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Former Disney Executives Take Over Palace Entertainment, Operator
of 32 Water Parks and Amusement Centers in the U.S.
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By Sandi Cain - Orange County Business Journal Staff 
May 2006

John Cora and a team of former Walt Disney Co. veterans are looking to bring some Mouse to Raging Waters, Boomers and other parks that are part of Palace Entertainment Inc.

Cora, who worked at Disney for 25 years and led operations for the Disneyland Resort expansion earlier this decade, has taken over Newport Beach-based Palace Entertainment. 

Orange-based VisionMaker LLC, owned by Cora and Daniel Martinez, bought Palace Entertainment along with MidOcean Partners, a private equity firm that has offices in New York and London. The estimated $200 million acquisition closed last month.

Cora was named chief executive of Palace Entertainment after the deal closed. Martinez—a former executive with Disneyland and Universal Studios—is chief operating officer.

Roughly a dozen other former Disney employees have joined them at Palace Entertainment.

Palace Entertainment is the largest operator of water parks and family amusement centers in the U.S. It was formed in 1998 after several independent amusement operators combined. 

Locally, Palace Entertainment operates Boomers in Irvine and Fountain Valley. 

In all, the company owns and operates 32 centers in eight states under the Boomers, Raging Waters, SpeedZone, Big Kahuna’s and Wet ’n Wild names. 

Palace Entertainment’s Southern California holdings include Raging Waters in San Dimas and parks in Palm Springs, San Diego, Upland, Vista, El Cajon and Santa Maria. 

The company employs more than 6,000 workers, with about 2,500 in California. Annual sales are an estimated $150 million.

Cora said the team plans to focus on marketing and improvements to the parks. It also will look at making acquisitions.

Cora and Martinez caught the acquisition bug when they looked into buying a chain of video game locations, GameWorks, in 2004 and later Legoland in Carlsbad. Though they passed on both, the process introduced them to MidOcean Partners and other investors.

Cora, Martinez and other VisionMaker executives are set to hold on to their stakes in VisionMaker, which consults and develops amusement parks, resorts and other destinations. They’ll hire a new management team to run VisionMaker.

Family amusement centers draw an average of 381,000 people a year, according to Alexandria, Va.-based International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions. Some parks get more than 600,000 visitors each year. Visitors typically come back three times a year.

“When you look at the demographics and income levels, it’s the same core theme park consumer that we’re used to (at Disney),” Martinez said.

Palace’s 32 parks could draw at least 12 million people per year. Last year, Disneyland drew roughly 14 million visitors.

VisionMaker has focused on international development during the past few years, working on projects in China, Dubai, Russia, Mexico and Korea.

Its best-known project is Peninsula Papagayo in Costa Rica, a 2,400-acre golf resort with a Four Seasons hotel.

Family amusement centers cater to short visits, a role that destinations such as Disneyland don’t always fill.

“Time is more important than money for the leisure traveler today,” said Jim Benedick, a partner at consultant Management Resources in Tustin.

Water parks have a high number of repeat visitors, Benedick said. “(Both types) are more local parks than regional,” he said. 

That could be a plus this summer. High gas prices tend to keep travelers closer to home.

Cora’s team believes that by acquiring well-known, stable assets, they can focus on growth instead of brand or attendance building. “The attendance and brand awareness is already there—all it needs is that call to action to bring people back,” Martinez said. “We want to position the parks as local, family-focused, value-oriented parks.”

The company is looking to improve visitors’ experiences at the parks, encourage longer stays and grow park spending.

Palace Entertainment plans to use tactics the executives learned at Disney to hit those goals. Cora said the company already started employee training to boost standards at all its centers.

“One thing we can do without investing a lot of time and money is to offer families the experience and guest service they deserve,” Martinez said. “We love Disney, but they don’t have a monopoly on guest service.”

Benedick said many places forget about guest service today, but it’s an important element of the business. “I’m sure they’ll bring their (Disney) service and training experience with them,” Benedick said.

Cora said the company plans to add one-of-a-kind rides, products and events at its parks. Three rides will debut at various parks this year. “Raging Races,” a race car-themed water ride that’s timed to allow up to eight riders to race at once, is set to open at Raging Waters.

Other new rides include “Dragon’s Den” at Wet ’n Wild and “Alien Invasion” at Splish Splash. 

The latter ride includes a six-story drop—something not typically seen at water parks, Cora said.

The rides were the creation of Chip Cleary, a Palace Entertainment executive recently promoted to senior vice president of business development.

“Kids’ rides do well and they’re not that expensive (to build),” Benedick said.

Palace Entertainment competitors include Sandusky, Ohio-based Cedar Fair’s Soak City at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park and Canada’s Scandia Family Fun Centers. 

Scandia’s Ontario center near Ontario International Airport is one of the few family entertainment centers to include a roller coaster.

Cora said Palace Entertainment might build more rides at the parks, but he wasn’t sure a coaster would be in the mix.

Palace Entertainment does plan to go after sponsorships at its parks. And it hopes to license products.

The company also would like to re-enter the Las Vegas market, where Palace once operated a Wet ’n Wild on the Strip next to the Sahara Hotel. Palace lost the lease on that parcel in 2004 when a developer wanted to build a resort.

“That park was on a short-term lease,” Cora said. “Our other leases are long term.”

Resorts Unlikely

He said it’s unlikely that the company would turn to resort development, despite VisionMaker’s background in that area. 

“We’ll focus on theme parks or water parks, but if the right opportunity came up, we’d consider a resort,” he said.

“We have a lot of land associated with our water parks.” 
 


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Sandi Cain is a freelance writer and contributor to the Orange County Business Journal and meetings industry publications. She specializes in hospitality, tourism and travel. Cain holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Kent State University in Ohio, where she majored in social studies. A former high school teacher, she has written for niche-market sports publications in the U.S., England and Australia and formerly worked in both the printing and high-tech industries. A Cleveland, Ohio native, Cain hasbeen a resident of Laguna Beach since the late ’70s. She enjoys travel, gardening, reading and spoiling her three cats.
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Contact:

Sandi Cain
Laguna Beach CA
949-497-2680
sdcain31@cox.net

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Also See: Long before Walt Disney Bought Land for Disneyland Park in the Early 1950s, Walter Knott Planted the Seeds of the Amusement Industry in Orange County, California / Sandi Cain / May 2004
Tony Bruno, VP and General Manager of Disneyland Resort Hotels, Maps Out 2004 Changes / Sandi Cain / March 2004

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