The Stars of San Antonio: A Look Inside 10 FECs in the Lone Star State
As the saying goes, “Everything is bigger in Texas.”
San Antonio is not only known for its rich history and cultural heritage, but also for the diverse range of family entertainment centers (FECs) that dot its landscape. From thrilling adventures to mind-bending mazes and unique interactive experiences, these attractions present a living catalogue of ideas and innovation.
Funworld offers a look at 10 select FECs where skilled operators have perfected their best practices, many of which will open their doors to attendees of IAAPA FEC Summit in San Antonio, Jan. 21-23, 2024.
The Amazing Mirror Maze
Located just steps away from the Alamo sits The Amazing Mirror Maze. Operated by Phillips Entertainment, the facility packs six attractions onto three floors of a historic 1800s storefront building. Inside the century-old, remodeled building, visitors will find modern takes on classic mirror mazes with the use of new technologies, escape rooms, and exhibits tailored to children.
The Key to Talent Acquisition
American football is big in Texas. President, CEO, and third-generation family business owner Davis Phillips speaks in football terms when talking about staffing. At first felt inclined to hire people he liked without further consideration of their unique capabilities.
“What I've realized is there's a lot of different personalities and strengths and weaknesses and placing people in the right position for them to be successful is critical.” Phillips says. “Don't ask your all-star left tackle to be your wide receiver.”
Enhancing Company Culture and Staff Retention
Cultivating a healthy company culture and how it relates to success comes down to one thing for Phillips: family values.
“We're a family business that treats people like family,” Phillips explains, “but we don't run it like a family business. It's run to make money.”
He continues that when his family members worked for the company, they had to work the same schedule, received the same pay, and were held to the same expectations.
“There's no shortcuts. In fact, my son, I invited him to work elsewhere after a while, because if we let him get away with not doing what he's supposed to do, how can we ever have anybody else buy into our culture?”
Phillips believes an environment of trust is paramount. He offers this advice to other FEC operators: “If you treat people right and you pay them well and you have the right culture, they'll stay with you,” says Phillips, who also offers paid bonuses and organizes staff parties to convey additional gratitude to his hardworking employees.
He is proud that these initiatives have proved effective, best displayed by how one of the company’s former vice presidents who started with Phillips Entertainment in the 1970s just recently retired from the company.
Andretti Indoor Karting & Games San Antonio
A haven for thrill-seekers and racing enthusiasts, Andretti Indoor Karting & Games features electric go-karts, arcade games, laser tag, a bar, and a restaurant themed to food trucks. Andretti’s success lies in a robust and elevated food and beverage (F&B) program that plays an integral part in its impressive group sales, meetings, and events program. With high-end meeting and event spaces that resemble hotel convention center ballrooms, Andretti’s group sales business stays busy booking groups and tailoring events to fill the customer’s needs.
Cleanliness and Maintenance Standards
Liliana Zamfirescu, general manager of Andretti San Antonio, says FEC operators need to make a commitment to maintaining high cleanliness standards, while underscoring the importance of facility maintenance.
“Continuous efforts are invested in keeping our facility in impeccable condition,” she emphasizes. This involves regular cleaning, repair, and maintenance walks to identify any issues promptly.
The business allocates budgetary resources for replacement and repair, ensuring that equipment—such as games, carpeting, and kitchen equipment—remain in optimal condition.
By adhering to these standards, Zamfirescu says her facility can create a consistent positive customer experience, enhancing its reputation and driving repeat business.
The Value of Employee Involvement and Development
Andretti navigates the challenges of rising inflation and staff retention by actively involving employees in the decision-making process and providing opportunities for growth.
The operator has found this fosters a sense of ownership, leading to higher job satisfaction, increased loyalty, and reduced turnover rates. Furthermore, investing in employee development through training programs and workshops demonstrates a commitment as an employer to their long-term success and well-being.
Andretti uses an in-house online platform—Andretti University—for training and development. Staff log in to view companywide memos. The system is adept and alerts managers which employees have not viewed the memo, ensuring all team members are constantly in the know or trained of any new policies or procedures.
Ripley’s Believe it or Not!
For those fascinated by the odd and extraordinary, Ripley's Believe It or Not! is a must-visit attraction. This FEC showcases an extensive collection of wax figures inside Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks’, as well as bizarre artifacts and exhibits from around the world that include shrunken heads to mind-boggling illusions. Ripley's offers an educational and artistic experience that will leave visitors of all ages amazed and inspired.
Gianna Benamati, general manager of San Antonio Ripley's, explains that the attraction has found it needs to continuously evolve to meet guest expectations. As teens and young adults become a larger set of the business, Ripley’s adapts to the guest’s desire for interactive and immersive experiences.
Ripley’s recently added a new exhibit—Ripley's Illusions Lab—where younger visitors tend to spend more time capturing and posting pictures. “All of these are photo ops, and that's what they're interested in right now,” Benamati explains.
Cost Control, Maintenance, and Team Collaboration
Ripley's constantly evaluates expenses, seeking ways to save without compromising quality.
“We're always trying to see what we can do in-house to save money and think outside of the box constantly where we can save but not cut back on the quality. We try to do a lot of work together in-house as a team.”
Waste, controlling costs, equipment replacements, and maintenance expenses are carefully budgeted to ensure the company can sustain its operations effectively by adopting a proactive approach.
For example, Benamati explains that for carpeting specifically, they try to refurbish one gallery or room a month. “I'll pick a room and we'll budget it instead of doing it all in one month. You can spread it out."
In addition, Benamati says that the headquarters office of Ripley's empowers their local teams to think creatively and contribute ideas for cost-saving measures. “Our corporate office's accounting team plays a crucial role in supporting our efforts, ensuring that our budgets align with our goals and objectives. Regular brainstorming sessions and collaboration with the marketing team allow us to explore innovative promotional strategies and identify potential partnerships.”
By involving staff in maintenance tasks such as laying carpets, Ripley’s fosters a sense of pride and ownership, enhancing the overall experience for both visitors and staff.
When severe weather hit Texas in 2021, resulting in near record-breaking freezing temperatures, pipes froze which resulted in flooding at the location. Once the building was dried out, the corporate design and development team came to the San Antonio location to train staff on how to install new carpet tiles.
“It gives you a sense of pride too. When the youngest generation came, they were not too excited to be laying carpet [tiles],” Benamati laughed, but continued that when the team was finished and walked through the space, they felt a sense of accomplishment.
“It’s like, ‘I feel so proud in here. Look how good this carpet looks!’” she says of the team effort.
Santikos Entertainment Cibolo
Just outside the city lines, Santikos Entertainment Cibolo offers a state-of-the-art cinema experience that brings theaters to the next level with multiple screens, comfortable seating, and dine-in movies. The entertainment center also boasts a variety of arcade games with a redemption center, Lasertron Laser Tag, and a restaurant with fresh fired pizzas and signature drinks.
Minimizing Price Increases
Rising inflation has impacted family-owned businesses, like Dave Fonseca’s, the general manager of Santikos. He tells Funworld that while there may be challenges with rising F&B costs, the entertainment side of Santiko’s has withstood the pressure. He believes that even when people are pinched financially, they still see value in spending their money on leisure activities.
“I think we would not like to do as many price increases,” he says. Santikos explains that while the movie theater industry may raise prices twice a year per industry norms, Santikos Entertainment Cibolo raised arcade prices and ticket costs only once in the past six years.
He admits that some costs, such as plush toys, have risen, but he believes that the redemption side of the business compensates for it, even with the company’s commitment to only buying licensed plush prizes—a more elevated offering compared to generic ones.
Round1 Bowling & Amusement
Located in the North Star Mall, Round1 Bowling & Amusement combines the classic fun of bowling with a wide range of arcade games and activities. This center features bowling alleys, billiards, karaoke rooms, trampolines, a soft play zone for children, trampolines, and an extensive selection of arcade games.
Round1’s bowling lanes are Spark—a product of Brunswick—that incorporates hardware automation and advanced laser projection for a more immersive themed experience. An in-house quick-serve restaurant keeps guests satisfied while alleviating the need for guests to leave the attraction to dine at the mall’s food court.
Round1’s competitive edge is its Mega Crane Zone—a massive spread of 150+ claw games with exclusive prizes that have fans spending hours of their day to win, while also returning in search of the next product release.
Navigating Shipping and Inflation
Round1’s general manager, Stephanie Newman, shares rising inflation effects everything: from the delivery of food products to receiving prizes from international shippers.
“We've seen it with certain food prices; chicken is harder to get and it's more expensive,” Newman explains.
She says increased shipping costs for redemption prizes hit harder since the products are exported from Asia, arrive by boat to ports in California, and then are transported by ground to Round1’s various locations.
Round1’s strength in combating the rising costs helps maintain the company’s commitment to exclusive pricing, particularly in its claw machines and redemption program.
Newman explained that most of their prizes are of the Rilakkuma brand through Aliquantum International (AQI), while they order a lot of their figurines from the Clever Idiots company. The popularity of the Rilakkuma brand successfully impacts Round1’s booming Super Claw business.
“They have all different variations of those and pretty much anything that we get will go really fast,” shares Newman.
AR’s Entertainment Hub San Antonio
Located inside the Wonderland of the Americas shopping mall, AR’s Entertainment Hub provides a wide range of interactive experiences. From laser tag and virtual reality adventures to board games and LAN gaming, AR’s caters to both casual gamers and avid enthusiasts.
Also included in the facility are a bar and restaurant, a roller skating rink, mini-golf, blacklight mini-golf, billiards, and an extensive soft play area for AR’s youngest guests, complete with its own viewing area that allows parents the ability to relax and watch their children play.
With its diverse range of activities, AR’s Entertainment Hub casts a wide net attracting families, friends, and corporate groups seeking engaging experiences.
High End Food on a Budget
AR’s Entertainment Hub General Manager Archie Wright explains the importance of having good food at great prices.
“We have food—people say high end food—but not at high end prices. We want people to be able to come here to enjoy themselves. Then if they get hungry, come over here and have something affordable to feed themselves or to feed the kids,” Wright tells Funworld.
For those seeking a refreshing beverage, AR's offers a selection of beer, wine, frozen drinks, and their signature “AR's Lit” cocktail, specifically designed by AR's owner.
The success of AR’s Entertainment Hub is the placement of multiple party rooms that make up and support a strong group sales business—named ARs’ Party Hub—located right in the middle of the venue’s attractions.
A busy Saturday, for example, can have as many as nine parties going throughout the day. The creatively decorated rooms are equipped with large-screen TVs and Bluetooth connectivity that allows attendees to stream what they want.
Mini-Golf Automation and Technology
At ARs’ mini-golf experience, game check-in is automated with the use of an automated ball and club dispenser at the course’s entrance. This saves the operator on staffing needs and costs.
Golfers start playing with the swipe of their admission card before navigating two independently themed, nine-hole courses that utilize black lights and projections.
Pricing for Value
Wright explains the operator places an importance on ARs’ mission of affordability. “You want to come out and have a good time without having to worry about spending your entire paycheck.”
To create the sense of value, AR’s offers a bundle option named AR’s Big Deal, which grants guests access to all attractions for up to five hours of unlimited play. Priced at $27.99 per person, the bundle includes added benefits.
For instance, guests who opt for the package are entitled to two free games on the virtual reality (VR) set. With each VR game typically priced at $6, this means guests are already saving $12 just on the VR games alone.
San Antonio’s Incredible Pizza Company
San Antonio's Incredible Pizza Company offers a unique “pay one price” dining and entertainment experience. Incredible Pizza features a buffet-style restaurant with seating and group outing options in several uniquely themed dining halls or private dining rooms, with a variety of food options.
With an array of amusement park rides, classic arcade games, go-kart tracks, mini-golf, and mini-bowling, guests enjoy a variety of experiences, just steps away from the buffet line.
Retaining Motivated Staff
Joseph Martinez, general manager of Incredible Pizza says the FEC has implemented several programs, including incentives like scratch-off lottery tickets for their team members, where they can win a $5 to $20 cash prize.
Additionally, the business pays an extra dollar per hour to employees working on weekends. These initiatives not only boost staff morale, but also contribute to better customer experiences, ultimately leading to increased customer loyalty.
Maximizing Profits Through Strategic Upselling
Incredible Pizza successfully utilizes upselling techniques, particularly during birthday parties, to enhance profitability. Martinez explains FEC’s who incentivize guests to book during slower periods can optimize their revenue generation.
This strategic approach not only benefits the business, but also provides guests with a higher level of service—and an enhanced party experience.
LiggettVille Adventure Center – San Antonio
Branding itself as an indoor playpark, LiggettVille Adventure Center offers rock climbing and ropes courses within the Shops at Rivercenter’s main shopping mall corridor, utilizing limited floor space, as well as second and third story space high in the area above the mall’s pedestrians.
When asked about the effects of raised inflation on their business, LiggettVille General Manager Dave Koh explaines that inflation has not affected his business negatively. The attraction’s location in a shopping mall corridor requires little need for maintenance, beyond LiggettVille’s own climbing equipment.
Dino Safari San Antonio
Offering an immersive journey into the prehistoric era, Dino Safari San Antonio is located within the Shops at Rivercenter, next door to the Alamo. Visitors can embark on a walkthrough adventure to witness life-sized animatronic dinosaurs in recreations of their ancient habitats, combining education and entertainment.
The attraction utilizes space in the shopping mall that could be viewed as unattractive to retailers. Located down a flight of stairs, the shopping mall may be hard pressed to find another tenant.
In addition, Dino Safari effectively utilizes the sets from a previous attraction in the space that was Alamo-themed. This helps ground the attraction in the local history, while being cost-effective in its reuse of the scenery.
Altitude Trampoline Park
Altitude Trampoline Park offers a thrilling experience for visitors of all ages. This indoor trampoline park features interconnected trampolines on multiple levels, viewable from the entry lobby to the balcony above. A snack bar, foam pits, dodgeball courts, and a dedicated toddler zone complete the mix of activities.