The question has persisted for as long as parents have had children and have embarked on family outings: “What are we going to do with the kids?” Typically, aerial adventure parks offer at least some activities that can accommodate kids six years old and older along with their parents. But what to do with the barely ambulatory crowd, i.e., kids as young as three?
An unsatisfactory answer to that question can keep young families away, or shorten their visit. Gerhard Komenda, CEO of Tree-Mendous Aerial Adventures, understands the shortage of activities for the youngest members of the family. Simply put, not having anything for little kids, says Komenda, “can be a deterrent” to family business.
That’s why Berkshire East, located in western Massachusetts, came up with the idea of adding the little-kid friendly Tree House Trail—a Tree-Mendous installation—to its adventure-park offerings a couple of years ago. In doing so, the resort and Tree-Mendous had to account for the unique demands of a pipsqueak audience as well as their parents or older family members that might accompany them on the trail.
Issues that needed to be resolved: safety, logistical simplicity, structural integrity, staffing, creating an activity that promotes challenge but not fear, and others.
A Sensible Addition
According to the 2019 API State of the Industry report, the great majority of park participants ranged in age from six to 55. Participation of those under six was microscopic, barely registering on the scale. Of course there could be many reasons to explain this, but one reason, certainly, is that not enough parks offer activities that cater to the very young. And if young kids aren’t participating, chances are that their young parents and older siblings aren’t getting in the game, either.
Across the country, adventure parks are recognizing the need to address the young-family audience, according to the State of the Industry report. The report indicated that aerial adventure and ground-based activities for kids under seven represented two of the three most important areas of capital planning in 2019.
Berkshire East took steps relatively early to make sure that its slate of activities included something for the rug-rat crowd. A ski area in the winter, the resort had built a solid summer business based on zip lining, whitewater rafting, and mountain biking. But as Gabe Porter-Henry, Berkshire East’s director of marketing, notes, they were all “activities geared for teenagers and up.” In 2016, the resort decided “we wanted to enhance the offerings we had for families, allowing the entire family to come.”
The decision to add an aerial adventure tour for the nine and older crowd went only so far; to cover all age groups (and the parents who came with them) something for younger kids was needed. And so came the Tree House Trail.
Built for Kids
The objective of almost any adventure-park activity is, as Komenda puts it, “to get you out of your comfort zone.” But the comfort-zone threshold for young kids isn’t the same as for adults and older kids. Putting three- to seven-year-olds at tree canopy heights, says Komenda, could “scare the living daylights out of them.” In other words, a little too far out of their comfort zone.
In addition, he says, “for pure toddlers, an aerial adventure is the wrong thing. They don’t have the motor skills” to take on the challenges presented by a typical configuration. In addition, fitting into and managing a harness and clipping on and off of a lifeline can be intimidating for young kids as well as too complicated for them to manage. And most lack the attention span to complete a tour that might take an adult an hour or more.
So what Berkshire East and Tree-Mendous agreed on was a design that, at about 12 to 15 feet above the ground, was elevated enough to bust through the comfort threshold of toddlers but not enough to terrify them. Rather than a harness and lifeline system for safety, the entire walk is fitted with seven- to eight-foot-high protective netting, including a final, 60- to 70-foot zip line.
The walk features 10 elements, according to Komenda, including a wave bridge and an area of cargo netting. Komenda characterized some elements as “jiggly wiggly,” meaning that they could challenge small kids’ balance and dexterity while still being fun and not intimidating or disruptive. Even a small kid could complete the course in roughly 15 minutes, often much faster. The whole design also had to be effectively kid-proofed: no bumps, gaps (especially in the transition from a bridge to a deck), or irregularities to trip kids up, and no sharp edges should a kid fall.
And while the installation was basically designed for very young kids, it also had to be able to accommodate bigger kids and adults who might want to play along with their toddlers. Berkshire East sets a weight limit of 275 pounds per person, but Komenda says that extensive pre-installation testing assured that the walk could stand up to 1,000 pounds. Ultimately, the result is an installation that has not had an incident resulting in injury in its more than two years of operation.
Porter-Henry couldn’t link an increase in Berkshire East’s summer business directly to the addition of the Tree House Trail. He did, however, say that the Tree House Trail helped to “add to the length of time that families are here,” and more time at the resort has inevitably translated into more revenue. Because the activity is in the resort base area, says Porter-Henry, resort visitors spend more time there rather than engaged in such activities as rafting, which takes participants far off campus. “It adds a liveliness and excitement to the base area,” he says, “and allows the entire family to come.”
More people spending more time at the resort base means more money spent on food and beverage, retail items, and the like. In addition, Berkshire East charges $10 for a 30-minute session on the trail (or $20 all day), so the trail itself is a revenue generator. And while clearly the three- to eight-year-old crowd is the target audience, Porter-Henry says that it has also been popular with adults who “like to experience the thrill of being a child.”
Tree-Mendous has designed and built similar installations at other parks, and Komenda concedes that doing it right doesn’t necessarily come cheaply. He estimates a median cost at around $250,000. Determining a return-on-investment timeframe isn’t easy, given that most parks that have Tree-Mendous installations don’t use a pay-to-play pricing scheme. And as Porter-Henry suggests at Berkshire East, much of the revenue benefit produced by the Tree House Trail is realized indirectly, through ancillary spending.
But if the initial capital investment is substantial, industry trends suggest that it is well placed. A demographic analysis in the API State of the Industry report cites “an increased focus on activities for a wider variety of ages, to allow entire families to participate at recreational facilities.” In other words, if there is nothing for kids to do, families—toddlers and their parents—won’t come.
Answering the age-old question—what to do with the kids—is becoming increasingly relevant in maximizing revenues. As a result, more parks are following the Berkshire East model and adding kid-specific installations to keep the whole fam damily happy.