Peter Freed said his heart sank when he heard the news and looked into the night sky. What he saw was an eery glow as Lagoon burned 20 miles away.
But Lagoon officials vowed to rebuild after the fire in 1953 gutted part of the midway, burned a dance pavilion and destroyed part of the roller coaster.More than 30 years later, Freed, now Lagoon Corp. president, is still talking about building. He wants to continue the expansion of the fun center from an amusement park to a "family entertainment center."
Freed said the park wants "to offer something for everybody" while maintaining the wholesome, family atmosphere that has attracted Utah pleasure-seekers for more than a century.
Lagoon already has a good foundation to become a multidimensional entertainment center. People are attracted to everything from the musical comedies at the Lagoon Opera House to the living museum in Pioneer Village to the gut-wrenching rides. This year, a new water park is expected to attract even more people, Freed said.
Such diversification in entertainment is part of a national trend in amusement parks.
"It is awfully hard to survive if you are one dimensional. You need to be able to offer a variety of entertainment that is appealing to a whole spectrum of patrons," said Dick Andrew of the company's marketing department.
Officials with the private family owned business were reticent to discuss profits because the Freeds are sensitive about such information. However, Peter O'Bagy, of the marketing department, says the park's annual payroll last year totaled $3.8 million.
About 1 million people visited the 150-acre park last year, half as part of a group-discount program such as those sponsored by large Utah employers.
"What you see is not necessarily what you get," said Andrew, noting the large crowds that Lagoon attracts from late April to early September do not automatically translate into year-round profits.
Sometimes Lagoon officials might wish the resort were in Southern California. Along with its limited warm-season operation, the company must draw from a small population base that only has a certain amount of discretionary dollars, Andrew said.
Lagoon's primary market area is the Wasatch Front, but the firm advertises in secondary markets, including all of Utah, southern Idaho and southwestern Wyoming.
"Nineteen or 20 percent of our patrons are from out of state," said Andrew.
While Lagoon benefits from tourism, competition for state promotion dollars may dilute the attention that northern Utah receives - including Lagoon, Andrew said. Officials have learned to live with reality.
"We will probably never get a roller coaster on a license plate," O'Bagy said, laughing.
Most Lagoon visitors come for only one day, although the park manages a 250-space campground during summer months.
A Bountiful Area Chamber of Commerce economic development committee has suggested that Farmington could benefit by constructing lodging facilities for park visitors. Currently, the nearest motels are in Bountiful or Layton.
O'Bagy said that while Lagoon isn't interested in opening a lodging facility, a motel could probably make a profit during the park's season.
While the giant coaster remains dormant during winter, the park employs a full-time technical and administrative staff of 135. While it's open, the park employs about 1,200 part-timers, mostly teenagers. Their first season, teens start out at minimum wage with a promise of a season bonus.
Lagoon takes pride in providing jobs to teens while, at the same time, recognizing the challenges associated with employing them.
Andrew said Lagoon just doesn't hire kids, put uniforms on their backs and send them out to say "have a nice day." All of them go through a very extensive training program. Afterward, employees are tested on their specific assignments.
"The public demands it, the government demands it, and the insurance people demand it," he said.
Lagoon has also been touched by the national trend of a shrinking teenage work force. Although the shortages are not as severe in Utah, Lagoon, for the first time in memory, had to set aside additional interview days to recruit more workers. Most of the teenagers come from Davis, Weber and Salt Lake counties.
"We are finding it increasingly difficult to get as many of the kind of kids that we need, Andrew said. However, "we are far better off than anybody else in the country. There are some major amusement parks that were not able to open the latter part of last year," he said.
Safety is another challenge. While most people come to Lagoon worry-free and ready to enjoy a day of fun, Lagoon officials must maintain constant vigilance. News of one accident can ruin an entire season,
Lagoon boasts one of the best safety records in the business and has some of the lowest insurance premiums.
David Freed, Lagoon rides and maintenance executive, is chairman of the group that sets safety standards for the international amusement park rides and devices. The group said Lagoon is a leader in influencing safe rides internationally, Andrew said.
"We are very, very safety conscious. We need to be for survival. This is not an exaggeration. We literally spend millions of dollars a year on the safety aspect of the business," Andrew said.
Each fall every ride is dismantled, submitted to stress tests and parts are replaced. Every day of operation a ride is checked extensively and then checked again.
While Lagoon has been involved through the years in the catering and restaurant business, amusement concessions and video game business, most of those operations have been eliminated, O'Bagy said. The focus is now on running the amusement park, he said.
As for the future, O'Bagy said that the company plans to continue increasing the number of rides and performances. Over the past decade, the company has added more than 30 new rides and concessions. *****
Year opened: 1886 on the shores of the Great Salt lake as Lake Park.
Ownership: Lagoon Corp., privately held by several local families since 1947.
Annual payroll: $3.8 million
Number of Employees: 135 ful-time, 1,200 seasonal
Operating season: Late April through early September
Number of annual visitors: About 1 million
Out-of-state visitiors: 19-20 percent of annual attendance
Number of rides: 38
Major attractions: Roller Coaster, Colossal Fire Dragon, Pioneer Village, Lagoon Opera House and "Lagoon A Beach" (scheduled to open in June 1989)