Raffi Kaprelyan believes this will be the summer of Knott’s Berry Farm.
He’s aiming to make good on a pledge he made to revitalize Knott’s, where he became general manager in 2012.
The Buena Park amusement park finished last year with record attendance for parent Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. of Sandusky, Ohio.
Kaprelyan is looking to maintain the momentum with next month’s opening of a revitalized log ride and the grand reopening of the Camp Snoopy children’s area.
The projects are part of a five-year, four-pillar plan focused on giving attractions, entertainment, food and atmosphere a boost, as well as on re-emphasizing the park’s farm roots.
It’s the first time an undertaking with such a focus on details has been done at Knott’s, Kaprelyan said.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve really jumped on it and had pretty good momentum in attendance and revenue, and I think all the differences that we were making into the park and the attention that we’ve been paying to the different attractions has really resonated in the market.”
Cedar Fair doesn’t release attendance figures or financial performance of its parks. The Themed Entertainment Association, an industry trade group based in Burbank, estimated attendance at 3.5 million as of 2012, the latest data available—about one-fifth the annual count at nearby Disneyland and less than half of California Adventure.
Kaprelyan, who describes himself as a man of few words, was nevertheless chatty as he took a visitor around the park, pointing out the various improvements that have been made since his arrival.
It was a homecoming for Kaprelyan, who got his first job cleaning rides at Knott’s and eventually became general manager of Cedar Fair’s Wonderland theme park in Canada before landing the top job at Knott’s.
He quickly got to work there. Three underperforming rides were removed from Camp Snoopy and replaced with three new ones more in keeping with the Peanuts cartoon character theme of the area. Another change was intended to encourage parents to ride the attractions with their kids.
The area’s color scheme had over the years become what Kaprelyan called “Romper Roomish.” Primary colors have been replaced with earth tones, and there are new stone planters and flower beds dressing up additional seating areas. The idea is to allow guests to feel like they’re at a state park as opposed to an amusement park.
Kaprelyan has kept a steady eye on the park’s overall cleanup from the ground up. He said Knott’s has spent millions to replace the blacktop with concrete, remove rotted wood, and fix building facades in the Ghost Town area of the park. There’s also been an increase in seasonal events, such as the Boysenberry Festival and the Berry Bloom—a springtime celebration with a nod to Knott’s farm-stand past, along with regular favorites, such as Halloween Haunt.
Food offerings include more gluten-free and vegan options that came with the arrival of Chef Russ Knibbs, with whom Kaprelyan worked for eight years in Canada and brought over just a few months after joining Knott’s. The park plans to begin selling the boysenberry barbecue sauce featured during Berry Bloom.
That would follow December’s relaunch of a 16-flavor preserves line that takes old recipes from the Knott family and sells them under the Berry Market label that goes back to founders Walter and Cordelia Knott, who began farming 10 acres of leased land in the 1920s.
“We want to create an environment where you don’t need a ride to enjoy the park,” Kaprelyan said.
That means tapping the company’s heritage in an effort to resonate with locals who grew up coming to the park.
Kaprelyan pointed out a group of women sitting outside a restaurant in Ghost Town during his walk of the park last month, saying the three had been at that same table an hour before when he dined there for lunch.
Cedar Fair and Knott’s executives call that place-making success.
They made similar moves last year with the redo of what’s now called the Boardwalk, where three rides were added. At night, strands of lights and live bands help liven up the area, which used to become its own ghost town after 8 p.m.
“There was no difference between day and night before, so we gave [visitors] a reason to stay,” Kaprelyan said of the changes to the Boardwalk.
A souvenir shop there now sells goods from Huntington Beach-based Quiksilver Inc. and Volcom Inc. of Costa Mesa, in an effort to entice holders of $102-a-year season passes, which come with discounts on park merchandise. Disney’s premium annual pass is $699.
Knott’s has a clear claim on the middle ground in a competitive landscape dominated by the two parks at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, where single-day prices were recently raised by $4 to $96, and family entertainment outlets such as Boomers, where a four-hour unlimited ride pass at its various locations in the area is about $27. Single-day passes at Knott’s are $42 if purchased online and $62 at the gate.
“Anytime [Disney raises] prices, they’re always going to push a certain segment out,” Kaprelyan said. “And some of those segments, they’re middle-class segments, so absolutely we become a little bit more valuable to them.”
Knott’s said it may keep prices the same this year, but it’s a balancing act and something executives always monitor, particularly with food and labor costs rising.
The park improvements and relatively low ticket pricing have helped attract more people, but Knott’s wouldn’t be expecting another record year for attendance and passes were it not for the increased marketing, Kaprelyan said.
“We can do a lot to the park and get it to the right place, but if the messaging is not right, if it’s not being driven in the right manner, then you don’t gain traction as fast as we have,” he said. “The park’s coming together really nicely, and then the marketing team has really strengthened.”
That’s got its sales and marketing teams now looking outside of Knott’s core Southern California market with increased direct marketing in Nevada and Arizona, as well as Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.
“You want to get to the decision makers in advance so that when they do come out here, they know what the options are,” Kaprelyan said. “Knott’s Berry Farm is the smaller park if you’re going to compare us to Disneyland, of course. They are out there in volume, and we just want to make sure that when [tourists] do come to Southern California or the Anaheim areas that they have another option to come here, because we are the Americana-type park that you don’t get anywhere else.”