- March 25, 2020
The announcement read like a very early April Fool’s Day joke: “Opening Nov. 20 — Florida’s first snow park!”
Wait, what? It couldn’t be real.
Turns out, it is.
Snowcat Ridge, a new Dade City tourist attraction, opened to the public Nov. 20, just as advertised. The $10 million project — which includes a 400-foot hill for snow tubing, an alpine village with retail and food vendors and an enclosed snow dome for Florida kids to experience snowball fights — is the brainchild of entrepreneur Benjamin Nagengast, who, along with his wife and parent, owns two adjacent attractions: TreeHoppers, a zipline and ropes course; and Scream-A-Geddon, a seasonal Halloween park.
Nagengast, 34, grew up in Anderson, Ind., where, in 1999, he got his start in the outdoor tourism and recreation industry by launching a paintball facility on his parents’ 75-acre farm. He operated the park, called White River Paintball, on weekends as a hobby business. It grew so successful he relocated it to a 120-acre site that also allowed him to develop a Halloween-themed amenity called Indy Scream Park.
“That was basically my college education,” Nagengast says of his early forays into entrepreneurship. “I didn’t go to college, because I was focused on running my businesses.”
Now, Pasco County officials have turned to the wunderkind from Indiana and his one-of-a-kind snow park to inject a much-needed influx of tourism dollars into the local economy. According to a study by Downs & St. Germain Research, a Tallahassee-based tourism consulting firm, the pandemic has taken a toll on Pasco, where revenue from tourism-related economic activity as of Sept. 30, the end of the county’s fiscal year, was $552.2 million. That’s a 15.3% drop compared to fiscal year 2019. As a result, the county’s tourism tax revenue, the bed tax, also declined, from $3.04 million to $2.6 million — a 14% hit.
Despite the downturn, Pasco County Tourism Director Adam Thomas remains bullish on the county’s brand, which in 2019 received a makeover that included the moniker “Florida’s Sports Coast,” thanks to the presence of tourism-driving athletic complexes like the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus and the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis and Wellness Center.
“When we rebranded as Florida Sports Coast, the makeup and DNA of our destination was already wrapped around sports,” Thomas says, “but we were never anticipating adding tubing and snowball fights to our sports repertoire.”
And yet, here it is. But will Snowcat Ridge, which will be open until the end of March, prove to be more than a novelty attraction? Will it bring in repeat visitors and tourists from beyond Pasco County, the Tampa Bay region and the Gulf Coast?
“Just with the press interest alone, the irony of opening a snow park in Florida sold itself,” Thomas says.
Yet irony and novelty aside, a $10 million seasonal attraction in rural Dade City, population 6,000 and change, is an ice-cold build-it-and-they-will come risk — something Nagengast readily acknowledges.
‘TIS THE SEASON
On the advantage Snowcat Ridge side, the attraction couldn’t have arrived at a better time for Pasco, where the winter months are more of a “shoulder season” for tourism because the county lacks long stretches of beaches that draw flocks of snowbirds and spring breakers. “We're anticipating really a high economic impact,” Thomas says of the park, which will employ up to 160 seasonal employees.
'When we rebranded as Florida Sports Coast, the makeup and DNA of our destination was already wrapped around sports, but we were never anticipating adding tubing and snowball fights to our sports repertoire.'
Nagengast declines to disclose revenue projections for the facility but is confident it will be his biggest park in terms of attendance. Admission will range from $25.95 to $39.95 per person, depending on the day. Those prices will include two hours of snow tubing and unlimited access to the snow dome and alpine village, while unlimited snow tubing passes are available for $49.95. The low rates make the park a bargain compared to, say, Disney World, Universal Studios or Busch Gardens.
Nagengast, however, doesn’t consider those behemoths of the industry to be competitors. “We won’t do attendance anywhere close to what an amusement park does,” he says. “This is of a more limited nature.”
We are also in a season — a very long one, at that — of a global pandemic. Nagengast, while far from cheering the longevity of the COVID-19 crisis, believes it could work in his favor as more tourists seek outdoor recreation and entertainment experiences like what his parks have to offer. But the pandemic and its fallout didn’t cause him to move up the timeline of Snowcat Ridge — in development for five years. It did, however, create some delays, because the complex equipment needed to make snow for the tubing hill had been sourced from suppliers all over the nation and world, so the estimated arrival times of certain parts stretched from days to weeks.
“We basically broke ground right around when all of the restrictions started to get put in place, which was mid- to late March,” Nagengast says. “We've been building throughout this whole process because it's been an outdoor build and we haven't had to shut down.”
And, because the awfulness of 2020 just wouldn’t be complete without a natural disaster, Tropical Storm Eta came along and created a power surge that knocked out some of the park’s essential equipment. Despite his youth, though, Nagengast projects the patience, perseverance and nerves of steel of a grizzled veteran entrepreneur — someone who’s at ease while rolling with surprises and adapting accordingly. That’s an essential skill, he says, calling Snowcat Ridge “a risk” and admitting that “there’s a lot we’re still learning.”
Pasco County’s average low temperature in the winter months hovers around 50 degrees — not nearly low enough for water to freeze. Nagengast, while coy about the inner workings of the technology used at Snowcat Ridge, says there’s no great secret to making the snow and ice needed to create a winter wonderland in the Sunshine State.
“We make snow from one ingredient, and that’s water,” he says. “There’s no special chemical process. It’s just making snow from water and taking it below the freezing point. How you do it, how you keep it cold, what you use to keep it cold — that’s where the five years of engineering go into it.”
Thomas, meanwhile, thinks Snowcat Ridge represents much more than just a “gee-whiz” tourist destination. While he believes it’s more unique than beaches and rollercoasters, the environment it creates and the feelings and memories it evokes is what truly sets it apart from other attractions.
“The attraction is the emotional sense of place, the experience we are looking for this time of year,” Thomas says. “It’s the holidays — the happiest time of the year. People want to experience the authenticity of Christmas and the holidays and be together. I mean, that's what the holidays are all about. Snowcat Ridge really provides that place where we can bring all that together.”
Warm and fuzzy holiday feelings aside, Nagengast believes Snowcat Ridge, with its temporal nature, aligns perfectly with how millennials and younger consumers prioritize unique experiences over material goods. That propensity is reflected in trends such as minimalism and the tiny-home craze, but it also extends to travel and tourism, he says.
“We have been very deliberate about what we do and the seasonality of it,” Nagengast says. “We want to try to bring in folks who value specific experiences and focus on that. In our culture right now, the way that the younger generation looks at things, they value experiences a lot more, whereas the prior generation value objects and houses and cars, but I don't think there's a right or wrong [there]. It's just a different way of looking at life. We want to give folks that unique experience, and in that sense I think there's a benefit to it being a limited run.”