Much has changed since Gary Norton would climb into the cockpit of a World War II-era P-51 Mustang and perform loops and barrel rolls for spectators at his young theme park north of Coeur d’Alene.
The air shows of those early years are no more, and Norton is content to chase details on the ground.
In recent years, Silverwood Theme Park has added gravity-taunting roller coasters, a sprawling water park and acres of other attractions that draw visitors from hundreds of miles away.
The Northwest’s largest theme park opened this month for its 25th season, and it will see its 10 millionth guest visit sometime this summer. Its founder and owner is passing the torch to his children while continuing to dream up expansion plans and new ways to pull in visitors.
Many of America’s family-owned theme parks have sold to amusement chains or gone belly up, Norton said.
“I’m the only one who’s the original founder of any park running,” he said.
His son Paul has taken over as Silverwood’s general manager, and Norton’s four other children and three of his 10 grandchildren work there as well.
But Norton remains engaged in shaping the vision of one of the top tourist draws around. “The creative side of it, I’m still pushing those buttons,” he said.
That Silverwood survived at all is a wonder. A 15-minute drive from Coeur d’Alene, it’s far from the major population centers that feed most amusement parks. And the Inland Northwest climate constricts the season, especially for the water slides and raft rides.
“The original plan was doomed to fail, really: building a theme park in North Idaho,” Norton said.
With money from the sale of his Spokane-based computer business, ISC, he started Silverwood on the site of an airfield, the Henley Aerodrome, south of Athol, Idaho.
The park opened on June 20, 1988, as little more than a roadside attraction, with pony rides, puppet shows, Norton’s collection of vintage planes and his prized 1915 steam train, won in a bidding war with the Walt Disney Co.
As he explored new ways to lure crowds, Norton battled state and local officials over the property taxes on his park, arguing for lower assessments based on market value. He eventually prevailed, and earlier this week he was honored with the inaugural Kyle M. Walker Champions of Tourism Award by the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce and Coeur d’Alene Convention & Visitor Bureau.
Community and business leaders applauded Norton for Silverwood’s quarter-century of economic impact: $86 million in local payroll taxes, $18 million in state sales tax, $3.6 million in property taxes – and a regional economic splash exceeding $1 billion, as estimated by the Idaho Department of Commerce.
Norton prefers to keep out of the spotlight.
He’d rather blend into the background and watch his guests or work with a horticulturist to remake a garden bed or haggle with his chefs over a recipe.
The big rides are less interesting to Norton than the ambience and fine points.
“It’s the depth of the park that’s more important,” he said. “The quality of the flower beds, the brick walkways, the shows and entertainment that build a foundation for a more loyal customer base.”
At the park this week, Norton took time to reflect on his creation.
Q. How do you feel about what you’ve built here?
A. I look at it as a work-in-progress painting, something I personally like to do, not so much as a business project but a creative project.
Q. Do you have childhood memories of attending amusement parks?
A. I remember growing up in south Florida and watching, like a lot of kids did, the Disney shows on TV, particularly “The Mickey Mouse Club,” and seeing shots of Disneyland, thinking, “Boy, that’s someplace I’d like to see someday.”
Years later I went to work in Los Angeles, and I hated the traffic and crowds. I used to escape that by taking the afternoons off and going out to Disneyland. And I’d just buy a ticket, go in there, get something to eat, sit down and look at it. I was totally impressed with how it transformed a person when you walked through those gates. And so I just tucked that away. That came into play later when I started creating this place up here.
Q. What was it about this piece of land that attracted you to buy it?
A. It had an aerodrome on it, and I was into airplanes at the time. But it’s also surrounded by the mountains and lakes. It was a pretty little location in the middle of nowhere, and I could enjoy having some fun with airplanes.
Q. How did it go in the early years?
A. The first two years was more than a million dollars a year in negative cash flow. It was this beautiful creation of very expensive detail buildings, but as a business it just wasn’t going to fly. I said this is just going to be a thing of beauty, I’m not going to put up carnival rides. Then I realized I’ve got to do what I have to do to make the business survive. So then I wanted to do it in the most natural way I can, which is to take a parklike setting, building undulating paths and hills, and planting landscaping, and I drew the whole park myself. I drew all the footprints for rides, ran the cranes, pulled wrenches, put up the coasters – and ruined my back doing that. And I almost killed myself falling off some rock piles into a trench one day when there was nobody around, on a Sunday. It was pretty stressful putting that park together.
Q. How did adding big roller coasters and the water park affect attendance?
A. People were driving by the park and would say, “I’m not paying the fee just to come in for a train ride,” because that’s all they could see. So I came up with the idea of building a coaster right down in front of the road. And it was that coaster that made us look two or three times bigger than we did before. Now people took notice. I have to fight the fact that we’re in North Idaho and have very low population density, and we have to scratch for our guests. But we’ve become a destination where probably half our guests now come from over 300 miles away.
Q. Did you ever consider calling it quits?
A. Those early years, yeah, there were many times I thought about just giving up and going away. Now I’ve reached the point I say, “What else is there to do?” I really liken it to a painting. It’s just a full-sized canvas and you get to create this feeling, and it’s fun to do. I don’t look at it in terms of dollars and cents.
Q. Many attractions came from other theme parks. What’s your best find?
A. In terms of value, it would have been that last coaster we bought (Aftershock). All the initial rides in the first part of the park, I really didn’t have much money, and I went around the country scavenging very decrepit-looking sites. These were theme parks that had gone broke. Some of the rides fell apart when I took them down. We had to completely rebuild them. Even that roller coaster, the Corkscrew, was at the end of its life, according to Knott’s Berry Farm. We took it in pieces, built it back up, have been maintaining it ever since. We’ve actually had it up longer than they had originally. And it’s still running well. So you have to do this do-it-yourself approach and keep your costs low in everything we do here. Find a way to do it for half or less than anybody else would do it.
Q. What’s your approach to expansion?
A. We do it by bootstrapping. We take the profits we make and put it back into the business. We’d love to grow this a lot faster but for my aversion to being in debt, which helps us in times of recession.
Q. How do you decide to replace an attraction?
A. You have to keep adding something new to keep it interesting. You take the worst place in the park and spruce it up, make it the best, and then something else becomes the worst spot in the park. The last few years it’s been eating us up mostly with infrastructure. Because we grew so fast, a lot of the original park was unable to support the load. We’re setting the stage for future growth. Our front entrance, when you see it done, it’s going to be quite grand, and a lot more elaborate than the one we had before. And that will allow us to grow for another 25 years.
Q. Thrill rides and water slides get more sophisticated each year. How do you keep up with the appetite of thrill seekers?
A. We’re never going to have the latest and greatest, because we can’t afford it. We tend to not shoot just for the thrill seekers. The thrill-seeker market has not really been our market until we started (October’s) Scarywood. And then you get the kids out of high school, college-aged, that are there for the pure adrenaline rushes. And that group of guests for the first time is coming into the park for Halloween. They come in and say, “Boy, I didn’t know this was this much fun.” They live here and they don’t come here! Because we really have attracted the family market.
Q. What has been your best idea here?
A. The boutique theme park idea. It’s a detail you won’t actually come out for, but you feel it when you get here. When you come out here and we have thousands and thousands of flowers and gardens and beds that we put in and the details in some of these buildings. You may not look at them, but there’s a feeling you’re going to get when you go through. And it’s always important to me to have music to make it feel like a party atmosphere. I always see people dancing, walking down the pathways, it just gets them going. My employees say it’s the same music we’ve had for 25 years. Yep, but it still works. You can’t not move to a good pickin’ and grinnin’ bluegrass down in the Country Carnival.
Q. What do you learn by watching and listening to your guests?
A. You stand in line with other guests, and they don’t know who you are, and you listen to them all talking; it’s real interesting what you’ll pick up. That’s usually where I decide to go next, to find out what they like, what they don’t like, things they’re having problems with.
Q. Do you have a favorite place in the park?
A. One of my new favorite spots is an area we built for kids last year. It’s just a forerunner of the kinds of areas we’ll be building in the future. The area right behind there, which is the old front parking lot, is going to be bowed out into a major attraction like that area.
Q. You’re a major employer of young people in summer. What do you hope they take away from their time here?
A. We have employed since the beginning over 12,000 people. For many of them it’s their first real work experience. Some are wonderful. They’re here to work and they’re responsible. A lot of them haven’t a clue. They just think it’s a place to play. So we go through over 1,000 a year to get maybe 800 that are really decent workers. A lot of them walk off the job. Later in the season you get 20-25 no-shows a day. And it’s really sad. People who have signed up to work and be responsible, they want to go play. So we hope to instill in them a sense of work ethics, responsibility.
Q. What will Silverwood look like in another 25 years?
A. Hard to say. I hope we’re double where we are now. I’d like to just see it keep growing.
Q. Do you plan to retire?
A. I don’t expect to ever retire. As long as I’m alive I’m probably going to be putting my nose into how it’s built and where it goes.