Cedar Fair Is Not Disney

There's a new sheriff in town at Cedar Fair (NYS: FUN) .

After running the regional amusement park chain since the 1980s, Dick Kinzel retired over the weekend. Matthew Ouimet -- hired as Kinzel's heir apparent last year -- is the new CEO.

Ouimet cut his teeth at Disney (NYS: DIS) , where he spent several years managing Disney's cruise line, resorts, and theme parks.

Ouimet isn't Kinzel, an insider who worked his way up the ranks at the company's flagship Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio. Ouimet is replacing Kinzel because he's an outsider who knows that a theme park can't survive on the turnstile clicks of thrill-seeking teens alone. Cedar Fair needs to do a better job of attracting young families to its gated attractions, and it needs to beef up its technology to make sure that it catches up with the industry.

"We've always got to be known for great thrills," Ouimet said in a recent AP interview. "It has served us well. But I also want to be known for great connections, and that this is where families come together."

Well, Ouimet is going to find out that that's easier said than done.

I've heard this before.

Six Flags (NYS: SIX) wanted to go the family-friendly route when it also tapped a Disney executive -- in this case ESPN rising star Mark Shapiro -- to run the fledgling chain of thrill parks five years ago.

I spent an enlightening day with Shapiro at Great Adventure in New Jersey early in his first season at Six Flags. He broke out some of the tricks that worked at Disney. He beefed up the costumed characters at the park, introduced character brunches, and added family-friendly attractions.

Sadly, his company ran out of money before he could execute his vision. Six Flags filed for bankruptcy, and a new regime took over.

Ouimet knows that Cedar Fair needs to upgrade its technology.

I love Cedar Point. I'm there every few years to ride its world-class coasters. I was there this summer. The extent of the park's technology is a texting feature that promised to offer daily news and deals, but in reality spit out a lone obvious tip -- and then ignored my unsubscribe requests. Instead of getting wait times at the popular attractions or virtual coupons, I was reminded that I can get discounted park tickets if I stayed on-site (which I was doing already).

Disney has its elaborate FastPass distribution system, where guests can scan their tickets to secure shorter lines on select attractions. Six Flags has a premium Flash Pass gadget that isn't cheap, but creates virtual queues for its most popular rides. Busch Gardens has Quick Queue, where guests in a hurry can pay for quick access to its larger attractions.

Cedar Fair has nothing. It's so old-school that it once tried to roll out a queue reservation system at its flagship park involving stamping return times on patron hands. It figured limiting guests to two stamps -- one on each hand -- would help keep folks out of hot lines. Really. I was there that season a few years ago. You should've seen the mad hand-scrubbing taking place in the restrooms.

Ouimet will succeed on the technological front. It's really hard to go backward. However, it's going to be a harder sell to woo local young families. The parks are filled with plenty of kids rides and plenty of thrill rides, but few themed attractions that the families can experience together.

Cedar Fair also isn't in the same dire financial straits that Six Flags found itself in two years ago, but it's still facing a hefty debt load that isn't getting any lighter as investors clamor for larger payouts.

Ouimet is going to have his hands full next season. Let's hope he's ready for the mad hand-scrubbing that's necessary to see his vision through.

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