The Niche Alternative to the Big Three
By Carl Kotala
When it comes to providing a fun day for the family, the executives at Gatorland and Fun Spot America have a similar philosophy: they want you to walk out with a smile on your face and great memories to share. Having a few extra bucks in your pocket, well, that’s just part of the beauty of spending the day there, instead of going to Disney World, SeaWorld or Universal Studios.
Tourists may flock to Central Florida for the other guys, but for tourists looking for something different, Fun Spot and Gatorland are attractive alternatives. “We offer things that the big three don’t have,” Fun Spot Owner John Arie Sr. said. “You can come in with your kids, and if you don’t participate – you don’t ride a ride – you don’t pay. It makes it very affordable family fun.
“We have free parking. We have reasonably-priced food and beverages. We have a clean park with unique, exciting and safe rides. The formula has worked for us. We feel like we complement the iconic attractions in that they come here for them and then can take a day off and visit us, where you get a totally different, unique experience and still go home with something to talk about.”
Now in its 17th year of operation, Fun Spot draws an estimated one million guests to each of its Orlando and Kissimmee parks.
Gatorland, meanwhile, was founded in 1949 by Owen and Pearl Godwin and draws 450,000 visitors annually to the “Alligator Capitol of the World.” It boasts the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line that in 2014 was named among the top 10 zip lines in the world by AOL Travel. Recently, they opened up a zip line that is wheelchair accessible, believed to be the first of its kind in the eastern United States.
CEO Mark McHugh’s wife, Diane, is the granddaughter of Owen Godwin, meaning both businesses are family-owned. That, in addition to all they have to offer, helps set them apart.
“That’s one of the biggest benefits of being a family-owned business – you treat the employees like family,” McHugh said. “And they are. You know their names. You know what’s going on with their kids, with their family. You meet their parents. It’s a very intimate relationship we have with our employees.”
The two businesses recently worked together to create Gator Spot – a 2.5-acre attraction built at Fun Spot’s Orlando location. It features more than 100 alligators, birds, snakes and lizards, along with a leucistic alligator (more commonly albino), a white gator with blue eyes.
Arie Sr., who has been in the business for 45 years, opened Fun Spot 17 years ago. Back in those days, he said it was hard to find someone to loan him $15,000. In 2013, when the park expanded from 5 to 15 acres, he had banks competing to loan him $20 million.
With a multi-level go-kart track, rollercoasters and a host of other rides, it has something for kids of all ages.
Theme Park Sized Vision
Originally known as a Family Entertainment Center, it has graduated to an attraction and is now pushing to transition to the next level.
“I think we do have a nice amusement park that we’re starting to theme so we can be called a theme park,” he said. “We have Route 66. We have an old Florida section. We have a Boardwalk section with rides and rollercoasters. So we’re creating our own theme within the market to attract more and more.”
Anyone who has watched TV has probably seen the Fun Spot commercials where COO John Arie Jr. can be heard saying, “It’s huuuuuge!” The idea actually came about seven years ago during discussions of how to celebrate the park’s 10-year anniversary.
The commercials have made him a local celebrity. “It’s fun. It really is an honor to be in the commercials because the people around town, they relate to you and see you as a friend,” Arie Jr. said. “And it lets you know your marketing dollars are working.”
In the early years, park guests were 70 percent local and 30 percent tourist. Last year, it was more of a 50-50 split as the company began marketing itself in Europe, Canada and Brazil.
The local market has been important to Gatorland as well, particularly after the infamous fire in 2006 that took out the gift shop, several walkways and killed a crocodile and two pythons. The park stayed open while it remodeled, but when it was ready for its big unveiling in 2008, the country was in the middle of a recession.
With attendance down at all the parks, McHugh decided not to follow the model of raising prices to make more money off fewer visitors. Instead, he slashed prices 60 percent to $9.99 a ticket for Florida residents and soon thereafter, the park saw record attendance numbers.
Though that discount ended in December, it’s still 50 percent off for Florida residents.
“Our philosophy is we want to be a very affordable price, especially for locals because they’re looking for deals,” McHugh said. “Even at $26.99, which is our general admission price, it’s a very affordable day of family fun.
“That’s our niche market – maintain a reasonable attendance, give them good entertainment, good southern hospitality and let them walk out with smiles and memories.”
Hitting the Target
Like Fun Spot, Gatorland targets a younger crowd, but with the addition of the zip line, it now has plenty of appeal to older children as well. Advertising dollars are spent within a 75-mile radius of the park, though there is also a considerable effort to attract tourists, who make up 65 percent of business.
“If they’re flying into the Sanford Airport, we’ve got in-flight videos,” McHugh said. “We’ve got some displays inside the Sanford Airport. We’re in the rental car agencies. We’ve got billboards when they’re driving down to the theme park areas. We’ve got some in-room advertisements in the hotels.
“(There are) a bunch of opportunities for us to touch them. We’re in all the coupon discount books that you see. We’re hitting them with a variety of different advertising media once they get here.”
Gatorland tour guides are taught to be engaging, good storytellers and, of course, full of downhome southern humor and hospitality.
Likewise, Fun Spot workers are trained to be friendly and to make it a point to give the guest the best experience possible. It’s all part of the Golden Rule, an Arie family tradition – there are 14 of them working in the business.
Whether they’re trying to attract tourists, or bring in the local crowd, both Gatorland and Fun Spot seem to have hit a sweet spot for those in Orlando looking for a fun way to spend the day.
“We’ve got a little gem here, as far as locals go,” John Arias, Jr. said. “They realize the value they get. You can get our season pass for less than a single-day pass at one of their parks. That’s what they enjoy.
“When they have friends or family come into town, we’re normally the place that they take them. They may say, ‘Go ahead, hit Disney and Universal, but when you’re ready we’re going to take you out on the town …’ they bring them here.”