Holiday World plans to display fun, not family problems

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

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.


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. How much you wanna bet, that 70% of the jobs created there (after construction) are minimum wage? And Harvey is correct, the vast majority of residents in this project will drive to their jobs, and to think otherwise, is like Harvey says, a pipe dream. Someone working at a restaurant or retail store will not be able to afford living there. What ever happened to people who wanted to build buildings, paying for it themselves? Not a fan of these tax deals.

  2. Uh, no GeorgeP. The project is supposed to bring on 1,000 jobs and those people along with the people that will be living in the new residential will be driving to their jobs. The walkable stuff is a pipe dream. Besides, walkable is defined as having all daily necessities within 1/2 mile. That's not the case here. Never will be.

  3. Brad is on to something there. The merger of the Formula E and IndyCar Series would give IndyCar access to International markets and Formula E access the Indianapolis 500, not to mention some other events in the USA. Maybe after 2016 but before the new Dallara is rolled out for 2018. This give IndyCar two more seasons to run the DW12 and Formula E to get charged up, pun intended. Then shock the racing world, pun intended, but making the 101st Indianapolis 500 a stellar, groundbreaking event: The first all-electric Indy 500, and use that platform to promote the future of the sport.

  4. No, HarveyF, the exact opposite. Greater density and closeness to retail and everyday necessities reduces traffic. When one has to drive miles for necessities, all those cars are on the roads for many miles. When reasonable density is built, low rise in this case, in the middle of a thriving retail area, one has to drive far less, actually reducing the number of cars on the road.

  5. The Indy Star announced today the appointment of a new Beverage Reporter! So instead of insightful reports on Indy pro sports and Indiana college teams, you now get to read stories about the 432nd new brewery open or some obscure Hoosier winery winning a county fair blue ribbon. Yep, that's the coverage we Star readers crave. Not.