The infrastructure was laid for a massive, major theme park in Myrtle Beach. However, a problem quickly arose with Fantasy Harbour.
Myrtle Beach is a veritable tourist capital, filled with resorts, hotels, motels, outlets, malls, family fun centers, go-kart tracks, mini golf, and more. A whopping 17 million visitors annually was nothing to sneeze at, but how could a new park break into the already established lineup of a tourist Mecca?
Investors were clear – Myrtle Beach could support a theme park, and they’d be willing to invest to make it happen. But a generic park of off-the-shelf carnival rides would do little to distract families from the beautiful (and free) beach just four miles east. Even those families looking for a thrill would likely find it more prudent to visit the existing carnival rides positioned at family fun centers and go-kart tracks all around the tourist area.
A Fantasy Harbour of simple carnival rides would not do.
If Binkowski wanted funding for a Myrtle Beach park, he needed a brand to back him up.
Originally, he toyed with the idea of a movie studio themed park (which was very en vogue in the late 1990s when design first began; today, the concept has lost much of its luster as seen by the aging of Disney’s Hollywood Studios and the revamp of Universal Studios Florida). Perhaps luckily, Binkowski couldn’t find a studio willing to operate or even license their identity to the South Carolinian park. Disney and Universal were uninterested in expanding; MGM had just closed its own failed attempt at a park in Las Vegas; and Paramount owned five North American parks already, but it had purchased and branded them, not built them from scratch.
The search was on to find a suitable intellectual property to carry a park and impress potential investors.
With no oversight or intrusion, Binkowski designed a park borrowing from Fantasy Harbour’s basic layout, drawing in roller coasters, theaters, restaurants, backstage areas, and even a parade route. This very simple “armchair Imagineering” was backed by more professional knowledge than most of us can tout, but still amounted to a man designing his own perfect park. And for Binkowski’s central theme, he selected… music.
And it clicked.
A series of informal business connections between Renaissance and Hard Rock International (remember how Renaissance Entertainment worked on Universal’s CityWalk and its Hard Rock Café?) put Binkowski in close touch with Hard Rock’s Vice President of Franchise Operations (that is, the guy normally in charge of overseeing franchise locations of the company’s Hard Rock Café.)
Negotiations began and by the early 2000s, initial work was started on the world’s first Hard Rock Park.
As luck would have it, four major projects had come to a close in the theme park industry at the turn of the century.
In 1998, Disney’s Imagineers had singlehandedly created what was easily their most cohesive and immersive project to date – Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The enormous, detailed, and light-on-attractions park had shifted something in the industry, and marked a definite end to the era of the studio park that had come before. Post-Animal-Kingdom, the industry craved immersive, detailed parks built on storytelling, not big tan show buildings and flat façades.
That appetite was re-whet the next year, when Universal’s Islands of Adventure opened. Universal’s first outright attempt at a Disney-style theme park (again, leaving behind its studio park origins), Islands of Adventure blew away all expectations, catapulted Universal into the creative heights formerly monopolized by Disney. Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence – it was former Disney Imagineers who designed much of it.
Just a few years later, 2001 would see the opening of two radically different parks – Disneyland’s second gate, California Adventure was dismissed immediately as Disney’s first outright failure. It lacked the creative vision, reverent storytelling, and outstanding detail Disney was known for. Quite the opposite, Tokyo DisneySea opened in Japan and was lauded from the start as the best theme park on Earth. Like Animal Kingdom, it was light on attractions but superlative in every way.
An opportune time
On September 11, 2001 – shortly after the opening of Disney’s two newest parks – terrorists attacked the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York City. The devastating event rippled throughout the entire world, affecting billions and altering many global industries. One of the most severely affected? Tourism.
Families wary of travel changed their plans and the “staycation” entered the vernacular. In uncertain times and leery of travel (especially air travel), people simply opted to stay home. Disney and Universal found themselves floundering with record low attendance, slashing prices just to keep visitors coming. Across the industry, projects were cancelled altogether, and creatives like Binkowski found that their work dried up.
In the themed entertainment business (i.e. Disney Imagineering or Universal Creative), your work is based on your project. When your project is finished (a park or attraction opens), you’re ideally hired for a new one. Otherwise, you’re off to find work as a freelance designer. It’s this natural ebb and flow of projects that explain how Islands of Adventure so resembles Disney’s forgotten Beastly Kingdom park land, or how designers can develop projects across chains.
And after September 11, a lot of designers found themselves in limbo. Disney and Universal were cancelling any plans they might’ve had to build new attractions, much less entire new parks.
In the early 2000s, only one large-scale project was moving forward in the United States: Hard Rock Park. So recognize that, even if Hard Rock Park is remembered with a chuckle due to its short life, it was designed and built by the same creative folks who had brought Disney and Universal’s parks to life.
To build a park
Hard Rock Park was backed by a $385 million loan (of which $225 million would be used to build the park… a relatively small sum in the industry. By comparison, Disney California Adventure was only $600 million, and was infamously known as a cheap park light on attractions). But with 55-acres (about the size of Disneyland Park) including the Ice Theater and part of the closed Waccamaw mall, Hard Rock Park would make good use of the money. And like all theme parks, it would only grow (literally and figuratively).
Of course, a park built around music would need plenty of it, and Hard Rock Park’s designers were ready. They divided the park into dozens of controlled music zones using directional sound and cutting edge audio equipment to immerse guests into different sounds along different areas of the path, with music melding perfectly between zones. If Islands of Adventure had earned the awe of the industry for composing music specifically for the park, Hard Rock Park should’ve earned it for incorporating music so effectively.
Hard Rock Park was privately owned by a company called HRP Myrtle Beach Operations, LLC with Binkowski at the helm. That meant that the designs he and his team developed didn’t require final creative approval or even budgetary oversight. Hard Rock International simply licensed its name and likeness to HRP Myrtle Beach Operations, LLC for $2.5 million a year and brand approval for visual design elements tied to the Hard Rock identity.
The park was projected to draw 3 million visitors during its first year – a figure it had to reach to meet investor expectations. This was perhaps a lofty goal by some estimation, necessitating 20,000 to 30,000 visitors per day (which the park was built to handle) to visit the park. A number like that would require some sincere marketing and outreach efforts to ensure that families visited.
However, 3 million doesn’t sound outrageously large with some context. Theoretically, to host 3 million visitors would require that 1 of every 6 visitors to Myrtle Beach would visit. For the first year, that might be a stretch, but it’s not necessarily an outrageous figure as the park settled into its skin. For context, 3 million visitors in 2015 would’ve made Hard Rock Park the 18th most visited park in the US – right between Hersheypark and Six Flags Magic Mountain.
But Hard Rock Park never reached 3 million visitors. In fact, a park built for 25,000 a day played host on average to 1/10 of that. Each day, between 2,000 and 3,000 visitors explored Hard Rock Park… Before we talk about why, let’s discuss what they saw when they came.
Hard Rock Park opened April 15, 2008. On the next page, we’ll begin our in-depth walkthrough of the park, so you can see just what visitors saw on that day.