When Holiday World and Splashin' Safari opens for the season next month, visitors will notice some differences. One ride has been renamed, new water slides have been built and the entrance to the water park has been completely redesigned.
There are other changes behind the scenes, after a winter that saw the world's first theme park become the subject of a family court battle. But Holiday World President and CEO Matt Eckert said once the gates open on May 4, it will be back to business as usual.
"We do not want to be a cookie-cutter park," Eckert told the Evansville Courier & Press. "We want to be a cut above, and I think that we are and will continue to be. We're not really a small park anymore, but it is really important to maintain that small park, family feel. Because that is who we are. We understand what our guests are looking for when they come here, and we are not going to deviate from that."
Eckert was first hired at Holiday World in February 2000. He served in various roles, and left the park briefly at the end of the 2012 season. He was asked to return after Lori Koch assumed control of the park in December.
"The decision to come back was not hard," Eckert said. "When you work someplace for 13 years, you become a member of a family, in some ways. My love and my passion for the theme park industry is just massive. It is something you can't get out of your system. Where else could you be where your job is to make memories and help families have fun."
The park, originally named Santa Claus Land, opened in 1946. In 1984, the name was changed to Holiday World, and the late Will Koch became park president. The Splashin' Safari water park was added in 1993. The first major roller coaster, The Raven, was added in 1995. Other additions, including two more wooden roller coasters, have helped boost attendance, which now tops 1 million visitors annually.
From the beginning, the park has been owned by the Koch family. Louis Koch opened the first attractions in 1946, son Bill Koch soon took over, and grandson Will was the park president from 1984 until his unexpected death in 2010. Will Koch died when he drowned in his swimming pool, and his family believes his diabetes probably played a role.
After Will's death, his brother, Dan, assumed the duties of park president. An agreement between the siblings stipulated Dan could purchase Will's shares from Will's wife, Lori. But the two could not agree on a price for the company's shares, and a Vanderburgh Circuit Court ruling in December in Lori's favor said she was no longer under any obligation to sell the shares. She then fired Dan as the president and asked Eckert to take the job, which he accepted. Dan, who still owns 40 percent of Holiday World's holding company, has filed an appeal of the Vanderburgh Circuit Court decision, which has yet to be heard.
The Koch family experienced more difficult news this week when Santa Claus businessman Philip Koch, the son of Bill and Pat Koch, died of cardiac arrest at age 47.
Eckert and others at Holiday World don't have much time to worry about the legal battle or family setbacks right now. With the countdown to opening day fully under way, several park projects still need quite a bit of work. The new pool for the diving show isn't finished. The Splashin' Safari plaza hasn't been paved. The new water slides are not complete. But that's nothing unusual for mid-April.
"Even in the years when we don't add an attraction, we are doing other things to improve the experience," Eckert said. "For example, this year we're adding a new first-aid building. Those things add to the experience for our guests, too. We are always looking to enhance that experience."
The new Hyena Falls water slides are the biggest addition this year. Three of the slides are 40 feet tall, and a fourth is 50 feet. They occupy the hill behind Giraffica, which was formerly known as Pilgrim's Plunge. At the same time, the boundary of the water park has been expanded. The placement of the new slides away from other water park features was done intentionally.
"We don't want our guests waiting in line a long time for any attraction, whether that's in the dry park or the water park," Eckert said. "This slide is a high-capacity attraction. It will move people very, very quickly. It is set off a little bit from the rest of Splashin' Safari, so that will disperse the lines a little bit. Our hope is this will alleviate the line wait and at the same time be a fantastic ride."
Splashin' Safari's entrance is in the process of a complete overhaul. Almost all of the original features from 1993 are gone and have been replaced by the new first-aid station and keyless lockers. The lockers can be opened by wristbands worn by any and all members of a family.
"We decided to open up the entry to Splashin' Safari to enhance the guest experience when they get here in the mornings," Eckert said. "We've had some pretty warm days in the past, and the water park entrance has been very, very busy. We wanted to open that up to improve traffic flow. We don't want anyone to feel crowded."
When he was Holiday World's president, Will Koch appeared in most of the park's advertisements along with his mother, Pat. Dan later did the same. But don't expect to see Eckert or Pat Koch in this year's commercials. Instead, Eckert said Holiday World will put more emphasis on the park's many attractions.
"I feel very firmly that I am proud of what our park has," he said. "We need to focus on and showcase what we have."
Eckert called Will Koch a close friend who is terribly missed. He also called Will a visionary who took Holiday World from a small, local attraction to a park that has drawn national attention and praise. Eckert said he intends to keep the park on that path.
"I definitely do have a vision of where we want to go," Eckert said. "Working closely with Will Koch for a number of years, I know what his dreams were. I know what we can accomplish is massive. So I see my role as working with the family to take the park to the next level and the next generation. Will dreamed big. We will continue to dream big."
Holiday World opens for the season May 4. Splashin' Safari opens May 10.