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Out-of-commission rides generated questions this summer about the very future of Magic Springs and Crystal Falls, the Hot Springs amusement park.
In the last 10 years, the park has seen three different owners and a significant investment of borrowed money to expand the park's appeal. Two separate bond issues — by the Arkansas Development Finance Authority and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission — raised about $14 million for the park and improvements, debts that have yet to be repaid. Payments on the bond are current, the state says.
As the season moves toward its Nov. 1 end, however, park officials say things, including thrill rides, are finally getting back on track.
When the season began April 11, 10 of the park's 24 rides were closed for repairs, something the park tried to offset by offering tickets at half-price. PARC Management purchased the park in June 2008. The company began closing rides in July of that year to bring them up to a higher safety standard.
Dana Whisenhunt, promotions manager for Magic Springs, says all rides are operable except for one, the X-Coaster, one of the park's most popular “thrill” rides.
“Last year in August it was a situation where people visited the park and realized that many of the rides were down, which of course, initially leads to rumors like Magic Springs is closing, which is not the case at all,” Whisenhunt says. “This year when we opened there were still quite a few rides that were inoperable. The situation was quite extensive.”
Steve Arrison, CEO of the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the change in ownership, from Themeparks LLC of Louisville, Ky., to PARC was a “rough one” that resulted in litigation, delaying the renovations to some rides.
“The company didn't just take it over one day and that was it,” Whisenhunt says. “There was a lot of back and forth and there were some lawsuits at play that tied up dollars on both ends. That basically got resolved in spring of this year so that freed up PARC to go ahead and start doing some of the things they wanted to accomplish.”
One problem, Arrison says, is that repairing a theme park ride is no simple task.
“When a part goes out it's not like you can go down to an auto supply place and get a new one. It has to come from a certain manufacturer, and most of them are based in Europe. It's just taken them awhile to get going.”
Whisenhunt says the economy might have played a role in keeping people away from the park this summer, but one obvious issue was rain in an uncommonly wet summer.
“[The economic question] is a difficult one to answer,” she says. “We didn't feel like people weren't coming here because of the economy. Weather has had a huge impact. In May we had three straight weeks of rain. We've closed the park because of rain more than we ever have before.”
Some visitors have also complained that Magic Springs has cut back on some services like offering free sunscreen and soft drinks. Whisenhunt says the freebies were part of a promotion that, like all promotions, ended. One reason for the change, she says, was environmental concerns.
“The cups were not recyclable and we incurred a lot of complaints from guests due to the trash it left in the park,” she says.
Magic Springs does not release attendance information, but according to Arrison, the theme park seems to be on track for another good year despite the repair work and the rain.
“Every year they've reported record growth,” he says.
Lacking attendance figures, one indicator is the 3 percent hospitality tax collected on prepared foods and beverages sold at the park. In 2007, Magic Springs paid a total of $46,350 in hospitality taxes. In 2008, the figure rose to $50,693. So far this year, the park has paid $19,984, but that's just for April, May and June.
“It's difficult to make a comparison with those numbers though, because last year they gave away soft drinks for free,” Arrison says. “This year's collections should be higher because of that.”
Arrison says tourism in Hot Springs has been somewhat of a surprise this year, given the economic situation.
“In terms of tourism we're holding our own,” he says. “We were up 3 percent going into our June collections. Now we're up maybe 1 percent. So we're up for the year which is better than I anticipated. I think in my budget I predicted being down 2 percent because I was scared to death.”
As for Magic Springs and Crystal Falls, Arrison says next year's outlook is much better.
“They finally got their act together here at the end of the summer, so we're looking forward to some great things from them next year. I mean, we need them. They're a very important part of tourism in Hot Springs.”