2017 Business Leaders of the Year | Tourism
Little did John Arie Sr. know back in 1967, when he was a gate attendant at a local go-kart track, that he would eventually own the largest family-owned theme park business in Central Florida. The owner of the go-kart track, who was also a mentor to Arie, needed someone to run his dirt bike course. Arie jumped at the opportunity to learn the business from the inside out.
He first tried his hand as a business owner in 1975 when he opened a go-kart operation in Maryland. It was a lucrative business, but he eventually came back to Central Florida and opened a track here. He made a decent living but decided to go into lawnmower sales for a while. In 1979, after realizing selling lawnmowers was no more lucrative than running a go-kart business, he bought a three-acre parcel of land on International Drive. During his 10-year run at that location, he learned tourists spend more money than locals, which is why he has made I-Drive a permanent home.
He sold that three-acre parcel and started Fun Spot America as a family entertainment center in 1998 when he bought five acres on I-Drive. He built a multi-level go-kart track, which was a big hit with guests. Eventually, he bought 10 additional acres, built more tracks and added other attractions.
“I knew we could make money in go-karts, but having multi-level tracks brought it to a whole new level,” he said. “We built them ourselves; we were in innovative territory and knew we were on to something big.”
Arie and his team designed four tracks (three multi-level), added roller coasters and a host of other rides. Fun Spot was now an extremely profitable theme park and affordable alternative to Orlando’s big three amusement parks. Now in its 19th year of operation, it draws an estimated four million guests to its Orlando and Kissimmee locations.
“I definitely had to overcome hurdles along the way,” said Arie, who remembers that back in the early days, it was hard to find someone to lend him $15,000. “That’s what entrepreneurship is all about; you learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward, and never give up.”
That persistence paid off. When the park expanded to 15 acres back in 2013, Arie had banks competing to loan him $20 million.
Fun Spot’s theme is Americana, with Route 66, Old Florida and Boardwalk sections of the park. It represents affordable family fun with free parking, reasonably-priced food, and unique, exciting and safe rides. As a family owned and operated business, Arie wants families to feel at home there.
“We have the right product at the right place and time, and, most importantly, we have the right people,” he said. “It’s gratifying knowing my family will keep this going when I retire.”
Fun Spot is in good hands. When Arie does eventually step down, his sons, John, Jr. (CEO) and Mark (COO), and nephew, Lee (CFO), are well trained and in place to continue running the business. With 18 family members working in a variety of capacities at the parks, Arie cannot help but feel a strong sense of pride.
“There’s no handbook for grooming your kids for your business,” he said. “John, Jr. and Mark have learned every aspect of the business by doing things hands-on. They’ve both grown immensely from the trial and error process.”
Fun Spot has no specific mentoring program, but Arie has been the ultimate mentor to his sons and other employees working there. He believes strongly in not being afraid to learn what you do not know. “Learn your trade,” he said. “Understand the nuances and work hard at what you do. You can be prepared, but know you will fail at some point. Learn from it and keep on going.”