“Mini” Steps For Man

By Matt Pilger

The goal of parks and recreation agencies is to provide opportunities that appeal to a broad market. The game of miniature golf is a perfect activity that conveys an organization’s message that offerings can be fun while also delivering strong profit margins and a quick return on investment. In addition, miniature-golf facilities can provide long-term sustainability, all the while building positive community engagement.

The spirit of miniature golf can be seen in the leaps of a child after his or her first hole-in-one or in the stories of retirees remembering their first date at a mini-golf course. The game is so simple and yet complex that it can bring professional golfers to act like children and first-timers to feel as though they should be on tour. With the ability to create lasting memories and never-ending laughs, and to bring people from all walks of life together, miniature golf is an untapped resource to educate and inspire.

On a busy street corner sits a facility that thousands pass each morning on the way to work, and again on the way home. At first glance, many people assume the facility is a local history museum; with old wagons, a mineshaft, a train, and a water tower dispersed throughout, so it would be an appropriate first impression. Others might believe the site is a local nature center, as native plants, aspen trees, and geological features highlight some of the best vegetation Colorado has to offer. Although these inferences are incorrect, neither is completely inaccurate. Rather, the two-acre site is home to Colorado Journey Miniature Golf course, a family-entertainment facility that engages its visitors through a round—or two—of mini-golf. While playing the game, players have the opportunity to learn about local historic and natural attractions in a single round.

The state is home to national treasures such as Mesa Verde, Garden of the Gods, the Eisenhower Tunnel, Dinosaur National Monument, and countless abandoned historic gold-mining sites. Annually, out-of-state visitors and residents travel throughout the Centennial State to experience but a handful of these wonders; a road trip to visit seven of the state’s greatest attractions requires driving more than 900 miles over at least 22 hours. Such a trip is best left for an extended vacation or multiple overnight excursions. Due to increased travel and lodging expenses, along with no guarantees of cellular service or Wi-Fi in the Rocky Mountains, such a trip may simply not be realistic for the modern family.

But the opportunity to have an experience over lunch, in the afternoon or after work, in only a couple hours makes Colorado Journey a real draw. In comparison with a traditional miniature-golf course—that may include windmills, humorous figurines, volcanoes, or a collection of mismatched imaginative themes—Colorado Journey provides an authentic experience that is representative of historical facts rather than a fantasy adventure. With a train with authentic audio recordings from narrow-gauge railroads, a mineshaft patterned after those in historic Cripple Creek, a small marble quarry with the same type of rock that created the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, a cliff house representing the Anasazi dwellings in Mesa Verde, and floral landscaping native to the region, there is no shortage of educational opportunities in the facility. Course-description cards are provided to guests at the front desk that explain the theme of each hole with enough information to pique interest in both young and old. Facility staff members regularly field patron questions such as, “Are dinosaur fossils really found in Colorado?” or “Is there really a ghost town called St. Elmo?” or occasionally even, “Did Ute Indians really bathe in Hot Sulfur Spring for medicinal purposes?” Each answer to these questions is “Yes.”

In a world full of distractions—both social and electronic—an experience that creates intrigue and a desire to learn cannot be understated. Many guests visit Colorado Journey for family time, as part of a date night, or as a corporate team-building exercise, but many leave with the desire to see more of the state’s wonders. There can never be enough advocates to help preserve historic sites, natural landscapes, and beautiful environments. Although the mission of miniature golf isn’t to develop the next great environmental advocate or historic preservationist, creating a passion for our state is a byproduct of spontaneous outdoor family fun, which can have lasting positive effects for society.

Time is a limited and precious resource, so a second shouldn’t be wasted. At Colorado Journey Miniature Golf, every minute is a moment to enjoy. Visitors to the facility keep their bodies moving, expand their minds, get in touch with nature, and savor the company of family and friends. With consistent hours and drop-in admissions, one can engage regularly or play a round of mini-golf whenever the mood strikes (and yes, weather permits).

Beyond the regular operations, multiple special events are hosted throughout the year. Over the last few years a springtime egg hunt, Independence Day tournament, and three summer “Glow Ball” nights have been offered. Though each has had success, for several years there has been a progressive decline in attendance. In 2016, the special-events calendar was revamped, and attendance numbers rebounded significantly. Rather than offer one night-only events, the new slate of programs consisted of weekly and daily drop-in events that provided more opportunities for customers to participate. Such a format eliminated many of those traditional events, which required disproportionate amounts of preparation for short-term programs, but opened the door to new ideas.

An updated events calendar allowed improvement and expansion of the summer “Glow Ball” nights, resulting in a 350-percent increase in attendance. Leading this dramatic growth, “Glow Ball” was moved from the previous monthly Friday time slot to weekly Thursday nights; social-media promotion advertised the weekly summer event. Guests were treated to new LED flagpoles, light-up balls, and new course lighting. In October, the courses were enhanced by a variety of Halloween decorations, and some of the lighting was utilized to create “Hole-O-Ween.” Each day, as dusk came, the facility would be transformed into a spooky, yet family-friendly, mini-golf atmosphere. Instead of a single-themed day, the month-long event provided 31 opportunities for guests to visit and enjoy according to their schedule, resulting in peak October attendance numbers.

An organization doesn’t have to operate a miniature golf course to find success, but as an untapped resource to engage the larger community, it certainly doesn’t hurt. One simply needs to find opportunities to educate, create memories, inspire, and build relationships in a non-traditional form. When developing operation guidelines and in programming special events, ensure that scheduling considers the target audience’s expectations. And, most importantly, provide a place for community members to have both a little adventure and an educational experience. It will truly be a hole-in-one.

Matt Pilger, MBA, CPRP, is the Program & Facility Supervisor for the South Suburban Parks and Recreation in Littleton, Colo. Reach him at MattP@ssprd.org.