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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 24, 2015 6 years ago

Sky high obstacles

Drawing people to a new attraction, especially in tourist-heavy Florida, isn't for the meek.
by: Michael Hinman Tampa Bay Reporter

There's a considerable difference between a park that offers zip lining and what's planned for 60 acres in east Pasco County.

Benjamin Nagengast, CEO of TreeHoppers in Pasco and its Indiana-based parent, White River Zip Lines, says it's like comparing a golf course to ski slopes.

“In a golf course, everything is linear,” says Nagengast, who lives in the Clearwater area. “You have to start at the first hole, and continue all the way through No. 18. But at a ski resort, you take a lift to the top of the mountain, and then decide from there how difficult of a course you want to ski.”

TreeHoppers, with plans to open in late August on Saint Joe Road, just outside Dade City, will be the ski resort. The outdoor recreation park will offer eight courses at various degrees of difficulty, all suspended from treetops on a portion of the previously undeveloped land. It's a style of attraction that's popular in Europe, and starting to get a foothold in the United States.

Nagengast chose the more advanced offerings from the two concepts, despite the higher upfront capital cost. His hope is to not only complement offerings from places like TreeUmph Adventure Course in east Manatee County, but to attract more daring adventure-seekers. Visitors will pay up to $50 for three hours suspended in air.

“It's a mixture of a rope and zip line park,” says Nagengast, who operates a similar park near Indianapolis. “There are so many different elements that anyone who buys a three-hour ticket is not going to be able to complete the entire park, and they'll want to come back for more.”

Nagengast depends on the repeat visit model. While he will focus on group sales, from corporate outings to birthday parties, Nagengast hopes TreeHoppers could become a regular stop for visitors, just like a ski slope.

Nagengast has invested $4.5 million into TreeHoppers and a second seasonal attraction he has planned for the site, a series of “haunted” scare attractions he calls Screamageddon.
Although that side will compete with high-profile Halloween-themed events like those at Busch Gardens in Tampa and Universal Orlando, Nagengast plans a more intimate feel -- with far less restrictions than the more family-friendly theme parks.

“We're not going to have those congo lines through the attraction like you have in other places,” Nagengast says. “When you have so many people, it really degrades the experience. Our intent is to put on a premium show, and that's not cheap for us to do, but it's how we built our reputation in doing this in Indianapolis.”

Getting TreeHoppers to this point was a four-year process that started when Nagengast relocated to the Tampa area. Finding rural land close to metro centers was important, and finding the Dade City property had far more benefits than they could've ever hoped. Dade City is about 30 minutes from downtown Tampa, and a little more than an hour from Sarasota.

Primarily, the 60 acres already had zip lining approved thanks to previous attempts by another group to get such an attraction together. That allowed TreeHoppers to step in, buy the land last February for $750,000, and almost immediately get to work.

The adventure park will employ between 25 and 40 people, depending on the season, while Screamageddon, says Nagengast, could add several hundred employees.

One big obstacle: Marketing, from location to concept.

“That's a challenge for any small business, getting the word out that we actually exist,” he says. “We're already being proactive with a very robust Web presence, and building on the fact that we're an aerial adventure park. If we can keep that separate from what others are doing, then our awareness can't help but grow.”

Follow Michael Hinman on Twitter @BizTampaBay

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