Not many management careers start in a Scooby Doo costume.
Dan Aylward stepped out of the cartoon pooch’s skin at a Cincinnati amusement park and into the world of marketing and managing attractions. Two dozen years later, he’s made several parks once thought of as losing dogs sit up and bark.
Silverwood Theme Park is Aylward’s latest challenge. The ambitious project, anchored by an air museum and carnival, still looks misplaced off Highway 95 in rural North Idaho.
It’s in far better shape than some of the parks Aylward inherited. He helped resurrect attractions in Detroit, Massachusetts and Tucson, Ariz.
“At least here there’s not some crisis that I have to solve at every turn,” Aylward said. “The people here are intelligent, they work hard and they know what to do. It’s a pleasure.”
Silverwood’s sparkling condition allows Aylward and his staff to concentrate on getting more people through the gates. Owner Gary Norton has sunk millions of dollars into what was once a sleepy airfield, and the park hasn’t exactly lined his pockets since opening in 1988.
Hiring Aylward as the park’s first full-time general manager represents another commitment to the park.
Aylward, 42, arrives with plenty of marketing tricks up his sleeve. He wants to expand the park’s reach to a 150-mile radius, bringing in visitors from Missoula, Canada’s Kootenai Country, and even tickling Seattle market if possible.
He also wants to shore up the customer base close to home.
“A lot of people in Idaho don’t like to be linked with Spokane,” he said. “But we really are like a suburb of Spokane. We need to make Spokane our local market.”
A new local television campaign will complement aggressive promotions on radio stations and in newspapers, he said. Silverwood will try to team up with local organizations to gain more visibility in the area.
He’ll have to find new visitors to replace the Canadians who’ve shied away from North Idaho recently because of a miserable exchange rate. Canadians used to make up 40 percent of Silverwood customers, but last year made up less than 10 percent.
Aylward will have a gleaming new centerpiece to tout starting July 1. A 720-seat theatre surrounding an ice rink should be completed by then. Two or three ice shows each day are in the works, depending on attendance, with skaters from around the U.S. and Canada.
Backed by an intricate pipe organ and a toy box setup, the skaters will dance shows as different toys, he said.
Last year the park benefited from the construction and opening of a whitewater tubing ride. Aylward predicts Norton will finance a new monster attraction every other year and probably smaller additions during the odd years.
Parks must spice up their selection of rides to keep repeat customers coming back to try new things.
“We’d like to see the park have a staircase kind of growth,” Aylward said.
The park received some smaller rides for kids on Thursday, park of Aylward’s new emphasis on family fun. Not all kids like to whip upsidedown on the Corkscrew rollercoaster, so there’s the tamer rides with helicopters that circle lazily.
Aylward’s all-time favorite ride through his years of management is a rollercoaster at King’s Island park in Cincinnati called “The Beast.” It features steep drops and wild curves into dark tunnels, he said.
Silverwood will be open every day starting this weekend until Labor Day, and then it will remain open on weekends until mid-October.
Silverwood already serves the area by employing 425 workers during the summer. Now Aylward wants the park to take a active role in community events to boost its name.
“We’ve got to do as much as we can for the community,” he said. “We really don’t have much of a choice if we want to grow.”
With a wife and three children - one already in college back in Ohio - and a job that often has him working the park sometimes for 14 to 16 hours a day, Aylward has a lot to juggle.
“This isn’t the kind of place that you can run by remote control,” he said. “I’m out there on the grounds most of the time, talking to employees to see how things are running. But more importantly I’m talking to the public about how they see things and about what they’d like to see here.”
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