Holiday World and Splashin’ Safari, the world’s first theme park, contrives impressively to maintain the welcoming atmosphere of a small, family-run venture while offering world class, record-breaking rides and a big-park vision.
Holiday World was opened in 1946 as Santa Claus Land by Louis J Koch, a retired industrialist who feared children would be disappointed on visiting the town of Santa Claus, Indiana and finding no Santa Claus there. In those days the park was free, and to this day, still owned and largely run by the Koch family, it maintains that philanthropic ethos: visitors are referred to as ‘guests’ and made to feel like welcome friends; they are offered free parking, a free soft drink and free sunscreen. Staff are friendly, and visitors return to the park season after season, sure of a warm welcome and a great day out – and many record-breaking rides.
The unveiling of plans for the 60 mile-per-hour Thunderbird steel wing coaster marks the beginning of a new era for Holiday World.
Wooden Rollercoasters and a Water Park
Blooloop spoke to Matt Eckert, President of Holiday World and Splashin’ Safari, and to Leah Koch, who is both Director of Creativity at Holiday World and, as great-granddaughter of the park’s founder, Louis Koch, a fourth-generation owner.
Leah (right) spoke about the origins of the park and its evolution until the present day:
“My great grandfather Louis Koch started Santa Claus Land in 1946 – back then it was a very, very small park: we didn’t actually charge admission until a year or two after we opened, but it has slowly grown through the years.
"My grandfather made some big expansions: it was while he was president that we became ‘Holiday World’ and added the Fourth of July and Halloween sections: a huge expansion for us, and then, in 1993, when my Dad as president he added the waterpark, Splashin’ Safari. We would do a big project one year and a smaller project the next.
"In 1995 we had The Raven, our first wooden coaster [In 2000, The Raven was ranked the world’s #1 wooden coaster, holding the top spot for four years. In 2014, The Raven was ranked the number 13 wooden coaster.]
"In 2000 we added The Legend, our second wooden coaster, [based on Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, it was ranked the world’s 4th best wooden coaster in 2004 and in 2011was ranked, along with The Raven, in the world’s top 20.]
"In 2006 we added the Thanksgiving section, which was our largest expansion since Holiday World began. We added The Voyage [ranked the world’s #1 wooden coaster from 2007-2011 and claiming the record for most air-time of any wooden coaster at 24.2 seconds.)
The construction of the Thunderbird was a closely guarded secret until the big reveal.
Koch explained, "We kept it quiet… we were trying to keep things as discreet as possible – so we didn’t have any steel delivered until after the announcement; it was quite the ordeal – they were running out of room by the time we made our announcement.”
Eckert (right) agreed, “I’m very excited about our progress. Typically, with any of our projects it always seems like we’re always running behind our vendors and trying to keep up with them, and this time it’s the opposite – we’ve done a great job, and are staying ahead of the curve… as of now we are two weeks ahead of our production schedule … We’re very excited.
"In the past, we’ve always opened for the season the first weekend of May, but this year because of the excitement over our first major steel coaster [Thunderbird] we’re actually going to open a weekend earlier than that, and open to the public the last weekend of April. So that’s pretty huge for us as well. Any time we can find a way to expand our season, we want to do so, and Thunderbird seemed like the perfect avenue for us to do that.”
Thunderbird: "the best of the best"
A park as unique and idiosyncratic as Holiday World demanded something special in the way of steel coasters.
Thunderbird, the $22 million Bolliger & Mabillard roller coaster will debut in April 2015, next to The Voyage coaster in the park's Thanksgiving section.
Eckert says, “We’re a family park, and we knew that when we added a steel coaster it couldn’t be something too extreme. We wanted it to be extreme, but to the point that families would still want to ride it. I have three small children aged from twelve to six and they’re all champing at the bit – my six-year-old’s not going to be tall enough… But knowing that, and knowing what we wanted, B&M [Bollinger & Mabillard] came back and forth to us with various ideas, and we kept going back to them, saying OK, well, could we do this…? …Could we do that…? In the original design the coaster was a little under 3000 feet. We wanted to be able to claim that it was over 3000 feet long, so we asked them to make it just twelve feet longer so we could have that little statistic on our side… And so they did. We had a part in the design, but by far, they take all the credit for it. They were fantastic.”
The coaster was designed by B&M “with our input, ” as Eckert puts it: “As I said, we started on this process many, many years ago, ” – and theming was by PGAV Destinations – “We were kind of waiting for the best of the best and the right thing that we felt was perfect for us.”
“PGAV is in tune with the story we want to tell…”
For the $22 million coaster’s theming, site development and buildings, Holiday World turned once again to St. Louis design firm PGAV destinations, who have previously teamed up with Holiday World on the park’s Wildebeestro café, Safari Outpost retail outlet and the renovated and “uber-themed” Mrs. Claus’s Kitchen.
Eckert explained that PGAV’s experience with theme and water parks such as SeaWorld and Universal Studios had demonstrated the design team was the right choice for Holiday World. “PGAV is in tune with the story we want to tell, ” he added: “They ‘get’ us.”
PGAV designed the landscape around the Thunderbird to resemble lush farmland, and wove a story encompassing the legend of the Thunderbird’s powerful flight through the forests and farmland of southern Indiana, which includes savagely gouged claw marks and the burns from lightning strikes in the fabric of the attraction’s main building, a traditional two-storey barn with stone silo. Riders will stand in line awaiting their turn around an authentic wagon on the ground floor, and the coaster will launch over their heads, adding to their anticipation. Other ground-breaking features include the Will Power building, both housing the flywheel and acting as monument to the visionary Holiday World president Will Koch who first planned the park’s first major steel coaster a decade ago but who didn’t live to see it come to fruition, and the spectacular ‘double fly-through barn’ which has the coaster racing through, splinters of wood flying, making a tight turn and doubling back through the barn’s roof and walls with a crash.
The Next Level
Koch reiterated the park’s unique appeal: “We have roots as a very small park. We’ve never been a corporate park, and we have the family vibe here that a lot of parks just don’t have any more, because we’ve been family owned and operated since the beginning. People come here and they feel like family. I think that as much as we’ve grown we’ve still managed to keep that small park feel… Everyone who comes here feels like they’re family to us. All of our employees are the friendliest employees in the world – we always treat our guests like they’re family. And they keep coming back. I take for granted the fact that we have such a good value proposition: we have free soft drinks; we don’t charge for parking; we offer free sunscreen… We’re really proud of it.”
Koch went on to outline the park’s aspirations: “Right now our goal here at Holiday World is to continue delivering the best guest experience possible, but one day I think we would like to become a destination. Right now we’re a local hot-spot: people love to come and visit for a day. We would love to turn it into a place where people want to come and visit for a week – to stay and explore everything we have to offer.”
Eckert agreed, adding: “I think that what we’re doing this year with Thunderbird is kind of taking us to the next level. We are still a very small park, in terms of how we behave, but in terms of what we offer I think we’re a very large park. And I think the Thunderbird is just going to emphasise that…
"We are going to continue to grow. We’re set on about 110 acres total, and we have another 90 to develop, so we can almost double in size in terms of what we offer to our guests. We have to be very careful in doing that – we must make sure we maximise the guest experience. We want to become a big park, but we want to maintain that small park feel. And I think that will come through continuing the value proposition that we offer and continuing to offer the service that our families expect.
"We have four cornerstones that we abide by – safety, service, cleanliness and friendliness. We want our guests to feel like family when we come here, so we want to treat them as if we’re welcoming them into our home, so we offer them a free drink; we offer them sunscreen so they can be safe: we want them to feel when they bring their children here that they’re in a safe environment and that they can have a great day. So in terms of the future, we want to continue doing what we’ve always done, but we want to continue to do more stuff at the same time.”
Record Breaking Rides
For a family owned and run park that prides itself on its friendly, small-park feel, the Holiday World line-up of attractions is an impressive roll-call of record-breaking rides: the ‘best’; the ’tallest’; the ‘fastest’; the ‘longest’. As well as the record breaking wooden coasters – the Raven, Legend and Voyage, the park boasts the world’s longest water coasters and the world’s largest enclosed water-slide. Thunderbird, still under construction, has the tallest vertical loop on a wing coaster and is over 3000 feet long.
Eckert concludes, “…Even though we’re a small park, we are innovative. A lot of the things we do are the first, or the longest, or the fastest. For example, the Thunderbird this year is the first launched steel wing coaster in the United States. That’s big. For a park of our size, to be able to offer that to our guests, to be able to say this little quote unquote small park in Southern Indiana is the first in the United States to offer an attraction that no-one else has, that’s huge. So we want to continue to do that. We want to continue not only to exceed our guests’ expectations but to grow.”
Follow the progress of the Thunderbird's construction on the webcam here and see the topping of the coaster below: