Bringing the “Down the Shore” Fun Concept to Jersey Communities
by Hank Schlesinger
Since opening its doors in 1997, Funplex has become a model of how coin-op and traditional amusement park attractions are effectively merged to provide a taste of the vast boardwalk experience in a relatively compact package. Today, the company boasts two New Jersey locations, one in East Hanover and a second in Mt. Laurel.
Both locations, as CEO Brian Williams explained, feature an assortment of larger attractions, including water parks, amusement park rides and laser tag, as well as FECs with more than 100 games. The coin-op aspect, as Williams is quick to add, includes a heavy emphasis on redemption and prize merchandisers.
If this model sounds familiar, it should. The famed Jersey Shore has been succeeding with just such a mix of attractions and games for generations, though in a much larger space along various boardwalks. And no doubt, the Funplex model, though scaled to size, is familiar to those visiting the two locations.
“Remembering back to the days when I used to visit the boardwalk with my mom and dad, I had the realization that we, as entertainment centers, needed to bring the experience of the boardwalk to our local communities,” said Funplex owner Randy Lahn.
While the East Hanover location draws largely from the New York metropolitan area, the Mt. Laurel facility brings in guests from Philadelphia and South Jersey: two regions that figure prominently in the Jersey Shore’s summertime crowds seeking sun, fun and games.
Not surprisingly, CEO Brian Williams has deep professional roots in some of the Garden State’s seaside amusement centers. “I started at the Jersey Shore, Seaside Heights, as a young adult, spent time in Florida, and then in Wildwood, N.J. They brought me in in 1996 as general manager, so I was there from the very beginning. Before they opened the doors, we had a business model in mind,” he explained.
Although both locations were purchased nearly simultaneously, the first Funplex center to open was in East Hanover, which began as a somewhat modest, 35,000-sq.-ft. indoor facility. Large for an FEC at the time, the former owner developed the business as a “kid-centric” facility with a target market of 10-years-old and younger.
As Williams explained, among the first moves the company made was to start expanding the demographic through a broader game mix and an aggressive program of facility upgrades. This was quickly followed by acquiring another 35,000 sq. ft. and the launching of what was among the first indoor electric go-kart tracks in the country.
“There weren’t any U.S. manufacturers of electric go-karts at the time,” Williams recalled. “So, we ended up purchasing our go-karts from a company in England. A couple of our owners went to Europe and found a manufacturer.”
The karts brought in the teenagers, which allowed them to open at night. “So, we started doing events for older kids. That really changed the demographic,” he added.
Another expansion of 17,000 sq. ft. allowed for additional office space, but also a party and event area, which also grew capacity while bringing the total square footage up to more than 80,000 sq. ft.
“That really helped us take off and bring in larger revenue,” Williams said. “The property also had an outdoor pool from the 1970s that was part of a health club, which we fixed up, then eventually put in a multi-level structure to create a waterpark complete with lazy river and waterslides in 2015. It was an evolutionary process to get into a hybrid center and to make it a 12-month business.”
Meanwhile, a similar process was taking place to the south in Mt. Laurel. This property included a much larger footprint, measuring in at some 25 acres. However, like the East Hanover property, Funplex management found the selection of activities limiting. For instance, a golf driving range, outdoor go-kart track and batting cages didn’t seem to make maximum use of the available space. And, too, the arcade and food service were housed in a relatively small building.
“There was a lot of property that wasn’t developed or developed properly,” Williams explained. “A gentleman had bought the property and started to develop it, but he wasn’t from the industry and only operated it for one season. The facility and the attractions were new, but very limited in their appeal. We wanted to expand the demographic like we did in East Hanover.”
For instance, Williams explained, they soon realized that The Funplex had outgrown the parking lots and needed to expand by removing the driving range to accommodate the new popularity of its waterpark. “That was the biggest thing we did,” he said. “We got rid of the driving range and outdoor go-karts to build a full-blown water park in 2016.”
As Williams noted, the company took a similar strategic approach to development of the Mt. Laurel property they employed in East Hanover.
“Our philosophy is to continually invest in attractions, technology and our team, all with the goal of providing the best possible guest experience. We want them to keep coming back all year long, in the summer to enjoy the Waterparks or winter to have fun with all of the great indoor attractions we’ve added over the years.”
Building out a little at a time, the company added 20,000 sq. ft. to the building, which included additional room for coin-op and a party space prior to adding rides outside. In 2008, continuing that expansion by incorporating bowling into the center and including it for all families that purchased a daily wristband.
Continuing expansion plans in East Hanover, the company approached a tenant of a building on the property, a gymnastics facility, that had rented space in the building for several years. “We decided the next step in the evolution was improvement to the indoor East Hanover facility,” Williams said. “So, we approached the owner of the gymnastics facility about buying him out, and we struck a deal last August.”
What ensued was a significant make-over of the entire Funplex facility. The former gymnastics center became the somewhat reduced go-kart track while the former go-kart track in the main structure was transformed into a Jersey Shore boardwalk-themed FEC that includes 20 lanes of QubicaAMF HyperBowling, comprised of 14 primary lanes and six private lanes located in a suite rented out to corporate functions. Two additional rides the Reverse Time and Drop-N-Twist were also a part of the new boardwalk.
“The entire process cost $5 million, but we didn’t have a lot of time. We really needed to turn it around quickly,” Williams said. “We started construction on Oct. 1, 2018, and got it done by April 2019, just in time for the summer season.”
Although some 90 miles apart, the two facilities not only developed in parallel, they also continue to work with a large degree of synergy and similarities. At present, Williams estimates an equipment division that includes some 85 percent redemption and merchandisers and 15 percent video games in both locations.
“As we made improvements to either facility, we would take that idea and try to incorporate it into the other location,” said Williams. “Once we got expertise in how these various assets work, we try to repeat them. You could say that one location is a test site for the other.” And, too, as Williams noted, because both locations operate so similarly, they can move management people between the two sites if the need arises.
Both locations also employ similar management and customer technology, such as the Embed cashless system. “We were on token payment forever, but eventually we converted over to Embed, which has been a success for us,” said Williams. “And the promotional ability and guest opportunity has been great.”
Last year, both locations switched from cards to RFID wristbands, which are coded by Embed to indicate the package the customer is using to access the rides and games. “We use the wristband for both the attractions and the FEC games,” he said. “So, the guest can now use one wristband to gain access to all things in the park.”
As Williams noted, the wristbands include all of the same features as the game cards, such as the ability to offer bonus credits when loaded. They also allow for discounts for purchases made online as well as things like double-ticket promotions. The bands also play an essential role in the steady stream of player promotions Funplex runs throughout the year.
“The way we structure things is that there is always a promotion going on,” he said. “We have a large email database at both facilities that includes things from birthday party specials to a First Responders Week. We’re aggressive with our promotions and constantly offer opportunities for a guest to come in for a discount, whether it’s an off-peak time for an early-bird special or discounted bookings for groups.”
The two sites, which have now become out-of-home-entertainment standards in their communities, continue to evolve. Corporate events, Williams noted, are more popular than ever, and manufacturers are keeping things fresh on the FEC side with a steady flow of appealing games.
The future looks bright indeed, come rain or shine. “As we move into the dawn of a new and more technology focused future, we will be looking for new opportunities in facilities that could potentially offer a mix of the old with the new,” said Lahn. “That means offering classic fun with modern experiences that distinguishes The Funplex from other FECs.”