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Lagoon is riding economy swing

FARMINGTON — Lagoon amusement park officials are hoping that Utah's economy will rebound this year and reverse two years of declining admissions. Adding a new $3 million ride is expected to boost attendance.

Sheldon Killpack, Lagoon marketing director, said the state's economic picture appears to be improving, which could mean improved gate attendance for the park. With some 1.1 million paid admissions each year, Lagoon is Davis County's largest tourist attraction.

Lagoon, like most businesses in the tourist industry, saw its numbers decline after Sept. 11, 2001. Visitor numbers continued to decline by 2.7 percent in 2002 and 2.6 percent in 2001, Killpack said, adding Lagoon's drop last year was much less than many other parks nationwide, some of which saw the number of visitors drop by 10 percent or more.

"We feel good we didn't experience the decline a lot of destination resorts did," he said. "We've done well historically because people stick close to home."

Although the park has raised its base entrance fee by $1 per year during the past two years, Killpack said management doesn't believe the increases hurt attendance nearly as much as a poor economy does. "We raised prices as much as $3 in a year and still experienced increased attendance," he said.

It's still too early to tell for sure whether visitor numbers will increase this year, Killpack said. "Our (season) Passport ticket sales don't pick up until the park opens and when the weather shifts. There's a mental shift in people at that point."

The Spider, a new German-made ride that is a spinning roller coaster, is expected to attract crowds, Killpack said, adding new rides generally increase attendance at amusement parks. "We are confident this will have a positive effect on attendance."

About 80 percent of Lagoon's customers come from a 50-mile radius of Farmington, basically the Wasatch Front, with its estimated 1.7 million people. Of the remainder, about 10 percent come from Idaho and the rest from other parts of the country.

The park is a big draw for the 15-and-under crowd, Killpack said.

Lagoon is not a destination resort, such as Disneyland, but rather a regional amusement park. "We're a family park. When you have eight or 10 major roller-coaster rides and appeal to a teen market, you're more of a thrill park. Other big ones with hotels and developments are destination resorts," Killpack said.

It may not be a destination park, but Lagoon does have visitors who come to see its 110-year-old carousel and hand-carved wooden horses. "In the 1950s when the roller coaster caught fire, (owner) Robert Freed came down and sprayed the merry-go-round with water to protect its hand-carved figures," Killpack said. Only a handful of merry-go-rounds with hand-carved horses survive today.

Lagoon is one of the few amusement parks left in the country that is not owned by a large corporation. It has been in the hands of the Freed family since the end of World War II when four Freed brothers bought it from the founding Bamberger family. Today it is owned by the Peter Freed family.

It employs 200 people throughout the year and up to 3,000 teenagers during its operating season. "A lot of people in Utah got their employment start at Lagoon," Killpack said.