ARNOLDS PARK, Iowa -- As folks shrieked in delight speeding down the old Fun House slide, others stepped inside the grounds at Historic Arnolds Park Amusement Park, greeted by a new carousel, a $1-million marvel not far from the nation's seventh-oldest wooden roller coaster, The Legend.
All of this is combining to result in a rather legendary year in the center of the tourism industry in the Iowa Great Lakes, one plank of the economy that continues to drive growth in an otherwise largely rural location.
"The brand new carousel, commissioned in June, has a very nostalgic look and feel," said Jeff Vierkant, the new CEO serving Arnolds Park Amusement Park. "It was installed and ready for the weekend before July 4."
The ride will be there for generations to come, doing its magic at the foot of The Legend, which has served fun-seekers on the shores of West Lake Okoboji for nearly nine decades.
The carousel is but a portion of the $12 million in upgrades being tackled at a place many folks would have written off 20 years ago. For it was in 1998 that Arnolds Park Amusement Park closed for the summer. One year later, tens of thousands of people joined forces and raised in excess of $7 million in 30 days to "Save the Park." Five years later, many of those same boosters pitched in to "Sustain the Park," returning it to profitability.
Last May, then-CEO Charley Whittenburg called a press conference to detail widespread efforts to "Renovate the Park," which started with an expanded parking lot project one year ago and ramped up to include the renovation of the Majestic Pavilion while expanding and renovating the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum.
Whittenburg disclosed that $6 million of the $12 million needed had already been raised privately by a group of anonymous donors. Boards serving Historic Parks Inc. and The Park Foundation kicked in another $2 million.
The sweat equity shows this season as hundreds of park attendees cruise down the old Fun House slide, an old-fashioned wooden ride that has found a new home next to the Sugar Bowl and the Barrel inside Arnolds Park Museums, a place where locals and guests may peruse panels that detail the story of W.B. Arnold and the amusement park he founded.
Those old Fun House relics now command a presence adjacent to the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum. Also located under this roof is the revamped and expanded Iowa Rock-n-Roll Museum.
Speaking of the roof, the Roof Garden will be fully renovated this fall as officials turn their attention to that entertainment staple, remaking the structure as they addressed the Majestic Pavilion this calendar year.
"We took the Majestic Pavilion down to the ceiling and renovated it from the ground up," said Vierkant, who took the retiring Whittenburg's place as CEO in April. "It's a stunning facility. We rebuilt the look of the facility and installed sound panels throughout so people attending events can hear the speakers and the music better."
There were also new spaces dedicated for personnel serving Okoboji Tourism, the Okoboji Foundation and the Iowa Great Lakes Chamber of Commerce.
While focusing on the remaking of the Roof Garden this fall, officials will also set about on a course to beautify and develop the lakefront property bordering West Lake Okoboji.
Fans have responded to the changes by turning out, even doing so in a summer season marked by continued rainfall in a Great Lakes region that has seen its share of summer flooding. Paul Plumb, who serves the marketing office at Arnolds Park, noted that attendance is on par with 2017 levels, a level that has seen a steady increase in users the past several years. Plumb estimates that 150,000 to 170,000 will pass through the gates at Arnolds Park Amusement Park this summer. Total attendance in the park and its related attractions may come to 250,000.
The changes and growth for the park and this region (Dickinson County's year-round population has grown from 16,670 to 17,199 since 2010) elicit a smile from Vierkant, who noted how Arnolds Park Amusement Park helped seal the deal when he and his wife, Nancy, considered relocating their family from Farmington, Minnesota, some 13 years ago.
Vierkant, at the time, was interviewing for a management position with Pure Fishing in Spirit Lake, Iowa. They realized his job would be a good fit; they weren't sure about moving to an entirely new community, however.
"We stayed the weekend of my interview and decided to check out the town to see if it was a good fit," he said. "We took our three kids to Arnolds Park and the kids had a great time on the rides. But, it was a concert at Preservation Plaza that pushed us over the edge."
The couple's oldest daughter, a child with special needs, lit up once the music began. She rushed to the front of the stage and began dancing.
"To see her run up to the front of the stage and begin dancing and feel so safe, that's the moment our family really decided that this is where we needed to be," he said.
Vierkant worked for a decade at Pure Fishing. He then served for two years at Link Manufacturing in nearby Sioux Center, Iowa, and joined Arnolds Park Amusement Park as CEO in April, coming back to a park he served as a ride operator during his college days.
"Thirteen years later, we can't imagine being anywhere else," he said.