Tuesday August 28, 2018

Thunder Island Rolls: Big Plans for Tourism Icon

New owners will invest $2.5 million to upgrade water park
By Lou Sorendo

    Thunder Island in Granby will undergo a facelift.

    "We don’t know how to fail.”

    With those words, the husband-and-wife business team of Ron and Lisa Falise are embarking on an ambitious plan to transform Thunder Island Water Park and Family Entertainment Park in the town of Granby into a state-of-the-art destination point for both local residents and tourists alike.

    Thunder Island has become iconic in Oswego County since it began as a go-cart track back in 1979 under the ownership of Harry Perau.

    It features a water park, go-karts, jungle-themed mini golf, zip lining and a game room. It also offers The Oasis indoor banquet hall and outdoor pavilion.

    Thunder Island is located just off state Route 48 on Wilcox Road and sits on 113.5 acres.

    “Our goal is to keep rebuilding it. I tell people all the time, and they laugh at me a lot, that when I am done and satisfied, Darien Lake will have nothing on us. People will want to come to Thunder Island instead of going to Darien Lake,” Ron said.

    Darien Lake is about two hours west of Fulton in Darien and attracts about 1.5 million patrons annually. Thunder Island draws about 31,000 visitors a year.

    While that may seem like a lofty goal, Ron is known for constantly looking toward the future while developing innovative business ideas.

    The Falises also own and operate Chestnut Event Services and Chestnut Street Security in East Syracuse.
    When combined, their businesses employ 150 people.

    Ron, originally from Oswego, said the business is not going through a rebranding.
    “My goal is to always have it family oriented. I am not going to allow it to become a corporate park where there is somebody on the other side of the country owning the park and we just run it for them,” he said.

    “When we opened Chestnut Event Services in 2011, Ron and I decided from day one that we wanted to have a family friendly customer-oriented business,” Lisa said. “Our credo is we are a professional company with the benefits of a family business. We have brought that credo to Thunder Island as well.”

    The County of Oswego Industrial Development Agency assisted the Falises on financing.
    The entire project costs $2,495,000 and the IDA has provided help with an $892,000 Small Business Administration loan and a $1,250,000 loan from Pathfinder Bank.

    According to the county, the expansion will result in 20 jobs being retained and 10 jobs being created, with an estimated annual payroll of $133,000 and estimated annual sales taxes of $80,700.

    About 60 percent of their customers come from within a 20- to 30-mile radius of the park, while the remainder comes from Downstate, the Rochester area and Canada.
    The demographic the park attracts most is families with kids 17 and under. Ron said that is because the park does not feature the “super duper” rides at some of the larger parks. However, as part of the water park expansion, there will be more rides added that are geared toward the teenager to mid-20s population.

    Ron said he has done sufficient research to know what rides he wants to bring in.
    Lisa noted The Thunder Rush water slide, more affectionately called The Toilet Bowl, is unique to Central New York.

    “My wish list is to have another slide that is unique to the region,” she said.

    Ron worked with Perau for a year prior to embarking on his own two years ago.

    “We are constantly doing changes and updates,” said Ron, noting that issues facing Perau included outdated facilities.
    “He didn’t want to put anything more into it."

    One of the Falises’ goals is to create an RV park along Ox Creek, and when that occurs, they intend on expanding the water park and making it completely handicapped-accessible.

    “When I was in the teaching field, I worked with the handicapped quite a bit,” Ron said. “Both my wife and I have a special place in our hearts for them.

    Lisa said the business gets many requests from guests about overnight accommodations, especially from wedding parties.
    “With the RV park, guests can camp all night and continue the fun the next day,” she said.

    Another goal the couple has is to create a small concert venue at the site. “I have a strong background in concerts and working with national acts,” Ron said.

    His vision is to have everything accomplished within a 10-year period, including having an indoor water park.
    However, over the next year or two, the Falises will be focused on fixing and re-establishing what is already there.

    “Right now all of the profits are being put back into the park in the form of upgrades,” Lisa said. “There are some aesthetic upgrades that the public might notice but the bulk of the changes are behind-the-curtain, so to speak.”

    ‘We are family’:
    Throughout many years of doing business, the Falises learned the importance of having a solid infrastructure and backing of a team. They refer to staff as family.

    “If we’re going to do more, we must have the right team players on board,” Ron said.

    They will be adding new attractions, such as a rock climbing wall and private cabanas.
    Lisa said there are tentative plans to add indoor laser tag and indoor mini golf.

    “We want to become a four-season business, not just one or two seasons,” she said.

    Ron said when people visit the park, they want to see cleanliness, updated equipment and facilities, safety and a family friendly atmosphere.
    “We make it a point to not allow profanity and any kind of negative vibe,” he said.

    In terms of pricing, the Falises said the cost must be realistic for families.
    “If Mom and Dad want to bring their two kids to some of the other water parks in the region, that is their major thing for the summer and they end up dumping around $350,” Ron said.

    “If they come here, they might spend $100-$125, but they can come back and do it again,” he said.

    It costs $20.95 to enter the park, and there are discounts for large groups as well.
    “If it’s not something a family of four or a single mother or father can afford, then it’s not going to work,” he said.

    Ron grew up with three brothers and a single mom.
    “We weren’t allowed to come to places like this because we could not afford it. My goal is to keep it so families like that can go,” he said.

    Ron spent 25 years as an emergency responder and owns and operates a security business.
    “We take a lot of pride and satisfaction in making sure the park is safe,” said Ron, noting that his crew does drills that exceed requirements.

    “We run them on a daily basis to make sure our guards and attendants are on point,” he said. “I’ve set myself up to have very high standards.”

    “One of the great features of Thunder Island is the boundaries and visibility. Parents can let kids go up and down slides while still maintaining visuals on them,” Lisa said.

    There is only one entrance-exit and no child is allowed out without a parent, she added.

    The Falises reside in East Syracuse. Ron is a nephew of the late Marg Falise, who owned McDonald’s Fashions in downtown Oswego for many years.

    He attributes his leadership skills to when he was a youngster in the Boy Scouts.
    “I grew up without a father, and the Boy Scouts taught me right and wrong and pushed me to become a leader,” he said. “When I became an Eagle Scout, I took others under my wing to help them.”

    Lisa said both she and her husband stress the importance of communication and patience.
    “Being patient with each other as well as having open communication lines is essential,” she said.

    “She is an accounting major and is constantly watching the numbers. My job is to imagine what I want, design it, build it and fix it,” Ron said.

    “Some people think I am nuts, but in my head, I am already moving onto the next project and always looking ahead to the next business,” he added.

    Thirsting for Oasis:
    The first year that the Falises took over, they had 15 events planned at The Oasis. This year, they have 38 events planned to date, including weddings, retirement and graduation parties.

    The couple hired an events planner with the goal being to have 100 different events in one year, whether it involves shows and activities involving crafts, cooking or training.

    Lisa said the goal is to make the Oasis one of the premier wedding and banquet destinations in Oswego County.
    “Ron is a phenomenal chef and prime rib is the house specialty,” she said.

    “Between the food quality, the team of employees we have and the attention to detail, we are hoping the Oasis sells itself via word of mouth,” she added.

    The Oasis is open year round for all events.

    Ron said nowadays, the bride and groom pick up 80 percent of the wedding tab.
    “A lot of people want to have a wedding they can afford, while some want to go out and drop $60,000 on a wedding,” he said. “In my eyes, that is ridiculous.”

    By making it more affordable, return business is guaranteed and volume increases, he noted.
    “I would rather pick up slow nickels all day than pick up a fast dime,” he added.

    Ron said success will be attained at Thunder Island largely due to his wife and staff.
    “Without my wife and staff, I would be nothing,” said Ron, noting his water park manager has been there for 30 years.

    Lisa said the business has increased its radio and print advertising, and those avenues have resulted in a broadened client base.
    “Once we begin expanding, we are hoping the word will spread quickly and the community will come check out changes as they happen,” she said.

    Ron said he is up and ready to go at 4:30-5 a.m. and talking to staff on his drive to Thunder Island.

    “Is it possible to do mostly everything yourself? Yes, but it consumes you after a while,” he said. “People helped me when I was down 25 years ago. My wife and I had nothing, but we kept building and had people reach down and help us. Now, our thing is to help people in return. It’s all about karma.”