Sometimes Amusement Takes A Lot of Work

Thu May 29, 2008 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson



Construction work is not fun and games, but contractors that build theme and amusement parks are not immune to the delights they construct. There is something about creating a waterfall or a roller coaster that belies the notion that all construction labor is created equal.

“Well, it is different than building a house,” said Dutch McGrath III, president of Amusement Construction Co. Inc., whose motto is, “We Build Fun Things.”

“A lot of people who work for me worked quite a few years in general commercial building. They enjoy this work because it is different. It is a change of pace for them.”

Some other contractors in the park construction business have reached the same conclusion: Building “fun things” brings a special dimension of satisfaction to a construction project.

The projects are all across America — and around the world — wherever an amusement park, a theme park or a family fun center springs up to cater to thrill-seeking human impulses. The projects range in scope from the original Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. — and the numerous successor Disney theme parks — to neighborhood amusement centers whose popular appeal never reaches beyond a small community.

In every case, while you can talk about Magic Kingdoms, in reality no one waves a wand and – poof! – conjures a park complete with ticket booths and cotton candy vendors. Every amusement attraction and park is contracted and built with the same professionalism as the multi-lane interstate cloverleaf intersection with steel-beam flyovers and enormous earthen ramps.

Amusement on the Go

“Family entertainment centers” are small amusement park projects. They vary from 15,000-sq.-ft. (1,400-sq-m) indoor facilities to 15-acre (6-ha) parks. Each center has multiple attractions, none of which is large enough to draw visitors from outside a community. It is in this niche-within-a-niche of the building industry that Amusement Construction Co. of Chattanooga, Tenn., operates.

McGrath’s family got started when his entrepreneurial father, a college athlete, saw a miniature golf course in 1960 and declared, “I think I can do that.”

He asked his wife, a commercial artist, to design a course and his father, a civil engineer, to translate the design into a buildable structure. The rest is history.

Business growth has been steady but since 1984, “it has grown every way you can imagine,” McGrath said. He noted that the growth does not always correlate with the state of the economy; after all, people seek distractions during tough times.

“Sometimes we excel when the rest of the economy is going sour. After 2001, for example, we had some pretty good years.”

In his experience, no particular region of the country is a hot spot of amusement park activity. Rather, the boom moves from area to area. That being true, Amusement Construction crews go where the business is.

“You stick to one area, you starve to death,” McGrath said. Consequently, his Tennessee crews are hopping during spring and summer months, from California to Massachusetts, Florida to Colorado. The crews travel light, with most of their equipment rented in the vicinity of a job.

“If it was a regional business, we probably wouldn’t rent. But coast to coast is a long way to drag equipment.”

Amusement park construction projects lend themselves to rentals. Caterpillar D9s aren’t needed to reshape terrain for a 3-acre go-kart track. The contouring and excavating needed for batting cage lots, bumper boat ponds and miniature golf courses generally can be handled by backhoes, skid steer loaders, pull-behind rollers and scrapers. Local concrete supply firms pump or dump cement mix to form ponds, tracks and pads.

Amusement Construction crews also work “here-till-we’re-done” schedules, which is six days a week, early to late. The company’s goal is to complete an 18-hole miniature golf course in eight weeks.

The largest seasonal project the company has undertaken was a 7-acre (2.8-ha) installation in Maryland. Its go-kart tracks range from 2,500-sq.-ft. (225-sq-m) kiddie kart layouts to fuller-scale left-turn and right-turn road courses large enough for 25 full-sized carts. The larger tracks with auxiliary buildings can cost up to $175,000.

A company affiliate sells various brands of park equipment — go-carts, paddleboats, pitching machines — to stock the layouts they create. If that isn’t enough to cement its reputation as a one-stop amusement park company, American Construction offers construction management services to park owners and other park builders.

“There are not that many companies that do this type of work,” McGrath said. “It’s not that big an industry.” Even so, family entertainment centers are not a negligible market.

The small properties constitute a healthy share of the 400 amusement parks in the United States. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions estimates that family entertainment centers average 380,000 visitors a year, a few of the centers attracting as many as 620,000 visitors a season. So the centers account for a significant slice of the estimated 335 million people who pass through park and attraction turnstiles each year.

Concrete Artists

Many amusement parks offer the eye appeal of waterfalls, free-form pools, simulated rock formations and golf courses that undulate up and down contoured terrain. These landscape features usually are created from blown concrete, specifically, from application processes called gunite and shotcrete.

Air-Tech Systems Inc. has been blowing concrete to create amusement park attractions for 25 years. The Barnegat, N.J., company focuses on smaller family-owned operations along the New Jersey coast. There is a practical reason for concentrating on that market: No regional parks are in the area.

“It is pretty steady for us,” said Steve Jones, Air-Tech president. “We have the same customers year after year.”

Repeat visits by the contractor are not from failure of the Air-Tech product. Rather, it reflects the habit of small-park owners to regularly reinvent their parks, adding new features or substituting one feature for another to create new experiences for customers each time they visit.

“The parks are constantly being upgraded, constantly being changed, probably more so than any other industry,” Jones said. Consequently, Air-Tech has work year round — with temperature-sensitive work scheduled in warm months.

Air-Tech projects are split about half and half between gunite and shotcrete. The familiar gunite process employs a dry mix of cement and aggregate. Water is added at the nozzle of a pumped line and the mix is blown under high pressure into designated areas containing rebar or steel mesh. Because it is so densely packed, the compound won’t slump. Its vertical strength makes gunite perfect for shaping waterfall walls, cave ceilings and other rock-like structures.

Shotcrete also is gunned into place under pressure, but the cement mix is wet before it reaches the nozzle; therefore, it is not used in vertical or overhead construction jobs. As a flooring application, shotcrete has great utility.

Air-Tech crews of seven to 10 people work on contracted projects within a tri-state area — New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. A typical Air-Tech project is 2,000 to 2,500 cu. yd. (1,520 to 1,900 cu m) of shaped concrete.

Jones uses Reimer International mobile concrete mixers on both wet and dry pours. The Canadian truck-mounted mixers have separate compartments for components. The mix is augered from trucks to pumps with a capacity of up to 13 cu. yd. per hour (9.8 cu. m per hour), and blown onto steel-reinforced forms that — voila! — form boulders and creek beds and other “natural” terrain features.

“We are not in the design business,” Jones said of his work. “We are in the construction business. We are just one little part of the puzzle. Like all businesses, we have customers we work for and architects we work for.”

Unlike with some businesses, however, Air-Tech’s finished work usually is irregularly shaped and one-of-a-kind. It is, in a word, artistic.

“It is a creative thing,” Jones acknowledged. “You look at something and you realize you know what to put in what area that will look good. The rock work and the waterfalls, you can visualize it.

“It’s taken a lot of years,” he said of his ability to see a created product before the first concrete is blown into place, “but it always works.”

Large Parks Demand Quick Turnaround

Six Flags Over Georgia, a theme park 20 mi. west of Atlanta, features 35 rides including 11 roller coasters. McMichael’s Construction Company is a regional contractor that Six Flags management depends upon to ready the latest rides — in lickety-split time.

The Covington, Ga., general contractor began its relationship with Six Flags in the early 1990s.

“We heard about one project and worked and worked to get invited to do it,” recalled Danna Seigle, director of business development. “Then the project came in over-budget and we value-engineered it down to fit their budget. They appreciated the effort and called us back.”

That first bid keeps on bearing fruit: Since 1991, McMichael’s has been called back to work on eight roller coasters including, in 2006, Goliath, which is the largest ride in the park — indeed, it is the longest coaster and first megacoaster in the Southeast.

This month McMichael’s wraps up a new attraction at the park — Thomas the Tank Engine. It features two 30-passenger kiddie trains — Annie and Clarabel — that will wind throughout a park area dubbed Thomas Town.

McMichael’s typically prepares a site for a new attraction, including mounding up mini-mountains and gouging out ersatz valleys, excavating for foundations and piers, relocating utilities, tearing down old attractions and so on.

The general contractor self-performs smaller site preparation projects and larger ones are subbed out, along with specialty trade work.

Companies that specialize in roller coasters erect the steel structure that rest on McMichael’s poured foundations, but some of McMichael’s onsite work also is visible to park patrons.

“Thomas the Tank has a large paved area, a fountain, some stamped concrete throughout and different ’eye pieces’ that we are involved in,” Seigle noted.

A special challenge associated with park work is a short work schedule. Most of the work must be done when the park is closed for winter. When spring rolls around, major attractions must be ready to accept hordes of fun-seeking customers, which at Six Flags Over Georgia are counted in the millions.

“The scheduling is kind of a nightmare,” Seigle said of the truncated work periods. “We are given a very small window between when the park closes for the winter and re-opens for spring break. We’re on fire all the time. It’s go, go, go, go all the time. But you enter a contract knowing that’s what’s required and you have to make it happen.”

McMichael’s repeated success in fulfilling park contracts — which by now include dismantling and demolishing older amusement attractions the company itself built — suggests McMichael’s has developed some quick-time skills.

“We like to think that someone off the street can’t come in and do it as well,” Seigle acknowledged.

J.D. McMichael started the company in 1950 as a residential contractor. His son, Dave, redirected the firm into commercial general contracting in 1983 and it now bids on retail, medical, industrial and, of course, amusement park projects in eight states across the Southeast.

It is the amusement park work that produces more in-house excitement than any other commercial job, Seigle said.

“The guys in the field love doing it,” she said. “They find it very exciting. It is a good feeling to drive by and, for instance, see the Goliath coaster coming across the parking lot and around the other coasters we helped build. It excites the guys. It fills them with pride to have worked on the coasters.”

Almost as much fun as riding them. CEG