Feature Article - February 2015
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Out of the Ordinary

Making Fun Park Games Work

By Chris Gelbach

Across the nation, a variety of fun games are gaining traction at parks, camps and golf clubs. Sports like disc golf, FootGolf, bocce and mini golf are helping parks and other facilities attract new visitors and providing recreational opportunities for families of current patrons.

Each of these fun games presents its own unique challenges and opportunities. And doing them right is crucial for facilitating their maximum profitability and customer appeal.

Disc Golf Takes Flight

Disc golf, which originated in its current incarnation in 1976, has reached new heights in popularity in recent years, building a growing following of recreational and competitive players. According to Joshua Orzech, creative director for a manufacturer of disc golf equipment, based in Watsonville, Calif., a look at memberships in the Professional Disc Golf Association can provide a good sense of the sport's momentum because it includes both amateur and pro athletes.

"Membership growth year-to-year has always been at least 15 percent throughout the 2000s," Orzech said. "And we feel that translates over to the course growth as well—we've continued to see growth in course sales year to year."

The courses have traditionally been installed most often in park settings at the municipal and county levels, though Orzech noted that he's now seeing more growth into state parks and ski resorts. "We're also seeing it diversify into other settings, as well," Orzech said. These include schools, ranging from the elementary up to the collegiate levels. "Collegiate disc golf has grown dramatically over the last 10 years," he said. "In those situations, it really depends on the amount of land they have and the number of baskets they're willing to install."

Both nine-hole and 18-hole courses are common formats. A nine-hole course requires a minimum of around five acres of suitable land. Even larger courses are also being installed in some instances. Orzech noted that his local course in Santa Cruz, Calif., was among the first to feature 27 holes.

Orzech estimates that an 18-hole course can be installed for around $10,000. The costs can ascend from there depending on the amount of underbrush clearing or tree trimming required and the type of tee structures (often concrete or rubber) that are installed.

Whereas sports fields need flat land and golf courses require wide-open spaces, disc golf often works best in other areas. "We like to say that we like the park you didn't think you could use," Orzech said. "We like trees. We like to shape shots. The areas parks think can only be used for hiking trails can enable us to design a really great course using the natural topography and the vegetation."

Orzech recommends getting an experienced designer to consult on the course and, for safety reasons, to avoid areas that are already in use by hikers, picnickers or other park patrons.

Since the disc golf baskets themselves are relatively inexpensive, one way to get started experimenting with disc golf is by installing a nine-hole recreational course and gauging its usage. "From there, you can talk about other sites where you might do an 18-hole course that's a little more challenging," Orzech said. An advanced course can provide a greater challenge for more experienced players, whereas a championship-level course can also offer potential as a site for tour events that can attract visitors from other areas.

While some disc golf courses are pay-to-play, many charge no entry fees. At ski resorts, Orzech is seeing the resorts charge the price of the lift to get to the top of the mountain, and then letting disc golfers play 18 holes for free on the way down. As more state parks install the courses, he's seeing them used there as an additional amenity to drive more park usage and income through additional car admissions.

Common programming elements that can help drive interest include league nights in partnership with a local disc golf club, handicap leagues that can help newcomers compete head-to-head against more experienced players, and events like clinics and tournaments. "All of those things are happening on disc golf courses to help facilitate the more competitive side of the sport to take it beyond something you come out and play with your friends," Orzech said.