New amusement park boss looks beyond big thrills

December 31, 2011 - 12:25 PM
Amusement Park Boss

This undated photo provided by the Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. shows Matthew Ouimet. Ouimet, the incoming chief executive of the nation's third biggest amusement park chain, wants to bring a little Disney magic to the company's parks in the Midwest and along both coasts. Ouimet spent 17 years managing Disney's resorts, theme parks and cruise line. (AP Photo/Cedar Fair Entertainment Co.)

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Stuck in a dreary staff meeting this summer, the new president of the nation's third-biggest amusement park chain decided to shake things up by taking everyone for a spin on one of the world's fastest roller coasters.

As they neared the coaster, a young woman noticed an executive wearing a tie and somewhat jokingly asked if he could get her group to the front of the line. "As a matter of fact, I can," Cedar Fair Entertainment Co.'s Matthew Ouimet told her.

"It just made my day, and it made theirs," he said.

Ouimet, who was named Cedar Fair's president this summer and adds the chief executive post this week, wants to bring more such magical moments to the company's parks in the Midwest and along both coasts. He knows how to do it after spending 17 years managing Walt Disney Co.'s resorts, theme parks and cruise line.

He sees adding more rides that entire families can enjoy together and using technology to better connect with guests before they arrive and once they're inside the parks. And there might be a few surprises added along the way.

"We've always got to be known for great thrills," Ouimet said in a recent interview. "It has served us well. But I also want to be known for great connections, and that this is where families come together."

Once a regional amusement park chain, Cedar Fair has become an industry giant with 17 amusement and water parks, including Cedar Point and Kings Island in Ohio and Knott's Berry Farm near Los Angeles. It also has five hotels near its parks.

Its parks are known for big roller coasters and kiddie rides themed to the "Peanuts" comic strip characters.

Cedar Fair drew a record 22 million visitors in 2010 and is expected to announce even larger numbers for 2011, mainly because more people are looking for fun close to home.

"If during a recession were doing record attendance, there's still something very solid about the product," Ouimet said.

He came to the company in June to replace Richard Kinzel, who retired after running Cedar Fair for 25 years. He's spent the last six months getting to know the Sandusky-based company's staff and its properties.

"The vast majority of our guests come from within 300 miles," he said. "They grew up with these parks. They want it to be as good as they remember when they were kids."

His philosophy is fairly simple: Open the gates and rides on time; keep the park is clean; and make sure the employees are friendly.

"You never lose focus that it's the people who work in the park who are most important to your success," Ouimet said. "If it's a choice between having a great roller coaster or a great team, I'll take a great team."

One of the first new moves under his direction will come in January when a new online platform will make it easier to buy tickets and daily parking passes and find information for Cedar Fair's four biggest parks. Sites for the rest of the parks will go live before their seasons open.

The company also is looking at how to reach visitors through their smartphones while they are in the park.

"I can tell you which lines are shorter, where Snoopy is," Ouimet said. "You will have a better experience if we can get you better information."

Cedar Fair's formula in recent years has been to develop its parks by adding big steel coasters to bring in crowds. The drawback, Ouimet said, is that they aren't attractions an entire family can ride.

"The biggest gap we have, or opportunity, is to find rides or shows that everybody enjoys," he said. "That's what Disney pulls off very well."

Focusing on more than big thrills is a smart move, said Dennis Spiegel, a theme-park consultant who is president of Cincinnati-based International Theme Park Services Inc.

"There's more to this business than roller coasters," he said. "Because when you attend as a family, you spend as a family."

Spiegel, who helped build several of the parks Cedar Fair now owns, said Ouimet will bring a broad vision to Cedar Fair and expects him to emphasize "doing the little things nobody does better than Disney."

Ouimet wants to create some surprises in the parks, starting this summer. That might mean seeing more costumed characters or finding unexpected performers pop up in the parks. Some will be announced while others will be hidden finds.

"It's not always what you expected that you remember. It's what you came across," Ouimet said.

While with Disney, he oversaw the financial management of its resort, theme park and corporate real estate projects in California, Florida and France. He later became president of the cruise line and Disneyland Resort.

Ouimet also spent two years as president of Starwood Hotels & Resorts before leaving the company in 2008.

It's doubtful that Cedar Fair will be building any hotels soon, he said, even though it has plenty of room around several parks, including Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Mo.; Kings Dominion, near Richmond, Va.; and Carowinds, in Charlotte, N.C.

That's mainly because the company still has a heavy debt of about $1.5 billion lingering from its acquisition of Paramount Parks Inc. in 2006.

Instead, Ouimet would rather partner with existing hotels and develop the company's land with campgrounds and other attractions.

The goal is to get people to stay a second day, making for more spending and a more relaxed visit.

"The world is more complicated and stressful than we want it to be," Ouimet said. "I'm successful if you're smiling and laughing."