Silverwood Theme Park Shines on its 35-Year Anniversary
The development of Silverwood Theme Park and Boulder Beach Water Park in Athol, Idaho, reflects its history and the long-held philosophies of its president, Gary Norton, who founded Silverwood 35 years ago.
At 75, Norton remains the park’s guiding hand. Currently offering more than 70 attractions and employing more than 1,600 seasonal workers, the 413-acre park recently announced a $15 million expansion primarily focused on Boulder Beach.
“Our ability to handle the increased guest count at the water park had been a concern of mine for a while,” says Norton.
At nearly four acres, the new area named Emerald Forest will include Eagle Hunt—designed to be one of the longest water slides in the U.S. The Emerald Forest will also be home to new slides for children and include a splash pad.
To feed hungry bathers, a new food pavilion named Rapids Grill will provide grab-and-go items. The food and beverage location (F&B) aims to produce more food than all the park’s other culinary locations combined, potentially serving up to 1,200 guests per hour.
“We decided to go all in with a major food production and service building that would more than double our current capacity. So, it made sense to also add a major new attraction and themed area to the water park for 2024.”
Norton believes his park is in a strong position following COVID-19 to continue its expansion plans.
“I constantly communicated with my friend Fred Grubb at Rocky Mountain Construction [during COVID-19 closures],” he says. “I offered to step in and order a new coaster to keep his valuable employees from being laid off. That gamble paid off for both of us, as the new ride, Stunt Pilot, was a great hit, resulting in record attendance and revenues [in 2021].”
Norton opened Silverwood in 1988 after selling International Systems Corp., a company he founded in Spokane, Washington, that created computer hardware and software for the banking industry.
But the decision to launch the park in northern Idaho, with Spokane—an hour’s drive away—being the only city of more than 250,000 within 300 miles, raised some eyebrows.
“Any astute businessman was sure that I was out of my mind,” he says. “They were probably right, as any properly done study would have shown it wouldn’t work. It was a great struggle, but eventually, I discovered the elements that allowed us to break out of a small local park operation and become a destination attraction. Most of our guests now come from more than 250 miles away, [and] 8% to 10% from Canada.”
As for what inspired him to open Silverwood in the first place, Norton says earlier in the 1980s he was at an auction in Reno, Nevada, to purchase a restored 1929 Ford Trimotor airliner. While there, he saw a small Porter steam engine like ones used at Disneyland. He outbid a Disney representative and won the auction.
“I promised myself to acquire it and figure out what to do with it later,” he recalls. “Figuring it out is what started Silverwood. It's not exactly a profound business plan, but with enough passion and effort, sometimes dreams can come true.”
Ingenuity at Work
Today, Norton’s computer expertise is once again at work, this time improving the dynamic employee scheduling system he developed that resulted in a 15% reduction in payroll costs.
He noticed how his team would labor over spreadsheets when monitoring variables in staffing requirements and resolved to streamline the process.
“I decided to automate all of that and found I could not only duplicate everything they’d been doing with the manual spreadsheets, but also add more features that allow us to auto schedule the positions,” he says.
Norton states that he puts quality, consistency, and fair prices first, and never underestimates the intelligence of guests. He says visitors know when a park is trying to squeeze the last dollar out of them and don’t appreciate it.
“So, we allow any guest to request a refund for all or part of an unused ticket for any reason ... with no questions asked,” he says. “I never want a guest to feel they’re trapped when they purchase a ticket or product from us. If they’re unhappy with what we’ve provided or their plans change, I don't want to take their money.”
Norton’s family members (who also work at the park) agree with his beliefs. His son Paul is general manager and his granddaughter Stephanie Sampson is public relations manager.
In part, these principles motivated a large North American operator to step forward with an offer to purchase Silverwood in 2021. Norton says he was “very flattered” they appreciated Silverwood and would be proud to have them managing the park. He contemplated the generous offer and considered retiring.
“At the last minute, I realized I would not feel relevant anymore,” he says. “The satisfaction I receive when I walk through our park and see the happy smiles on children's and parent's faces, making memories, is something I’d greatly miss. I didn’t see any path for me to participate in that once I sold the business.”
The day will come when he’ll have to revisit that decision, as he won’t be able to oversee the park forever.
But for now, “Walking through the park before opening in the morning, feeling all the energy of our staff manicuring the landscaping and polishing the train's engine, and seeing all the details come together to make for a perfect guest experience, I know life is good, and I have a reason to get up every day.”