Wichita More than two years after he announced his intention to build a destination theme park in Kansas, Thomas Etheredge is making good on his promise.
When Wild West World opens Saturday, Etheredge is betting millions of dollars that his family-friendly theme park based on Kansas' cowboy history will entice people to drive to Park City.
At a cost of $30 million just to build the park, Etheredge has a lot riding on that bet.
"This thing will either be a success this year, or I'm going to be homeless," the entrepreneur said.
With 24 rides on 40 acres and a prime location just off Interstate 135 in Park City, Etheredge estimates the park could draw half a million visitors its first year. It has already sold about $2 million in advance season passes.
The theme park includes a mock frontier-town boardwalk, gazebos for live entertainment, arcade games, food stands and restaurants, and different types of rides grouped in three sections, divided around a Chisholm Trail theme.
"This cowboy thing is a great heritage and tourist draw, but beyond that, it's the fabric that makes us Kansans," Etheredge said. "We want kids to be proud of that heritage."
Workers will put on final touches this week, but Etheredge acknowledged that unpredictable weather had delayed some work.
"My intention was two-and-a-half years ago when we announced this project, and one-and-a-half years ago when we broke ground, that we would be ready May 5," he said. "Dadgum it, we will open May 5."
Amusement park operators, industry experts and tourism officials say Etheredge appears to have made a safe bet.
"For what he has built, the plan is definitely workable," said Gary Slade, editor and publisher of the trade publication Amusement Today. "I don't think $30 million is out of reach at all for what needed to be created out there. If it was $80 million, I'd be worried about him. But overall, he's on the right path."
The estimates of the first-year economic impact are substantial: nearly $18 million in gross receipts and $6 million for the Park City and Sedgwick County economy through payroll alone.
The park - and its revenue - should be a boost for Wichita-area tourism, said Olivia Reynolds, vice president of the Greater Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau.
She estimates an annual economic impact between $35 million and $50 million from the theme park, based on the half-million people Etheredge expects in his first year. That attendance estimate is consistent with similar parks in Iowa, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Others say the park could help other Kansas tourist destinations.
"That park is going to be useful to us as a stop en route, or to keep people here longer," said Sylvia Rice, director of the Salina Convention and Tourism Bureau.
Park City bet 10 years of tax abatements on the park. Park City Administrator Jack Whitson said traffic to the park should be an incentive for new commercial development.
Slade, of Amusement Today, said Etheredge's timing is perfect.
"The big mega-theme parks are turning customers away, essentially, because their ticket prices are getting close to $60," Slade said. "For a family of four, that's one expensive day that's out of reach."