Perhaps it’s no surprise that a go-karting entrepreneur should prove adept at handling the twists and turns of the amusement park industry. Fun Spot America owner and founder, John Arie Sr., has assembled a winning formula of rides and attractions at the company’s two Florida locations, including the state’s only wooden coaster, the two tallest Sky Coasters in the world and even a live alligator exhibit.
Staying true to his motto of delivering ‘good quality, and safe, clean fun’ he says: ‘We can out-perform the big, expensive people hands down.’
He spoke with Blooloop about his life, career, the evolution of the Fun Spot brand and the expansions planned at the Orlando location.
Born in 1949, Arie’s first contact with the attractions industry was when he was working his way through college in the late 1960s.
“I was working for Lil 500 Go-Karts, a little go-kart track up in Maitland, which is a suburb of Orlando. It’s the perfect job for college students: you go to school during the day and work at night.”
While he enjoyed being outside and working with the public, it wasn’t until he went to an IAAPA meeting up in Atlanta, Georgia that he became excited by the possibilities inherent in the industry.
“I walked into the convention hall, and I was just blown away with how huge the industry really was. I never finished college.”
He was in his final year when Ronnie Kline, his boss at Lil 500 and “kind of my mentor”, invited him to become a part-owner.
“We had a go-kart track there, and a mini-bike track. So, he set me up in business running the mini-bike track, and I became self-employed in 1971/72, and I’ve never worked for anybody else since then.”
Tapping into tourism
In the mid-70s, he left Maitland and went to Ocean City, Maryland, a tourist destination:
“… and I realised there was a world of difference between making money with tourists versus making money with locals. We coined a phrase that locals were out for kicks, but the tourists were out for fun. You didn’t have the problems with the tourists that you had with locals. So that kind of opened my eyes to how much money there was in the tourist industry.”
Returning to central Florida after a year, he bought a small go-kart track with a unique “tummy tingler” hill in South Orlando, changing its name to Little Wheels.
It was successful, but, feeling “a little burned out with the amusement industry”, Arie decided to diversify into the small-engine lawnmower repair business, running the go-kart track in the back of the shop.
However, he soon discovered that the profit margins were poorer and it was a lot harder to make money in the lawnmower business than in the amusement industry.
In 1977 America’s first water park, Wet ‘n Wild, owned by the Universal Orlando Resort and founded by SeaWorld creator George Millay, opened up on International Drive, which was fast becoming the new tourist location.
Looking to open a business there himself, Arie found a three acre property at the corner of Sand Lake Road and International Drive.
“It had no frontage on either one of those roads: it was one lot back. But we cut a deal, and we opened a go-kart operation there.”
Fun ‘n’ Wheels – birth of the action park
Referencing Wet’n’Wild, Arie called it Fun’n’Wheels and it expanded swiftly into the world’s first themed action park with multiple tracks and rides.
“We opened another location in Kissimmee, putting it right beside a regional mall, with the concept being that we would be able to expand into regional malls throughout the sunbelt of America.”
However, at about that time Arie received an offer from Robert Earl, president of Pleasurama USA.
“So I sold the business to him under a promise that he would take my concept, my plan, and expand it.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.
“As soon as I sold it he then bought another company called Hard Rock Café, so all his attention went there.”
Arie had a three-year contract to work for Earl, after which he opened the first Fun Spot in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, followed quickly by a second at Virginia Beach.
“In the mid-90s we came to Florida and opened up, right off International Drive, what we call Fun Spot America today.”
Fun Spot America, with its trademark elevated track, was inspired by a concept Arie had seen at Big Chief Carts & Coasters (now Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Park) in Wisconsin Dells, owned by Nick Laskaris, with whom Arie became friends.
The two men, in different locations and therefore not in competition, were able to share ideas. Laskaris showed Arie how he had achieved a multi-level track and even let him take measurements.
“And that revolutionised the go-kart industry, ” says Arie. “We actually owned four patents on different aspects of the elevated go-kart tracks.”
Fun Spot America – full throttle
When Fun Spot opened in 1997 it was, Arie says, phenomenal.
“We had never made more money in the go-kart business in all my life: it was like, ‘Pinch me: this can’t be real.’ We knew we were onto something really, really big.
“Again, we weren’t in an ideal scenario: we were one block off International Drive, so we learned how to market ourselves to the local industry, continuing to succeed and prosper and grow our business. In fact, in all of our growth, 2002, right after 9-11, was the only year we showed a negative increase in gross income and profits, and that was only 10% down.
“Before that and after that, we’ve shown a double digit increase every single year.”
Fun Spot comprises twenty-five acres in Orlando and eight in Kissimmee.
“Through it all, we learned we didn’t like leasing, ” says Arie. “We liked owning the real estate, not having to worry about someone becoming your partner when your lease runs out.”
Keeping it in the family
Fun Spot is a family-run business which has, Arie jokes, pros and cons:
“And now, interestingly, we’re in a different transition. I’m transitioning out as the top dog, and transitioning them in as the young blood, to run the place. That’s a whole new dynamic that I’ve never dealt with before.
“Before, we had a board of directors of one, which was me. Now I’ve got to create a true board of directors that will be able to continue on after I’m gone for good.”
He is keen to do this while he is still on top of his game, while he still has “…some influence on the next generation and their direction, and can help them make fewer mistakes.”
For Fun Spot America, expansion of the fifteen acre park continues.
“We have two undeveloped acres within the fifteen, and plan to turn it into a water park or splash area. In the summertime it’s dreadfully hot here, we have shade, but we don’t have much, and we have air conditioning, but we don’t have an overabundance. Simply introducing a water element will help cool down the overall temperature and give a fresh atmosphere.”
Falcon’s Treehouse (part of Falcon’s Creative Group), specialists in the design and production of immersive themed experiences, has delivered a masterplan for the re-theming of the park around the concept of ‘Americana’.
“Our go-karts are becoming what we call Route 66 or Gasoline Alley; and the water-park and the ‘gator spot is Old Florida – we’ve themed it like Key West, and Okeechobee, and the early tourist attractions that were in Florida. Our roller coasters and the rides over to the other side are to become a boardwalk area like Coney Island and Santa Cruz.
“People who come not only from America but from overseas can come here and see a little bit of the history and theming found throughout America right here in our park.
“We don’t have a lot of characters like Disney and Universal, but we hope to create an atmosphere where it’s very exciting and unique and something that everybody would like to see.
“We were very impressed by Falcon’s Treehouse, who headed the creative team.”
“They really grabbed hold – grasped where we wanted to go, where we’d been, and just made a really nice marriage for the future.”
The importance of social media
Arie says the big impact technology has made on Fun Spot is in the way customers hear about the attraction, which is predominantly through social media.
“The young generation doesn’t listen to TV or radio as they used to, so that’s the biggest challenge for the new generation of businesses – how do you let people know where you are effectively?”
Arie has some reservations about applying technology to the park’s attractions.
“Operationally, we’ve always felt that the hands-on driving is kind of like a national pastime in America, and, evidently, all over the world. Go-karts are almost timeless.
“We thought about making a virtual reality go-kart track, but quite honestly multi-level go-kart tracks are still the biggest attraction to the park – it’s something that is unique. There are maybe six places in the entire world that have something similar.
“I still think the roller coasters, the G-forces, the thrill and excitement of the Sky Coaster and the uniqueness of a go-kart track that’s elevated with turns is going to last a long time – it has good carrying power.”
VR coasters – better than any game
However, he does acknowledge virtual reality as the face of the future, and at IAAPA 2015 in Orlando, Fun Spot offered attendees free rides on the Mack Virtual Reality Coaster.
“It was a big hit, ” he admits. ‘It even surprised me with how it totally transforms the ride. So, you’ll probably see more and more of that. I think VR coupled with a roller coaster is better than any game I’ve ever seen whatsoever.”
Free admission – the ‘unfair’ advantage
“Where we are, we have an unfair advantage. Disney and Universal and Sea World all charge $100+ to get in the park. We’re less than half that, and that’s only if you participate. If you come in here with your kids, you don’t even have to pay. You just go in there and take pictures of them having fun. The formula works well for us.
“Again, I think we can out-perform the big, expensive people hands down. All we have to do is let people know what we have to offer, make sure we treat them right when they get here – and I’m proud of our team for doing such.
“Give them good quality, and safe, clean fun: that’s our motto, ” says Arie. “So that’s what we want to continue doing.”