Many of the parks featured have been operated by multiple generations of the same family. In turn, they have entertained several generations of guests. They might not have the economies of scale of some of the larger groups. But family-owned theme parks can sometimes be more nimble when it comes to new investments since they don’t have any shareholders to account to.
More importantly, they bring one very important ingredient to their operations: heart.
The world’s best family-owned theme parks
These families and operators who chose to enter the amusement industry all those years ago come from diverse backgrounds. Some parks were set up by travelling showmen, keen to bring their expertise and entrepreneurship to a new audience. Others operators fell into it almost by accident. And no fewer than three of our chosen parks were founded by farmers.
Read on for seventeen of the world’s best family-owned theme parks and amusement parks (in no particular order).
1. Blackpool Pleasure Beach, England
Run by the fourth generation of the same family, Blackpool Pleasure Beach is one of the best-loved amusement parks in the UK. And maybe even the world.
Current managing director Amanda Thompson OBE is the great-granddaughter of Pleasure Beach founder William George Bean. Under her watch, the park has received a cosmetic overhaul that gives a contemporary twist to its Art Deco roots.
Blackpool began to flourish as a seaside resort when it was linked to the mill towns of the North West England by railway in the mid-1800s. Bean seized upon this opportunity and opened a collection of rides on the sands in 1896.
What makes the Pleasure Beach of today unique among British parks is its surviving collection of vintage rides. These include four wooden roller coasters, Sir Harim Maxim’s Flying Machine, the River Caves and the Steeplechase, one of many attractions installed under the reign of the late Geoffrey Thompson OBE. Some of these are the last remaining types of their kind in the world.
The Thompson family also continues to invest in new attractions. For example, 2018’s ICON launch coaster and its Nickelodeon Land children’s area.
2. Chimelong Paradise, China
The scale of the Chimelong Group’s resort developments over the past decade may make you think there is a huge corporation at work behind the scenes. Yet the Guangzhou-based company and its theme parks remain family-owned.
Su Zhigang founded its original theme park in the Panyu district of the city in 2006. This followed earlier tourism enterprises by the former farmer. For example, a crocodile park and a safari park (the latter is still in business).
Chimelong Paradise is part of a wider resort that also includes the award-wining Chimelong Water Park and International Circus. It includes several world-class attractions and entertains an annual audience of over 4.5 million.
With Mr Su’s sons involved in the business now for a number of years, it looks likely to remain a family park for some time to come.
3. Djurs Sommerland, Denmark
Djurs Sommerland is a family-owned theme park located less than an hour from Aarhus. It is the largest of what is a very Nordic tradition: the summer amusement park. The venue trades annually from May until mid-September, with an extra week in October for Halloween.
Opened in 1981, the park is run today by Henrik and Michael B Nielsen, sons of co-founder Ole B Nielsen. The brothers have made over €65 million of investments over the past decade. They have added such attractions as the DrageKongen suspended coaster, Juvelen launch coaster and Tigeren swing from Intamin, plus some nice children’s attractions.
These investments have been rewarded with an annual attendance increase of over 200,000 (to 780,000+). As visitor numbers have increased, so has the level of theming seen across the park. For example, it boasts an enchanting farm-themed area, Bondegårdsland.
4. Europa-Park, Germany
After studying mechanical engineering at the University of Karlsruhe, a 24-year-old Roland Mack founded Europa-Park in 1975 together with his father Franz.
Over the years, the venue in Rust near Freiburg has showcased many innovations from Mack Rides. This even longer-running family business has a history dating back 240 years. But there’s so much more to Europa-Park – now the second busiest theme park in Europe with around 6 million visits a year.
Across its 15 themed areas, many European nations are represented with a level of detail that is second to none. Over the past two decades, the resort has also built up a formidable themed accommodation offering, with six on-site hotels and now a stunning indoor waterpark, Rulantica.
Last October, Roland Mack celebrated his 70th birthday. Day-to-day park operations are now overseen by his brother Jürgen Mack and sons Michael Mack and Thomas Mack. Yet Roland retains an active interest in the business. In addition, his daughter Ann-Kathrin Mack, who trained as an architect, also contributed to Rulantica and the adjoining Krønasår hotel.
5. Enchanted Kingdom, The Philippines
Located outside Manila, Enchanted Kingdom, the leading amusement park in the Philippines will celebrate its 25th anniversary this coming October. Last year the family-owned theme park welcomed a record 1.85 million guests.
Families come to enjoy classic attractions such as a Ferris wheel, carousel, log flume, rapids and coasters by Vekoma and Zamperla. In 2017, to kick off a 10-year expansion at Enchanted Kingdom, a flying theatre was added by SimEx-Iwerks.
Park founder and former sugar cane farmer Mario Mamon credits IAAPA, which he joined in 1992, with opening his eyes to the wider international attractions industry. Twenty-two years later he would lead the association as its first Asian chairman.
After gaining valuable external experience, three out of four of Mario and Cynthia Mamon’s four children are already involved in the business. Their eldest child Raymond Mamon, ex-Hong Kong Disneyland, heads up the park’s Entertainment vision. Meanwhile, their eldest daughter Anna Mamon-Aban, who has a history in Silicon Valley, heads Business Development & Digital Media.
Her younger sister Bea Mamon is the park’ Executive Assistant and Data Privacy Officer, as well as a weekend performer with Enchanted Kingdom’s all-female vocal group. Mario and Cynthia’s youngest son Nico Mamon is currently with the Four Seasons Group in Kuala Lumpur.
6. Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, USA
If anything epitomises the difference in attitude between a family-owned amusement park and some corporate run theme parks, it’s the perks offered to each and every one of Holiday World’s roughly one million annual guests.
This includes free sunscreen, soft drinks and WiFi. Located in Santa Claus, Indiana, Holiday World is also one of the few remaining US parks to offer free car parking.
The first park to win the coveted Applause Award (in 2004), Holiday World was founded by Will Koch as a Christmas-themed attraction called Santa Claus Land in 1946. His son, Will Koch Jr took over the reins in 1987. Both are sadly now deceased, but the park remains in the ownership of Lori Koch, Will Jr’s wife, and their three sons.
The park now offers a diverse range of attractions and celebrates multiple holidays including the 4th of July and Halloween.
The free sunscreen is particularly appreciated by guests at Holiday World’s inclusive Splashin’ Safari water park. This has seen significant expansion over the past decade and is now home to some of the latest and greatest attractions from ProSlide – including the world’s first launched waterslide coaster. Named Cheetah Chase, this was set to open 2020 but may be delayed by current world events.
7. IMG Worlds of Adventure, Dubai, UAE
Family-owned theme parks sometimes evoke an image of cosy offerings with classic attractions that have evolved over many years. But in today’s United Arab Emirates attractions industry climate, you need to make a statement from the outset. So when brothers Ilyas and Mustafa Galadari (IMG) chose to build a theme park in Dubai, they didn’t hold back.
Nevertheless, the 1.5 million square feet (13.4 hectares) facility near the Global Village is home to five themed zones housing a variety of intellectual property (IP). These are the Marvel Zone, Cartoon Network Zone, Lost Valley – Dinosaur Adventure and IMG Boulevard.
Signature attractions include the Velociraptor launch coaster by Mack, plus several rides from Zamperla. The design was provided by Falcon’s Creative Group.
8. Kongeparken, Norway
The Lund family has been keeping other families entertained in Scandinavia for over a century. Håkon Lund Snr operated rides at parks and pleasure gardens in Oslo, Berlin and in Ireland in the late 1800s/early 1900s, before starting a travelling fair (Lund’s Tivoli) in Norway.
His great-grandson, also called Håkon Lund, branched out in 1997 when the family took over Kongeparken near Stavanger. Formerly a typical summer land, it has been transformed into an inviting theme park with a teddy bear mascot and Thea Award-winning attractions. In 2015, a second park, Skånes Djurpark in Sweden, was added to the Lund group portfolio.
Whereas some showmen stopped touring after finding theme park success, Lund’s continue to keep a travelling show on the road, as well as a music festival business. These are run by Hakon’s brothers Aasmund and Magnus Lund respectively.
9. Knoebels Amusement Resort, Pennsylvania, USA
The Pennsylvania park’s roots as an amusement destination date back around a century, when locals in Elysburg, Pennsylvania, used to swim in a creek that ran through the centre of Henry Knoebel’s sawmill business.
In 1925 he built a swimming pool. A year later, he added a restaurant and a steam-powered carousel. Attracted to such recreation, families began building cottages in the forest. This gave Knoebel’s resort status long before it became a ‘thing’ in the attractions industry.
Henry’s son, Pete Knoebel developed the site as an amusement park. In 1977 it saw its first coaster, the Jet Star, previously at Coney Island. In 1999, Knoebel’s designed and built its own wooden coaster, the Twister. A pet project for the hands-on Dick Knoebel, Pete’s son, was the Flying Turns wooden bobsled coaster, opened in 2013. The park also boasts some classic dark rides.
Co-owned by Dick Knoebel with his brothers Richard (Dick), Ronald (Buddy) and their sister Leanna Muscato, the amusement resort is now operated by the next generation. Namely Dick’s sons Brian and Rick, Buddy’s son Trevor, and Leanna’s daughter Lauren.
10. Morey’s Piers, New Jersey, USA
The Jersey shore is not short of oceanside amusement parks and piers. However, the Morey family’s operations in Wildwood – which celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2019 – are among the best.
Run today by the second generation Morey brothers, Jack and Will Morey, the business was founded by Will and Bill Morey. The builder/carpenter siblings, who constructed several motels in Wildwood, started out with a fibreglass slide at Surfside Pier.
Later they would take over Wildwood’s other two piers and construct a pair of adjoining water parks. Between all five venues, the family now operates over 100 rides and attractions. There’s even a wooden coaster and suspended coaster (the prototype Vekoma SLC) that escape onto the beach.
Uniting all Morey’s sites are the ‘Sightseer’ tram cars that run along the boardwalk. Originally built for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, these have become something of a Wildwood institution. So much so, Morey’s themed a family coaster after the tram cars last season, as designed by JRA (as pictured).
11. Nigloland, France
Nestled in the heart of a Champagne region forest with a natural river running through the site, a visit to Nigloland offers a picturesque experience for all the family. The amusement rides are just the icing on the cake.
The family-owned park was founded in 1987 by former travelling showmen Patrice and Philippe Gélis. Spread over 40 hectares, it is home to almost 40 rides and attractions. A team of 10 is employed to manage Nigloland’s green spaces and century-old trees. Meanwhile, the park is committed to working with local companies for everything from construction to food & beverage.
A Mack looping coaster called Alpina Blitz is one of the park’s signature attractions. New for 2020 will be a family coaster called Noisette Express by ART Engineering. Other additions in recent years include the world’s tallest (100m/328ft) rotating drop tower, Donjon de l’Extrême by Funtime, Air Meeting (Gerstlauer Sky Fly) and Zabeilles (Zierer Flying Fish).
Yet with attractions such a giant Ferris wheel and the Eden Palais carousel, the Gélis brothers are not afraid to acknowledge their Fête Foraine (travelling fair) roots. In addition, guests can extend their stay in such beautiful surroundings by staying at the Hotel des Pirates.
12. Phantasialand, Germany
This family-owned theme park near Cologne was founded in 1967 by the travelling showman Gottlieb Löffelhardt and puppeteer Richard Schmidt. Löffelhardt passed away in 2011 after handing control of Phantasialand some years earlier to his son Robert. The park’s founder also once co-owned Mirabilandia in Italy with Preston & Barbieri’s Giancarlo Casoli.
At the family’s flagship park in Brühl, around 2 million guests a year come to enjoy a rich selection of themed lands and one-of-a-kind attractions. Families can also stay in one of two themed hotels. Still one of the park’s most popular attractions after nine seasons is Maus au Chocolat. This game-based dark ride features interactive technology by Alterface and vehicles from ETF Ride Systems.
Further immersive masterpieces include the elaborate Chiapas log flume by Intamin and Klugheim themed area. The latter is home to the roller coasters Taron and Raik.
The Dutch manufacturer has also supplied F.L.Y. – the world’s longest flying coaster. This anchors the new Rookburgh area, which also features a Steampunk themed hotel adjoining the park’s main gate. This was set to debut in 2020 but could be delayed due to coronavirus. It’ll be worth the wait.
13. Puy du Fou, France
When Philippe de Villiers put on a night show at a castle in the Vendée department of France back in 1978, little could he have imagined what he had started. Today Puy Du Fou is the country’s second-busiest non-Disney theme park. And its unique live entertainment model has an increasingly global footprint.
Visitors to the original park in France can enjoy over 10 historical live shows daily. This includes the long-running night spectacular Cinéscénie. Fusing large casts of human and animal performers, special effects and moving sets, each of the productions would be a headline performance in its own right anywhere else.
Under the watch of Philippe’s son Nicolas de Villiers, Puy do Fou has established new productions in the Netherlands, Spain and soon China. Each may feature different stories, but they all share a signature style.
14. Siam Park, Tenerife, Spain
When Wolfgang Kiessling made a visit to the Canary Islands as a German airline employee back in the 1960s/70s, visitor attractions were few and far between.
Over the past four decades, the Kiessling family, including Wolfgang’s son Christoph, has developed two world-class family-owned theme parks in Tenerife. Each entertains more visitors every year than the island has residents.
Their pièce de résistance is Siam Park. Opened in 2008, it has been voted the best water park on the planet by TripAdvisor users for six years running. This beautifully themed park has debuted several world-first slides and attractions over the years, mostly by ProSlide.
The family’s other, longer-running attraction in Tenerife is Loro Parque (Parrot Park). This has a similar annual attendance of around 1.25 million and also features Thai theming.
15. Tayto Park, Ireland
Tayto Park, Ireland’s no.1 theme park is that unusual thing. A family-operated attraction that appears as if it might be corporate-owned. That’s because its name and logo are inspired by a crisp (potato chip) brand.
Located north of Dublin in County Meath, the park began as a small zoo and activity park, run by former potato farmer Ray Coyle. After selling his crops for many years to Tayto manufacturer Largo Foods, he bought the company.
The Coyle family has since sold its interest in the snack food business to concentrate fully on Tayto Park, with and Ray and his wife Ros‘ son Charles Coyle overseeing daily operations as Managing Director.
Attendance rose in 2015 after the addition of a wooden coaster, Cú Chulainn. There has been relentless investment since, including new attractions by Interlink, Zamperla, Severn Lamb and Simworx.
More coasters and a hotel feature in the family-owned theme park’s future plans. In addition, guests can still tour the Tayto crisp factory as part of their visit. The link between such a nationally-known brand and a park with around 750,000 annual guests has great cross-promotional benefits for both parties.
16. Tripsdrill, Germany
Tripsdrill is Germany’s oldest amusement park, dating back to 1929, and the same founding family is still in charge. That year, Eugene Fisher built a windmill called Altweibermühle (Old Lady’s Mill) containing a slide and a restaurant. Steadily, he built up a park around it, adding a zoo with domestic animals in the 1950s.
Both the third and fourth generations of the family are now part of the business. This includes Eugene’s grandsons Helmut, Roland and Dieter Fischer. Responsible for day-to-day operations are Roland’s son Benjamin and Dieter’s son Andreas Fischer, who oversees the Widparadies (zoo).
Surrounded by vineyards, Tripsdrill enjoys picturesque surroundings in the Heilbronn district of Baden-Württemberg. Local Swabian theming remains key to its offering and the family use local materials/suppliers wherever possible. This has resulted in some particularly charming and quirky attractions.
In addition to four roller coasters, including the wooden construction Mammut and Karacho launch coaster, guests can enjoy the Maibaum (Maypole) ride, a pair of treehouse-themed tower rides and a Mack flume ride with bathtubs. For the 2020 season, the park was due to open a Family Boomerang/suspended coaster combination from Vekoma.
17. Xcaret, Mexico
The flagship property of Grupo Xcaret is unlike other theme parks. Located on the Mayan Riveria, it offers a wealth of activities in the middle of the rain forest, in small inlets, or along rivers or in the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean. Guests can also enjoy cultural experiences including music, dance and the charrería (Mexican rodeo).
Its roots date back to 1986 when Miguel Pali Quintana Pali, an architect living in Mexico City, visited the Mayan Riviera in Quintana Roo. After encountering a labyrinth of caverns, cenotes (water-filled sinkholes) and underground rivers, he bought 5 hectares.
Four years later he partnered with Carlos, Oscar and Marcos Constandse. The brothers brought with them a further 60 acres. The following year, the partnership opened Xcaret.
Described as an “eco-archaeological park”, it was the winner of the Applause Award from Liseberg in 2018. Liseberg CEO Andreas Andersen described Xcaret as “one of the most unique and authentic park destinations in the world.”
Pali and the Constandse brothers retain control of Grupo Xcaret, which now operates a diverse range of local experiences in and around Cancun including Xplor, Xel-Há, Xoximilco, Xichen, Xavage, Xenses and Xenotes Oasis Maya.
Previous family-owned theme parks
Here’s a handful of previous family-owned theme parks and amusement parks that have fallen into corporate ownership but are still worthy of a mention for their individual nature.
There have been many changes at this popular Belgian park since the Spanish operator Parques Reunidos bought it in 2004. The park was founded by the late Belgian country music star Bobbejaan Schoepen. It once featured performances from the singer and a museum dedicated to Native American art.
There’s still a nod to the park’s ‘Wild West’ roots in attractions like the El Paso dark ride. However, all the new rides and attractions added in recent years have had entirely different themes. Yet the Bobbejaan name remains, which must still give a sense of pride to the surviving members of his family including his son and former park manager Jackie Schoepen.
This was founded by the Müller family as a typical ‘Märchenwald’ (fairytale forest). But Familypark, near Lake Neusiedlersee, is now a family park only in terms of its audience. Mario Müller, who sold to Compagnie des Alpes last year, developed the site significantly over the last two decades.
Time will tell if its new French operator will continue to make additions with as much character as Apfelflug (Apple Flight, Zierer wave swinger), Entenparade (Metalbau Emmeln duck ride), Götterblitz (Lighting of the Gods coaster by Mack) and Krähenest (Krane’s Nest slide, pictured).
Indiana Beach, USA
Just before writing this feature, we learned of the sad closure of this once popular lakeside amusement park. Located in Monticello, Indiana, it welcomed its first guests as far back as 1926.
The Spackman family built up an atmospheric venue alongside Lake Schafer over more than 80 years. It featured an RV (recreational vehicle) campground in addition to classic amusement park attractions including a wooden roller coaster.
The park was sold in 2008 to Morgan RV. It later passed on to Apex Parks, the group founded by the late Al Weber Jr. Yet Apex failed to invest in new attractions in recent years. Special events and promotional pricing failed to halt an attendance decline. Apex pulled the plug on the park in February, and it looks unlikely to open again.
Images kind courtesy of parks featured unless otherwise stated. Background image: Djurs Sommerland