The difference between Gary Norton and other kids is the price of his toys.
Fortunately, Norton likes to share.
The owner of Silverwood Theme Park plans to offer more of his playthings to the public when he begins the park’s 10th season in 1998.
On the boards for the next three years are a scaled-down mining town for younger visitors, a haunted house ride and a second $1.8 million wooden roller coaster.
Next summer, Silverwood will introduce an attraction named Tinywood - complete with its own coaster, miniature town and a working mine where kids can don hard hats, pick up shovels and dig for gemstones.
Also planned for next season is construction on the first of two major rides that should be in place in 1999 and 2000.
Reacting to the popularity of the Timber Terror, an attraction that boosted attendance by 33 percent when it came on line in 1996, Norton will add an equally large thrill ride to an open area in the center of the amusement park.
“This one will have a more convoluted, twisty-turny design,” he said. “We actually wanted a new coaster for next season, but the coaster companies were so swamped we couldn’t even get a design out of them.”
If work on the coaster can’t be started by summer, construction will begin on the haunted house - a ride Norton said will greet visitors with a sign reading: “Not for children.”
“I want to make this one so scary that the adults are hanging on to their ride seats,” the park owner said. Seated in two- to four-passenger cars, customers will be ferried through a series of pitch-black and sparsely lit areas, subjected to spider attacks and other frights.
“Having people in cars allows us to do things in a more controlled manner than a walk-through ride,” Norton said. “Plus, they can’t escape.”
Continually adding attractions is critical for a theme park like Silverwood, because patrons tire of rides once the novelty wears off, the owner explained.
After opening Silverwood in June 1988, Norton quickly chucked his original vision of running an operational transportation museum. The cost of building a Victorian town as the set-piece for his narrow-gauge railroad and airplane collection was three times what the owner anticipated going into the project.
By 1989, attendance was down, but expenses continued to mount.
“At that point, it was close the doors or find something else to do,” Norton said.
What he did was purchase the first of several amusement park rides. The Corkscrew came from Knott’s Berry Farm in California. A log flume attraction was sold to Silverwood by Kentucky Kingdom, a park that went out of business after its first season.
Thunder Canyon - a water ride that opened five years ago - was the “first big jump” in terms of bringing in business, according to the owner.
But it took the Timber Terror to put things over the top. Well before the first string of cars rocketed down the tracks on the 55 mph coaster, the sight of 300,000 board feet of timber reaching skyward had the region primed for opening day 1996.
By itself, the wooden coaster hauled visitor numbers up to nearly triple those of past seasons.
“With the advent of the coaster, we started having 4,000, 4,500 and 5,000 people a day,” said David Palmer, marketing director for Silverwood.
“Five thousand is very comfortable for us now, whereas before it was pretty tight,” said operations manager David Norton, adding that last season’s peak exceeded 7,000 visitors.
Silverwood attracted more than 300,000 people in 1996 and brought in its 2 millionth visitor this summer.
Year-end totals have not been compiled for the ‘97 season, but Palmer said business was off by about 8 percent compared with the prior year.
New attractions and advertising campaigns in four states and Canada lead park officials to predict business will be back on the upswing in 1998. For Gary Norton, who used the nest egg he gained by selling a Spokane computer firm to build Silverwood, the goal is rising above the breakeven point.
To help achieve that, he raised the early offering price on season passes from $25 to $36 for the coming year. The lower price proved too successful by attracting 23,000 buyers and cutting into revenues last year, Norton said.
“People think I’m padding my pockets with that money, but I can’t do it for any less,” he said. “Most everything I’ve got is invested in the park. Basically, I’m betting that it will start funding itself.”
If he had it to do over again, Norton probably wouldn’t have attempted such an ambitious project in North Idaho.
“Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have built it here,” he said. “A savings deposit at minimum interest would have been a better investment.
“Let’s put it this way,” he continued. “How do you make a small fortune in the theme park business? Start with a large one.”
Still, the man who carved out part of his 600-acre parcel to create Silverwood seems to be enjoying himself. He derives his fun from taking anonymous walks through the park and watching people who paid to play.
“What I’m really doing is sharing a bunch of toys,” he said.
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