They call Ghost Town in the Sky’s rollercoaster the Cliff Hanger. That could describe this season for the Maggie Valley amusement park, which declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March. It planned to open May 22 but was still waiting early in the month to learn whether the town would extend it a $200,000 loan. With $12.3 million in debt and assets of $13 million, it’s struggling to rebound, betting that affordability and proximity will trump the glitz of Walt Disney World and other behemoths. “We’re concerned about the economy,” CEO Steve Shiver says. “But regional parks within two or three hours travel time of families and at our price point should have a good year.”
Ghost Town already is on its second life. Built in the heyday of theme parks for $1 million in 1961, it closed in 2002, suffering from poor maintenance, lame marketing and sagging attendance. Ghost Town Partners LLC bought it four years later, spent about $20 million to jazz it up, then got flattened when gasoline soared to $4 a gallon last year. Only 130,000 visitors showed up. At its peak in the ’60s and ’70s, it attracted as many as 400,000 a year.
Shiver hopes the weak economy will work in the park’s favor this year. It charges $23 admission for children and $30 for adults. “Little Johnny in Atlanta and his family are not going to get in an airplane or drive 10 hours to Disney World and spend $75 on a ticket and $200 for a room. But we think they will drive three hours to Maggie Valley, spend $50 on a room and $30 on a ticket to have fun.”
Still, the outlook for regional theme parks is cloudy. In Blowing Rock, Tweetsie Railroad has struggled to negotiate affordable leases as land prices went up. Watauga County commissioners last year put up $3.2 million to help it purchase land. Commissioners say Tweetsie, with about 250,000 visitors a year, is worth nearly $30 million to the region.
Ghost Town says its impact in 2008 probably exceeded $12 million. It certainly has an effect on the Haywood County jobless rate, already 11.1%. Shiver held a hiring fair at which he signed up 200 employees to help Ghost Town hang on for at least one more season.