From the Archives: Peony Park Not Just an Amusement Playground, But a Multi-Use Events Facility
Here is a story from the dusty past about a fondly remembered, now long gone amusement park in my hometown of Omaha, Neb. called Peony Park. This story was originally published more than 20 years ago and painted a bright picture of a still thriving place, but within a very short time (1994) the park closed, unable to fend off mounting competition for leisure-recreation dollars. Growing up, my family didn’t much go in for amusement parks and thus I have only a couple dim memories of being there as a kid. I was there maybe a few more times as a young adult. So it’s not like the loss of Peony Park meant much to me, although I did like the idea of this charming relic of Americana. It’s laudable that it hung on as long as it did and I suppose it’s a shame it finally went under, particularly since a generic strip mall anchored by a supermarket went in its place. My piece doesn’t go into the history of Peony Park, which no doubt saw millions of visitors during its three quarters of a century life. To be sure, most of that history would be nostalgic good fun, but an ugly part of it would be the fact that African-Americans were denied access to its large pool and man-made beaches well into the 1960s until a series of civil rights protests compelled the owners to change a policy that was in clear violation of a Nebraska statute guaranteeing equal access to places of amusement. The protests, which followed a court decision against the park that the owners and law enforcement ignored, finally forced enough financial and political pressure on the Malecs that they had no choice but to open the pool to all. For more on that regrettable chapter, check out David Bristow’s story about it at www.davidbristow.com/peony.html.
From the Archives: Peony Park Not Just an Amusement Playground, But Multi-Use Events Facility
©by Leo Adam Biga
What is 40 candy-coated acres of rides, games and variety-filled nights that are bright and shiny all over? Why, it’s one of Omaha’s landmark entertainment attractions – Peony Park, whose amusement center opened last week. Despite two rainouts, the May 10-13 opening drew 3,000 patrons.
Since the late Joseph Malec Sr. opened a dance spot and filling station in 1919 across the road from a huge peony garden (hence the name) the complex has grown into a multi-use events center serving hundreds of thousands of folk a year.
Long before Ak-Sar-Ben initiated a liberal open-door policy in the late 1980s, Peony welcomed the community to hold meetings, seminars, fund-raisers, picnics and all manner of special events at its friendly confines. For generations the Peony Ballroom was a mecca for couples dancing to big band sounds. Who knows how many romances got started or rekindled under the Ballroom’s gleaming stardust ceiling? Although Peony no longer sponsors a big band program of its own, music and dance events are still booked there by outside groups.
A $3 million facelift begun four years ago expanded the ballroom added the Plaza Theater, beautified the grounds and improved access to the park. Improvements continue today, as Peony updates its campus and expands its services to corporate and nonprofit clients alike. Much of the operation revolves around booming banquet and catering services.
Despite civic outreach efforts Peony is usually thought of this time of year as simply that charming little amusement park tucked north of tree-lined Cass Street. And that’s just fine with park officials, who expect more than 300,000 visitors through the amusement park turnstiles this year. For comparison’s sake, that’s about the same number of fans the Omaha Royals Triple AAA farm club drew to Rosenblatt Stadium in 1989.
The old amusement park opened last Thursday, the start of 110 whirling dervish days and nights when the roller coaster, Wave Swinger, Black Hole and other gravity-defying rides propel people through space for the thrill of it all.
There’s also the many arcade games that carry with them the chance to win stuffed aninals or trinkets, the swimming pool and its half-mile of sand beaches, water slides, a minature train that tours the park and a new addition, go-carts.
A different live family show is held each week at the Plaza Theater – from country singers to mimes and monkey acts.
Seventy-one years after old man Malec staked a claim for his dance and gas emporium in what was then countryside, Peony president and namesake Joseph Malec Jr., the founder’s son, invites youths to kick up their heels at Thursday night shindigs.
While Peony has felt the effect of local funplexes that have sprung up, it has weathered the competition by combining its nostalgic charm with state-of-the-art facilities.
“Several years ago that type of competition really didn’t exist and it has had an impact on our business over the years, ” said Peony general manager John Gilroy. “But we offer a variety of choices that those places aren’t able to provide. We have amusement park rides as well as the pool and the water slides. The renovation that took place a few yeara ago outside has given Peony a new look that people who visit the park find very attractive.
Peony has also withstood the pull of such regional attraction as AdventuredLand in Des Moines, Iowa and Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Mo., which draw many area residents, by offering a less-stressful recreational outing. Often, Peony’s parking lots are less crowded, lines shorter and prices lower than the mega-theme parks.
“We recognize a lot of people in Omaha go to Worlds of Fun and AdventureLand and, in a sense, we think that’s good for us because with the exception of their major theme rides we have a lot of the attractions that both of those parks have,” said Gilroy. “If people have a good time at those places maybe they’ll want to come to Peony Park for an afternoon or evening.”
That’s why Gilroy said “the destination theme parks are not our competition in the real sense of the word. We offer people who live in Omaha and within an hour’s drive of here someplace to go when they don’t want to load up the kids and be gone overnight or make a two or three day event out of their entertainment.”
Jim Hronek, Peony sales and marketing manager, said, “Only about three or four percent of our audience comes from more than 60 miles away. We basically draw from Omaha, Council Bluffs and Lincoln and the small towns in the area.”
Contrary to the perception that Peony attracts a mostly teen crowd, Hronek said more than 90 percent of its customers are families. “Everybody thinks of Peony as being a teenage facility but the number of teens who come without their parents is only about three or four percent.” Youth attendance peaks Thursdays when radio station Sweet 98 and Mountain Dew co-sponsor a non-alcoholic live rock music and dance night. Otherwise, Peony promotes itself as a family place. That’s one reason why it junked the slogan “The place to party.” It sounded more like an invitation to young singles and adults than parents with children. This year’s new slogan is “Omaha’s premiere family entertainment center.” Peony has kept the catchy jingle sung at the end of its radio and television commercials that goes, “You’re gonna really love the way you feel.”
Because surveys show moms and kids are the real powerbrokers when it comes to making family recreational decisions, Peony targets its radio and TV spots at them.
“That’s why we aim some of our marketing at children’s television,” Hronek noted. “The particular radio stations we try to buy and the particular TV shows that we purchase commercials on are very family-oriented. Ninety-five percent of our TV commercials are bought on Channel 42 (KPTM). They run a lot of cartoons for children and family entertainment shows that we purchase advertising on. KPTM’s base is Omaha and Lincoln and that’s another reason we buy so heavily with them because we’re getting into both markets at the same time.”
With more leisure choices than ever before people are highly discriminating in spending their recreational dollars these days. To give families more bang for their bucks Peony has slashed prices. In particular, it’s hoped more patrons will attend during the week, the traditional dog days at amusement parks when the gate slows to a trickle of it’s normal weekend flood of visitors. On its busiest days Peony has upwards of 10,000 fun seekers on a Saturday or Sunday while most weekdays average about 4,000 to 5,000.
“We have to do more discounts, especially during the week,” said Hronek. “Our prices this summer are for a lot of things actually lower than they were five or six years ago. And people don’t always have a full day to come, so they want a special where they can spend three or four hours here without paying full price.
“On Mondays and Wednesdays it’s two-for-the-price-of-one both days. Pepsi Cola is helping us sponsor that promotion. They’re putting a coupon on the side of 15 million Pepsi cans.
Baker’s Supermarkets is backing a two-for-one bargain on Tuesdays. Hronek said the promotion with Baker’s is a deal made in marketing heaven. “Baker’s is probably the most family-oriented grocery store in Omaha and for us to tie-in with them is hopefully good for both of us. They will bag stuffers in grocery sacks and also buy some advertising. In turn, we also buy advertising to promote, ‘Go to Baker’s and get your discount coupons.’”
Peony’s gste admission has been reduced to $1 per person. For those who enjoy being all wet the pool-water slides combo has been lowered from $6.95 to $4.95. An all-day rides pass is $9.95. The whole kit and caboodle is $11.95.
“And for the first time we’re running a twilight special,” Hronek said, “which encourages families to come after mom and dad get home from work. It’s only $5 for the entire family and that includes all the rides.”
Accounting for an increasingly large share of Peony’s summer trade are company picnics. Peony provides full catering services for the events held on the park’s designated picnic grounds.
“We have expanded our banquet-catering business significantly.” said Gilroy. “A big part of our business is related to company picnics, and I use the term company picnics generically. It’s not just corporations, it’s civic organizations, schools, churches, hospitals and many others. We have over 100,000 people visit Peony Park every year to attend a company picnic. Most of these people also take advantage of the amusement park, the rides or the pool or the water slides, or a combination of all of those opportunities.
“We’ve worked to maintain and increase our picnic business during the summer. A couple years ago we hired Denise Fackler, whose job is to call on companies and organizations, large and small, both for the company picnic business as well as our year-round banquet business. We felt there was a need to call on people in the community and remind them of what Peony Park can do because not everybody really understands what is offered here.”
Hronek said Peony can cater picnics for 50 to 5,000. About 10 companies and organizations have already booked picnics this year, including such familiar names as the Peter Kiewit Company, First Data Resources, FirsTier Bank, the Omaha World-Herald and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
“I figure we’ll do approximately 150 picnics this summer,” said Hronek, who feels the events have become as popular as office Christmas parties. Nebraska’s volatile weather poses real challenges, he said, when “trying to move a picnic to a covered area at the last minute before a storm hits.”
Peony uses the same kitchen facilities and crew to prepare picnic suppers as it does for formal banquets. Up to 1,700 people can be served in the ballroom.
“The banquet business has been growing and we certainly hope it is going to contine to grow,” Gilroy said. “We have an excellent reputation for our service and the quality of our food.”
Hronek estimates 65 percent of Peony’s business is generated from group sales for banquets, picnics and the like. Indeed, many annual events call Peony home, such as the Omaha Press Club show and the Debutante’s Ball. “During the winter some 30 percent of our business is with charities. The Heart Association and others do major fund raisers here and have for years,” Hronek said. “Peony’s always been a part of the community.”
It also plays host to the annual La Festa Italiana, a Labor Day weekend celebration of Italian food and heritage.
The Plaza Theater addition has allowed Peony to handle more events than in the past. “It was built as a multi-purpose building,” said Hronek. “Because of the sound system, the lighting and the stage we host a lot of corporate meetings and business seminars for 75 up to 400 people.” It’s also home to variety shows, wedding receptions and other activites.
To appeal to an increasingly upscale, professional clientele Peony is trying to change its image. “Instead of the bright orange-yellow-green logo we had in the past our new logo is a little more of a corporate design, and that probably has to do with the corporations we serve because while we do advertise ourselves as an amusement park we also do many social and business functions,” Gilroy said.
Running the diverse operation’s daily affairs are about 20 full-time staffers. The payroll swells to 450 in the summer when the wear-and-tear of visitors keeps an army of workers busy.
“During the summer we add 50 to 60 kids whose job is to do nothing but polish rides, sweep the grounds and now the grass,” Hronek said.
A permanent maintenance crew of six inspects every ride before the park opens each day. “A lot of the rides have routine maintenance, like oil changes,” Hronek said. “The bearings are automatically replaced after so many hours the ride is run. It’s all part of our ongoing safety program.”
Getting the park in shape for this summer’s onslaught was a month-long process. Among the first priorities were the 21 rides, many of which had to be put back together after being disassembled for winter storage, and undego normal maintenance work. Prior to the amusement park’s opening May 10 Hronek discussed some preparations under way: “We’ve been putting together the rides for weeks. Now it’s a matter of checking them, testing them and making sure everything is put together properly. Then they have to be safety-inspected by the state of Nebraska. Next, all the rides are washed, waxed and polished.”
The rides are a major investment valued, Hronek said, ata nywhere from $75,000 to $400,000 per machine. The biggest ride, the roller coaster, is also the most expensive with an estimated price tag of $1 million.
Aside from fine-tuning the rides, the park’s grass was cut, weeds pulled, flowers planted, buidlings freshly painted, food ordered and kitchens and concession stands stocked. “It’s quite a project,” he said.
Peony has its own greenhouse on-site to grow flowers for landscaping and table displays. Yes, rows of manicured peony bushes adorn the premises.
“We give a lot of attention to the aesthetics,” Hronek said. “When we expanded the park a few years ago we hired a company called Leisure and Recreation Concepts, who designs amusement parks, and one of their jobs here is planting and working on some landscaping ideas so that the look of the whole park ties together.”
As far as Peony’s featured attractions, the rides. Hronek said, “We get some of our ideas from other parks around the country. Many of the ideas we use come from our employees and visitors who will tell us they stopped at an amusement park on their vacation and saw something they really liked. Often, we’ll look into it to see whether it’s something feasible for Peony Park and a city the size of Omaha.”
What are the most popular rides? “Our roller coaster and bumper cars are the ones that traditionally do well,” he said. “You haven’t been to an amusement park unless you’ve ridden the roller coaster.”
For Hronek, who’s worked at Peony 15 years, satisfaction is “seeing everyone have a good time. It makes the job enjoyable.”
Peony’s provided seven decades of uniterrupted fun for the area, all under the Malecs’ ownership. “There’s a consistency to our business,” said Gilroy. “People come to depend on the product. Knowing the Omaha community is a real advantage and a big part of our success. We intend to contine providing quality family entertainment.”