in the parks and attractions industry. Thankfully, she notes, that is changing and points to Amanda Thompson OBE, IAAPA’s chairman and the managing director of her own family-owned park, Blackpool Pleasure Beach, as a great role model.
Ironically, William Koch, the one everyone presumed would assume the mantle, is not involved in the day-to-day operations of Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari. He, along with his mother and two siblings, has an ownership stake in the park, sits on its board of directors, and helps make decisions about the park’s future.
William is also the technical supervisor for the park’s stage show and notes that sound design, a skill he nurtured while working at the park, is his passion. “I really enjoyed it and began exploring it as a career,” William says. “It’s what ended up sticking.” Before the pandemic shut down the touring production of “Beautiful,” the Carole King musical, he was on the road as its assistant audio engineer.
First working at Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari as a performer (which is how she met Will), Lori later became the park’s director of entertainment. She gradually decreased her time at the park to care for her growing brood. Lori now serves as executive vice president.
Bringing Ideas to the Table
With a degree in retail merchandising and an eye for design, Lauren focuses on the look and feel of both the water park and theme park, as well as its entertainment and events. Leah, who studied journalism along with business analytics (“I like my numbers and my writing,” she offers), brings a more pragmatic approach to the park’s operations and development. When ideas for new water park expansions are brought to the table, Leah will conduct research and run them through the analytics program she designed to gauge their feasibility.
One thing is certain: The family feels the need to generate new ideas. Leah says she conducts an annual regression analysis, which indicates how the park needs to innovate and invest in new capital projects in order to succeed and grow. “I have calculated that every year we don’t have a new attraction, we lose guests,” she notes.
In addition to the 2020 arrival of “Cheetah Chase,” Splashin’ Safari welcomed “Tembo Falls,” a collection of eight junior water slides, and “Tembo Tides,” a junior wave pool, in 2018. For the 2015 season, the park added “Thunderbird,” its first major steel roller coaster and Bolliger & Mabillard’s first launched wing coaster.
New ideas are great, but the 75-year-old park also has long-standing traditions to uphold. Among them is an impressive array of guest perks that includes free admission to the water park with general admission, complimentary sunscreen at Splashin’ Safari, and free parking. The most unique—and perhaps head-scratching—benefit is free soft drinks. Why would a park forgo such a high-profit revenue source?
“It was Will’s idea,” says Lori, adding that he was tired of nickel-and-diming guests. “We will never depart from that.”
“It would break a bond with our guests that’d be really hard to repair,” Leah adds, citing behavioral economics theory and noting that the complimentary drinks are an essential part of Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari’s identity.
It’s one of the peculiarities of a family-run company that its members literally bring ideas to the kitchen table. In addition to the principal owners, Lauren’s husband and Leah’s fiancé both work at the park. When the extended Koch family gathers together for meals, the banter often turns into impromptu brainstorming sessions for the dry ride park and the water park.
According to Lori, the nonstop focus on the park can occasionally get out of hand at the dinner table, saying, “Sometimes, we have to say that we are not going to talk about business.”
Lori’s advice to families that own and operate attractions is simple: “Find a way to get along,” she says. “Love goes a long way.”
So how does a close-knit family navigate the delicate dynamics of running a major business and managing interpersonal relationships? With expert support.
The Kochs have long worked with CMA, a team of business psychologists that specializes in family-owned companies. They receive coaching on a regular basis and address issues such as succession planning.
“CMA helped Leah and I figure out who we are within the company and what our paths might look like,” Lauren says. The family is talking through Leah’s plan to eventually take over the park and become its president. CMA is helping them develop strategies to peacefully transition power. (Matt Eckert currently serves as Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari’s president and CEO.)
Responsible Decisions and Expansions
The Koch family—like many families working in the global attractions industry—recognizes the challenge for their family to own and operate a large theme park and water park. When corporations dangle lucrative offers, which they often do to the Kochs, it can be tempting to sell. Among the reasons why the family perseveres is to honor Will and help realize his vision for Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari.
“It’s gut-wrenching to think of the idea of selling. We are fighting for it every day,” Lauren says. In addition to carrying on Will’s plans, the next generation wants to make its own mark. “We want our chance to take a swing at it,” is how Lauren puts it.
They came out swinging last year with “Cheetah Chase,” Splashin’ Safari’s third water coaster.
In recent years, the Kochs have focused much of their capital on expanding the water park. According to Lauren, there’s a simple reason why: “That’s where our guests want to go.”
Limited to 50% capacity and otherwise constrained by the pandemic in 2020, the Kochs nonetheless soldiered on last season. Among the casualties, the park, known as the summer home of Santa Claus, had to operate without the jolly old elf. However, the property retained all 100 of its full-time employees, but got by with about 75% of its seasonal team members. The park also cut its daily operating hours and ended the season early in September, forgoing the shoulder season’s Halloween event.
Staffing for the Future
For its 75th anniversary season in 2021, the family hopes for a resurgence in attendance, but is trying to be realistic and fiscally responsible. “We’re going to spend like nobody’s coming,” says Leah, adding that they have adjusted their near-term expansion plans. “But we are trying to brace ourselves in case everybody comes.”
To that end, Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari is aggressively recruiting a full complement of 2,200 seasonal staff members. After switching to a ticketing system last year in which guests have to choose the day they will be visiting, the park is now able to accurately forecast daily attendance and schedule shifts accordingly. One upside of the pandemic is that the park will continue to use the online application process it introduced last year. Moving online proved to be much more streamlined than in-person job fairs for both the applicants and the human resources department.
To help attract and retain employees, Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari leases a fleet of buses that travels within an hour radius of the rural location and transports its mostly young staff members to and from the park for their shifts. Lori serves as employee advocate and says that the Kochs have “always had the philosophy of taking care of our employees, and they’ll take care of our guests.”
As for the future, the Kochs have 200 available acres available to develop. They hope to eventually build a birthday-themed land geared to younger children, one of the last items on Will’s to-do list. Leah also has a vision for turning Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, along with and the entire town of Santa Claus, into more of a destination by adding hotels, such as a Christmas-themed lodge. That would give visitors even more of a reason to go on holiday.
Arthur Levine covers the attractions industry for USA Today and authors Funworld’s “The Art of Attractions” column each month.