If you have been following my series on Theme Park University about Hard Rock Park, you know just how original and fresh it was. The park was not only a gamble financially, but also creatively. Very few people in the United States can say they were responsible for building an entirely new concept theme park from the ground up and Jon Binkowski can add that to his list of credits.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Jon at Renaissance Entertainment in Celebration, Florida where he still serves as CEO of his themed entertainment empire. The walls and bookshelves are covered in artwork and models of the attractions he has created over the years, including several pieces from Hard Rock Park. Five years after the park opened and closed shortly after, Jon shared his thoughts on creating a once in a lifetime theme park.
Josh Young: In a nutshell, what was your job as Chief Creative Officer of Hard Rock Park?
Jon Binkowski: My concern was delivering the experience that would give people the “wow factor.” Being the creative guy, I would have loved for people to come in for free “come see what I built!” ya know? But I am sure the investors wouldn’t have liked that too much. I just wanted people to love it, that’s all.
JY: What was the most difficult part of the project for you?
JB: The toughest things were the not so fun things, like getting the easement rights. I was responsible for putting the property together and getting the cross easements. For example, in order to get exclusive parking for Hard Rock Park and not have it intersect with Medieval Times, we had to cut deals with all our neighbors. That was a lot of ongoing, hard work that took several years.
JY: Out of everything that was created at the park, what are you most proud of?
JB: The discoveries aspect of the park. Anyone can do a Led Zeppelin coaster. Things like the calliope playing park background music, the karaoke queue line or the interactive phone booth. We spent as much money as we could on queue lines and tried to make that as interesting as possible. That is what I am most proud of and that’s what I brought to the table.
JY: Hindsight being 20/20, what would you have done differently?
JB: If I was to do this all over again I would enclose, or hide, all of the iron rides. The fact that Led Zeppelin rose up into the air and you could see it form the street, gave people the impression driving by that it was just another amusement park. The fact that it was a theme park similar in quality to what you would find at a Sea World, Busch Gardens or Universal Studios people didn’t realize until they came through the gate. Not to say that I would do all dark rides, but there was an opinion formed within the first 30 seconds of driving past the park. I would walk down Myrtle Beach and I would hear people say, “Hard Rock Park? Oh, that’s the new amusement park, right?” and that’s one thing that drove me crazy.
Which now that I think about it, it makes sense. If you look at the original Disney and Universal parks – they were themed experiences and not just ride parks. We weren’t anything like that (amusement park), we were a themed experience and it gave people the wrong impression before they entered the park. The roadways that surrounded us let you look into the park from a distance, which became a blessing and a curse.
JY: Any other major changes?
JB: The name of the park, which was confusing. People driving by would see the Hard Rock Park logo, which looks like the Hard Rock Cafe logo, and think “Oh, there is an ad for the Hard Rock Cafe!”. Which, to be fair, my hands were tied on that issue – Hard Rock has a very standardized logo when it comes to the hotels and cafes. It just never occurred to me (until after) that there would be that much confusion, but there was a lot. If anything, I would bet we helped increase attendance at the cafe!
Another thing I would change, if I had the chance to do it all over again, the main walkway/parade route in Cool Country that goes by the water. I would have given it a curve so that more people walked to the Ice House Theater as opposed to finding it on their own in the corner. It was hard to get people to see that great show. If we were going to do a capital improvement, that would have been my first choice.
JY: So what is your take on why Hard Rock Park closed?
JB: I don’t think the park closing was because we had a poor product. I think we had a great product. I think if we would have weathered the financial storm over a few years, there would be no looking back. I basically look at it as we had a great product and not a lot of people understood what we had. We didn’t have enough time for the word to get out. It was too highly leveraged and no one had enough incentive to keep piling money on to the project. Everyone in 2008 was taking a write off, including our investors. Hard Rock Park was this beautiful, wonderful park that never got its chance.
JY: So it has been five years since the park opened and then closed. What have you been up to?
JB: A lot of people didn’t get a chance to come out and see Hard Rock Park. However, a lot of the people that did come out to see it were people from the industry. Industry veterans like Bill Davis, the head of Universal Orlando, who worked with me at Sea World. The most aggressive people who wanted to come out and see it were people from Disney. I find people from Disney really wanted to see what I had built for two reasons: because they wanted to check out the competition and because they genuinely love the business.
They were my saving grace in a lot of ways. They thought it was a great product that was built with a very tiny budget. Now Renaissance Entertainment is helping Disney create new product. So what came out of the ashes of Hard Rock Park was actually a blossoming relationship we have with Disney. We can’t say enough good things about Disney. While we can’t tell you exactly what we are working on, we can tell you we are working on the Shanghai Disneyland Resort, which will be an awesome park, as well as assisting with future attractions for already existing Disney theme parks.
I also wanted to mention a ton of people worked on this project. A lot of them went on to work on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Transformers and many projects for Disney. We were very lucky in that we had the pick of the litter with picking such a talented team.
Editor’s Note: I have met dozens of people within the theme park industry over the years and Jon Binkowski is in a league of his own. The guy has a passion for this industry and it shows not only in his work, but just sitting down and chatting with him. Hard Rock Park may have only lasted one summer, but it will hopefully inspire future theme park designers to step outside of the box and dare to be bold.
Come back next time for some final thoughts on the Hard Rock Park series, Theme Park University’s first “Pop Quiz”, where you can win some original Hard Rock Park maps, as well as some ideas for the future of Theme Park University. In the meanwhile, don’t forget to like our TPU Facebook Fan Page by clicking here and make sure to bookmark us to check out the latest stories.