Recently, I finished the book “Always Cedar Point: A Memoir of the Midway.” This wasn’t just a book, however. This was an experience.
The book was written by a former General Manager of Cedar Point, John Hildebrandt. John worked as a marketer at Cedar Point, eventually being promoted to Director of Marketing, GM of Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom, and ultimately Cedar Point GM. His career with Cedar Fair Entertainment Company lasted 40 years, from 1973 to 2013 when he retired. The book takes you through each year he spent in the park, 30 years as a marketer and 10 years as a GM. In between years, he includes chapters that explain some backstory or business practices. It’s a wild ride (pun definitely intended.)
There were many things that I learned and that struck a cord with me in this book. I was so inspired that ultimately I ended up clapping as I read the last page. The one thing that really hit me was John’s background; he had his undergraduate and graduate degrees in English. How was he able to become a GM of the world’s greatest theme park? So many people believed in him. He was given a chance, and that was all he needed. In fact, during John’s first year as GM at Dorney Park, Dick Kinzel, legendary Cedar Fair CEO, only visited the park 4 times that year. When he visited Dorney and Mr. Hildebrandt, Kinzel told him that the park “looked beautiful.”
Although given the opportunity, Hildebrandt did confess that having no business background, or even communication courses, was a challenge. Fortunately, Cedar Point executives had complete faith in him. They recommended books and even had him shadow Cedar Fair managers. As a mass communication major who aspires to learn some hospitality business practices, I found it inspiring and informational that he was able to learn so much in the field.
Relating to John in a way, I know that I did learn a lot about operations during my three internships at Walt Disney World. I learned a little when I briefly worked at Cedar Point’s Halloweekends last year, too, but I had an interesting mindset there. I felt like a Platinum Passholder who was paying my respects as an employee rather than a Team Member who was also a Platinum Passholder. In a way, it felt like I was hired by a parent when I worked at Cedar Point. It legitimately felt like I was working at home, since I had been a passholder for so long and was so loyal to the park on an enthusiast level. However, some of the best employees are also enthusiasts, as Mr. Hildebrandt admitted he was one himself. John dedicated an entire chapter to his relationship with enthusiasts and ACE, and I really appreciated that.
Some of his experiences were truly otherwordly. He saw Cedar Fair, a wordplay on both Cedar Point and ValleyFair which I did not realize before, go from 2 parks to 11 during the Kinzel era. He worked on the marketing campaigns for rides that have resonated with millions, from Corkscrew to Gemini to Magnum to Raptor to Millennium Force to Top Thrill Dragster. He created a successful ad for the Demon Drop when it wasn’t even fully operational yet.
There were some things that I found rather comical. Gemini, a roller coaster that is famous for its racing feature, opened with only one side running the entire day. Also, Mr. Hildebrandt was on the first train of Top Thrill Dragster with people ever. He sat next to a Cedar Point executive who was in charge of construction for the ride, and John described the man’s face before the launch as “completely white.” It wouldn’t be comforting sitting next to the person who built the ride with that reaction, would it?
I always knew that the success of Magnum propelled the coaster industry in the modern era, but I guess I never considered its huge impact on Cedar Fair alone. Not only did it inspire the in-park Millennium Force, but it also inspired “sibling rides” such as Wild Thing at ValleyFair, Steel Force at Dorney, and Mamba at Worlds of Fun. Of course, I knew about these rides since I’m a huge coaster enthusiast and knew they were very similar to Magnum aside from the fact that Magnum is an Arrow product and the others are D.H. Morgan, but I did not know that they directly resulted from Magnum’s success.
I also enjoyed that Hildebrandt did not overlook his competitors and jealousies. Geauga Lake and Kings Island were mentioned many times. He compared Dorney to Geauga and The Beast to Mean Streak. He was particularly jealous of The Beast, and I don’t blame him. Sorry, but if I want a good wooden coaster, I am absolutely not going to Cedar Point. In addition, Wicked Twister was the response to Six Flags World of Adventure’s Superman: The Ultimate Escape, later Steel Venom, then Voodoo, and now Possessed. On the topic of Geauga Lake, Hildebrandt was technically in charge of the park during its final Wildwater Kingdom days; it was put under his supervision. He said that he watched the park slowly become part of nature and indirectly exposed Six Flags on a few occasions.
I spilled coffee on the book. I bent the pages. It is in much worse condition now than when my grandmother first handed it to me at Christmas. I found myself agreeing with John, smiling at the mentions of Raptor’s roar or how incredible Millennium Force is. I was amazed at how current the information is; there are mentions of how Steel Vengeance is beginning to dominate. I quickly turned the pages about how Cedar Point collaborated with Meijer and others to give the best discounts. If your dream is to make an impact in the theme park industry, this is a great book to read. You’ll want to make your own footprint.