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.

Foot Golf Kicks Off

Unlike disc golf, FootGolf is ideally suited for use on existing golf courses. In fact, it was designed for it. For this reason, its best use is for park districts and clubs that wish to boost interest in underused golf courses. Like disc golf, it too is experiencing rapid growth.

According to Roberto Balestrini, founder of the American FootGolf League, more than 300 FootGolf courses have been installed on existing golf courses in 43 U.S. states since 2011. And because it can be played on existing golf courses, it can be implemented with minimal initial costs.

"Out of the 300 courses, we don't have a single one that has lost money," Balestrini said. "The average golf course recovers at least 10 times their initial investment based on $1,500 for nine holes or $3,000 for 18 holes with flags and everything."

In the sport, players kick a regulation soccer ball into 21-inch holes, which are typically installed in the rough at least 20 yards away from the green and away from the typical landing areas of golf balls. Eighteen holes of FootGolf can normally fit onto a nine-hole golf course.

Because the average person can only kick the ball 60 yards or so, according to Balestrini, one hole of FootGolf can be set up on a par three hole of a golf course. Two holes can typically fit on a par four, and three holes on a par five. With this setup, a foursome of FootGolfers can play 18 holes on a nine-hole course in roughly the same amount of time that a golf foursome can play nine holes.

"In that way, you can send back to back a foursome of golfers and FootGolfers if you wish," Balestrini said. "Usually, you charge the same for 18 holes of FootGolf as you would for nine holes of golf."

In FootGolf, the ball spends much more time rolling on the ground than it does in golf. Players also need to wait until the ball floats back to shore if they hit the ball into a water hazard. For these reasons, FootGolf is less suited for courses that are exceptionally hilly and feature a lot of water. "FootGolf is not for every golf course," Balestrini said. For this reason, it's important to consult with a knowledgeable expert when considering a course's feasibility and design.

According to Balestrini, one of the plusses of the sport is its ability to attract millennials, which he says is FootGolf's top demographic. "Not many 25-year-olds play golf twice a week," Balestrini said. "So, with a soccer ball, you can bring in people that have never spent a penny in a golf facility before."

Mini Golf Putts Along

While the decline in golfing's popularity has created an opening for sports like FootGolf, it may also be auguring a return for mini golf to its more whimsical roots. Chris Foster, vice president of sales and marketing for a builder of mini golf courses and other custom-fabricated structures based in Jackson, Wis., noted that in the 1980s, more mini golf courses shifted to putting-style courses. It is a trend that has now started to regress.

"You're seeing more brightly colored obstacles and even mechanized obstacles becoming more prevalent," Foster said. As examples, he cited a few recent projects that used whimsical factory elements with factory gears and conveyor belts that lift the ball up and drop it into another location. These features are typically more streamlined and sophisticated than the windmills of yesteryear.

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.

According to Foster, the scope of a course's design often hinges on whether the course is being designed as a pay-to-play attraction or as just a free amenity being added to a resort or other facility. Fee-based attractions typically offer the most elaborate and sophisticated course designs.

In park settings, Foster has seen recent clients still favoring naturalistic courses that are nicely landscaped as opposed to embracing the mechanized or blacklight features that are dominating other new courses. A more natural approach often blends in more seamlessly to a park environment, and can also cut back on the greater maintenance that is required with mechanized features.

Another factor that is critical to overall maintenance costs is the size of the course's footprint. "If you look at a 40,000-square-foot area versus 6,000 square feet, you have a lot more expense in lighting, a lot more in landscaping, and a lot more in maintenance down the road," Foster said. "Whereas, if you condense that in a much smaller area, you've just dramatically reduced all of those costs."

Foster noted that many projects are trending to smaller courses, another factor that could be driving the trend to more creative hole designs. In part, this is because trick and jump elements can help maintain the difficulty level of holes even as putting distances shrink.

To help attract customers, Foster is seeing some park districts place the courses in close proximity to other recreational attractions such as sport fields and picnic areas. Others have focused more on creating a spontaneous drive-by attraction by positioning their new courses on major frontage roads.

Whatever the location, Foster recommends positioning the course to allow the use of existing staff as attendants. "If it's part of a municipal golf center or a driving range, design it so you have good access directly from the clubhouse," Foster said. "You don't want to have to add a secondary building, staff it and maintain it."

Bocce Makes a Resurgence

While mini golf remains popular with its traditional demographic of families with kids, bocce is connecting with a new audience. It has recently enjoyed a surprising uptick in popularity with young professionals as a bar sport and offering of sport and social club leagues.

According to Tom McNutt, owner of a bocce court corporation based in Bellingham, Wash., the sport is also unflagging in its popularity with older audiences, becoming one of the most common amenities being added to senior housing.

"It takes a minute and a half to learn and be playing on a court," McNutt said. "And it obviously brings a fair amount of interest when people don't have good knees or hips anymore and want a lower-impact activity that's easy and fun." It's also an atypical activity in that it allows players of all ages to compete on a fairly level playing field.

McNutt has installed courts everywhere from Dogfishhead Brewery to public parks to corporate campuses for tech giants like Citrix, Microsoft and Google. "There is fair team-building involved because as many as eight people—four per team—can play at the same time," McNutt said.

According to McNutt, it only makes sense to install bocce courts if it's going to be done right. He noted the pictures he has of leaf-covered municipal courts across the country that nobody's played on in years. The reason? A poor court surface that leads to unpredictable ball roll.

"People who want the courts to get used understand that the most important part of the court is the playing surface," said McNutt, who favors courts with an oyster-shell blend. "No matter what other fancy amenities you put in, if the ball doesn't roll straight, then there's no point." McNutt suggests also buying high-quality, Italian-manufactured bocce balls, since biased balls won't roll straight on any court.

While some parks departments feature courts that are 13 feet wide by 100 feet long, smaller 10-by-60-foot courts are also being installed in many environments. These can make life easier both for maintenance staff and for players of all ages. "It's more realistic to maintain," McNutt said. "It's also an easier court to learn on and be good on. It takes more finesse on a bigger court."

Whatever the size of court, McNutt recommends installing at least two of them together. This permits for league play on the courts that can support the continued growth of a bocce program. It can also be helpful to have a lockable storage container onsite for the court maintenance equipment. In many cases, the local bocce league will be so happy to have a good court to play on that they may volunteer to take on the ongoing maintenance of the court.

Just like with disc golf, FootGolf and mini golf, if you build it, there's a good chance the patrons will come. You just have to build, program and maintain it right.

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