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SANDUSKY, Ohio — Standing in the shadows of a $30 million roller coaster that flips, drops and spins its riders, the head of the nation’s fourth-biggest amusement park company points to another addition at Cedar Point he’s proud of too — a shady spot to relax and munch on taffy and fudge.
It’s not the most exciting part of the park along Lake Erie that boasts 17 roller coasters, but he thinks these little extras will keep families coming back.
Matt Ouimet has spent his first two years as chief executive of Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. making sure that the chain’s 11 amusement parks across the country have plenty of attractions for all ages.
New additions include shows featuring Cirque du Soleil-type acrobats, strolling bands and family-oriented rides along with nighttime shows and fireworks that are designed to keep people in the parks longer.
“We’re thinking about people who aren’t coaster riders,” Ouimet said. “I think that’s where we differentiate ourselves.”
Once a regional amusement park chain, Cedar Fair has become an industry giant. It brought in 23.5 million visitors last year to its amusement and water parks, including Cedar Point and Kings Island in Ohio, Canada’s Wonderland outside Toronto and Knott’s Berry Farm near Los Angeles.
Known for big roller coasters and kiddie rides themed to the “Peanuts” comic strip characters, Cedar Fair’s four big amusement parks have the highest attendance numbers in North America outside the year-round theme parks in Florida and California, according the Themed Entertainment Association, an industry group.
Ouimet, who spent 17 years with the Walt Disney Co., believes creating memories is more important than thrills and that reaching out to children and young families will result in a lifetime of return trips. He calls it genetic vacation behavior — it’s why tourists go to the same beach or resort town year after year.
“That’s why we want to offer something for everyone,” he said.
Cedar Point, the company’s flagship park in Sandusky where it also has its headquarters, added two new family rides this year with just enough thrill to keep the entire family happy.
“We didn’t have rides that parents wanted to ride with their kids,” Ouimet said. “This is the start.”
Knott’s Berry Farm has a spruced up its Camp Snoopy section, and Canada’s Wonderland near Toronto opened an interactive indoor ride that is part roller coaster, part haunted house with a 500-foot long screen where riders battle dragons and other creatures.
The characters on the screen can be changed to create a different experience during the park’s Halloween events.
It’s the type of ride found at one of the Disney or Universal theme parks, and one that Ouimet likes because it embraces a new technology and could work easily at Cedar Fair’s other parks.
All of this doesn’t mean a move away from roller coasters.
Kings Island near Cincinnati unveiled a new inverted coaster this year and Cedar Point’s GateKeeper opened last year, transforming the park’s front entrance where the coaster soars overhead while flipping riders upside-down.
Cedar Point, with a handful of hotels and a separate water park, has become a destination resort. Now Ouimet’s attention is on expanding some of the company’s other parks that are under-sized for their markets.
One is Valleyfair outside Minneapolis and the other is Carowinds near Charlotte, N.C.
Carowinds, which straddles the Carolinas, is in the beginning of a $50 million expansion over the next several years. The company also is trying to attract an outside party to operate a hotel near the park.
“It won’t happen in my lifetime,” Ouimet said. “But Carowinds could become the Cedar Point of the South.”
Dennis Speigel, a theme-park consultant who is president of Cincinnati-based International Theme Park Services Inc., said he thinks it’s smart for Cedar Fair to resist acquiring new properties or developing ones overseas so that it can focus on growing some of its existing amusement parks.
“There’s tremendous growth that can occur at those places,” he said.