Getting in on the Inside


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Indoor adventure parks—or at least variations on the theme—represent a growing business. Indoor parks have been growing at a rate slightly slower but comparable to the growth of outdoor parks, according to Paul Cummings of consulting firm Strategic Adventures. 

But if many of the activities are similar—ropes courses, zip lines, climbing walls, ninja courses, etc.—it would be misleading to characterize indoor parks as simply outdoor parks with roofs over their heads. The very nature of a confined, indoor space has inherent limitations not applicable in the great outdoors, where, at least height-wise, the sky is literally the limit. Also, the purpose of indoor parks, with ropes courses being far and away the main attraction, is often very different, as is the target audience.


Consider the space requirements, for starters. According to Cummings and others, very few (if any) indoor-park operators start from the ground up and build new structures to house new parks. To do so would be cost-prohibitive. Instead, repurposing existing buildings is the way to go. 

But just any old building won’t do. Height is the main thing: at least 18 vertical feet—and ideally much more than that—is necessary, according to Lori Gunthorp, market development manager for Ropes Courses Inc. Cummings pegs the desired height at “a bare minimum of 25 feet,” with a comfort level of 30 feet.   

Floor space requirements obviously vary according to the size of the installation. For example, a compact, six-pole kids’ ropes course made by Treetop Quest Development can fit in a space as small as 35 feet by 15 feet, according to Julien Hatton, Treetop Quest’s development manager. But installations of 16 poles or more that occupy a fair amount of square footage—with upwards of 100 elements—have gone inside, according to Cummings.    

Shopping malls are a good fit. With most ropes courses being elevated, the ground level can still be available for other activities—foot traffic, shopping, dining, miniature golf, etc. No wonder several parks have appeared in malls across the country. “An aerial attraction leaves the floor space open,” says Gunthorp, allowing visitors to “peruse the shopping center.”    

But indoor parks have been built in other, less likely places. Spins Hudson, north of New York City on the banks of the Hudson River, has turned space formerly used at a marina for boat repair into a two-story indoor ropes course that connects, when a giant garage door is opened, to a four-story outdoor course. Jordan’s Furniture in New Haven, Conn., has turned showroom space into a park. 

Allegan Event Center in Michigan has gone a popular route by converting unused storage space in a warehouse. With 13,000 square feet at its disposal, Allegan has used the space for a 16-pole, 64-element ropes course, a kids’ ropes course, and a climbing wall, with space left over for food and beverage. 

While a repurposed warehouse makes immense good sense, however, it comes with inherent challenges. Warehouses are typically built in industrial areas, where the scenery and security can be less than appealing. And warehouses themselves don’t exactly represent the natural beauty that is a big part of the allure of an outdoor park. “We redid the outside of the building and are planning LED signs and a metal sculpture,” says Allegan’s general manager Byron Bell. But he concedes: “The aesthetics are something we have to work on.”

In addition to warehouse aesthetics, there could be other challenges, such as zoning. A change from industrial to commercial zoning may be an obstacle that needs to be cleared. And as with any repurposed building, structural viability is a vital preliminary consideration. For example, as Cummings points out, an existing concrete floor in a warehouse needs to provide adequate anchoring for the steel poles of a ropes course or other park features. Similar engineering concerns arise for any element that might be suspended from the ceiling.

Meeting ACCT or ASTM standards or local building codes can be challenging, costly, and time-consuming, too, and Cummings recommends “getting engineers and the code people involved very early.”


But the central question might be: Why build an indoor park in the first place? Anthony Jerussi, general manager of Spins Hudson, provides perhaps the most obvious answer: “Weatherproof entertainment.” Spins Hudson’s ropes courses are just part of an activity menu that includes a laser tag arena, a game arcade, a virtual reality experience, and, possibly on the horizon, a ninja course (see p. 42 for more on ninja courses). 

Being able to operate 365 days a year without rainouts or winter closings is clearly a big advantage. In fact, says Jerussi, “There may be even more business in the winter time.”

The main reason that Allegan, which also operates two summer-only zip lines that cross the Allegan River, chose to install indoor activities, says Bell, was “to maximize year-round revenue.” There was also the added benefit of being able to retain core staff throughout the winter. 

During cold-weather months, says Jerussi, Spins Hudson is “packed with birthday parties.” And in the summer, Spins Hudson becomes a fallback rainy-day destination for summer campers and other groups.

In effect, places like Spins Hudson and Allegan Event Center represent a new wave in indoor recreation, expanding on the bowling alleys and game arcades that were the standard-bearers of previous generations.

Other locations, however, might be driven by a motive other than just weatherproofing. Retail operators might have the ulterior objective of attracting shoppers by offering a fun activity, often to keep the kids entertained while the parents spend money elsewhere. While shoppers shop, there is something engaging for other, non-shopping members of the family to do.  


There is obvious commonality between the features of an outdoor park and an indoor park. But the two can be very different in the ways they are presented and in the audiences they appeal to. Consider it this way: “adventure” is the driving force for an outdoor park, while “entertainment” might better describe the purpose of an indoor park. Allegan’s Bell says that while the river-crossing zip lines attract an older, adrenaline-seeking crowd, the indoor installation, “with no great physical challenge,” appeals to a wider and younger audience.

In an outdoor setting, a sensible approach is typically to minimize adornment and let the sights and sounds of nature speak for themselves. Not so indoors, though, where an unadorned environment is simply bland. Installations that might seem gaudy outdoors work well indoors. 

Cummings cites “bright, colorful lights” and “higher-end music systems” as common features of indoor installations. The Jordan’s Furniture park—a Ropes Course Inc. installation—fits that bill, with fountains illuminated by multi-colored lights shooting up like fireworks, and neon-lit restaurants at ground level. If harmony with nature is often a principal objective for an outdoor setting, a festive, party atmosphere is more the objective in an indoor setting.

Both Bell at Allegan and Jerussi at Spins Hudson say that kids’ birthday parties, corporate outings, adult celebrations, and other group events represent a big part of their business, especially during cold-weather months. Food and beverage are key components in attracting that market segment. In fact, Spins Hudson has a brewery and restaurant on-site to be sure that “there is something for everyone to do, not just kids,” says Jerussi.   

For the time being, ropes courses and climbing walls predominate in the indoor-park world. Business at Ropes Courses Inc., which also owns Clip ‘N Climb climbing walls, is booming, with installations in 29 countries, according to Gunthorp. 

But Cummings says “‘Ninja Warrior’ is the big buzzword now,” driven by the popularity of the TV show. Gunthorp speculates that there might be a higher injury rate on ninja courses than on ropes courses, and Cummings concedes that, given the nature of ninja—jumping and swinging around, sans harness—more injuries might make sense. However, because the phenomenon is relatively young, reliable, comparative statistics are still unavailable.


Overall, the financials for indoor installations appear pretty attractive. Gunthorp says entry into the indoor ropes-course game might run $200,000 to $300,000, while Cummings sets the cost at about $8,500 to $10,000 per feature. 

Installation, assuming the site is adequately prepped, can be quick: five days or less, according to Gunthorp and Cummings. With up to 20 to 30 participants at a time, each paying the typical rate of $10 to $15 on a 20- to 30-element course, the return on investment can be quick. And staffing costs can be kept low, too. In a confined, indoor space, a relatively small staff is capable of managing and keeping an eye on the proceedings.   

The growth of outdoor parks is still outpacing the growth of indoor parks, says Cummings. But going inside has become an attractive park option, especially for operators interested in a weatherproof, 12-month-a-year business that reaches a broad, largely family-oriented demographic. Whether as an incentive to attract retail customers or as a standalone profit-maker, a modestly priced indoor installation can make great sense. 

Come on in.


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