Iowa's Lost Island Theme Park Faces a Rough Start

July 8, 2022, 12:20 PM · Despite the lesson taught by one of Iowa's most notable tourist attractions, if you build it, people do not necessarily come. The state's new Lost Island theme park seems to have gotten off to a dismal start, with owners reporting deeply disappointing attendance for its first weeks of operation.

Lost Island opened June 18 near Waterloo, north of Cedar Rapids. It's a sister property to the established Lost Island water park, which is located a short distance away across the road, making it impractical to walk between the two gates. That has limited the cross-over traffic between the two, which owners had been counting on to help drive attendance to the new park.

Yet owner Eric Bertch told The Gazette in Cedar Rapids that the new theme park has been welcoming just 100 to 300 customers per day, about one-tenth of the water park's attendance. The attracted just 415 guests over the Fourth of July weekend, which typically is one of the biggest weekends of the year for amusement attractions. Bertch said that they had expected the new park to attract 2,500 to 3,000 guests a day.

Lost Island has faced multiple challenges on the road to its debut. A fire in March destroyed the queue building for the park's Yuta Falls flume ride, which should have been one of the more popular attractions in the park. As a result, that ride will not be open this year. Also, the park has not been able to open what should have been its top roller coaster, Matugani, the relocated Kanonen Intamin launch coaster from Liseberg. Bertch blamed supply chain delays keeping Lost Island from receiving a needed brake motor part on that coaster, according to The Gazette.

The new Volkanu: Quest For The Golden Idol interactive dark ride from Sally has been a hit with riders, but one dark ride won't support an entire theme park. Lost Island's next biggest draw is a relocated Vekoma SLC... which isn't much of an attraction for many coaster fans, for whom the Vekoma SLC might be the most disliked coaster model on the market.

So what went wrong at Lost Island? The park has no outside IP, but it does offer a creative original IP concept, being themed to five "realms," with four representing ancient elements - Fire, Water, Air, and Earth - plus the spirits that maintain them in balance. The location, one hour north of Cedar Rapids, is a challenge. It is adjacent to the Isle Casino, but casino/theme park combinations have posted a mixed record of success over the years. (Sentosa Island has been a win, Las Vegas generally has failed, and the jury is still out on Genting in Malaysia.)

Lost Island's model probably should be Holiday World & Splashin' Safari, which also is located far off the beaten tourist path, in Santa Claus, Indiana, and also is a family-owned property. But Holiday World & Splashin' Safari operate as one gate, with both parks accessible on a single ticket and located at the same site. Holiday World also evolved over decades from its origins as the Santa Claus Land roadside attraction, putting less financial pressure on the family.

Lost Island's rough start draws comparisons with Hard Rock Park, the failed theme park in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, which rebranded after one season then closed soon after that. Hard Rock was located in a booming tourist town, but unrealistic attendance expectations doomed the park's finances.

We do not know what Lost Island's fate will be. It depends upon how long the Bertch family can continue to run the park until attendance rises to the point where the park becomes financially sustainable. The challenge is that the park will need more attractions and more promotion - including possibly discounts on $49 admission tickets - to attract more visitors. And all of those solutions cost the park money that it is not now making.

For a line-up of the park's attractions, please see our opening-day post on Lost Island.

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Replies (14)

July 8, 2022 at 12:56 PM

FWIW, there's a difference between drawing a few hundred people per day when you have a reasonable expectation of a couple of thousand versus drawing a few thousand per day when you tell investors that you're going to draw an absurd 30k guests per day - about what EPCOT and DHS each drew and almost DOUBLE was IOA pulled in 2008, which is ironic since the core of the team that designed HRP also designed IOA.

HRP wasn't doomed because it was a ghost town, it went bankrupt because the developers made unreasonable projections to their investors to increase their budget, and couldn't come anywhere close to meeting revenue projections based off those faulty assumptions. The financial collapse of 2008 didn't help either, but was not as impactful as the phony projections.

Lost Island just seems to be stuck between a rock and the middle of nowhere, and is not doing enough to court the established customer base at their sister waterpark. However, I ultimately think any theme park needs to be grounded in an appealing location with a consistent base of customers to draw from. While the "build it and they will come" mantra can work, it still takes time to establish a far-off location as a place for people to visit.

July 8, 2022 at 1:05 PM

High ticket prices also killed Hard Rock Park. I distinctly remember it being more expensive than carowinds, but only had like 3 rides. While not close enough for direct competition, given the option I would go to carowinds because there was more to do there. HRP would have been a go-to if it was cheap enough, but it wasn't.

July 8, 2022 at 1:40 PM

HRP eventually bent on their prices (dropping below the $50/day intro price), but it didn't change their absurd projections, which were erroneously based on the number of annual visitors to the Myrle Beach Area, which at the time was one of the top 10 most visited tourist destinations in the country with the longest average stay. Developers wrongly assumed (and investors bought the story) that they could draw a decent percentage of those tourists to spend a day in the park and could eventually hit that 10 million/year goal (I believe they noted Myrtle Beach had nearly 14 million unique visits in 2006 when the park was announced). The problem was that visitors coming to Myrtle Beach don't want to spend an entire day at a single attraction (a couple hours at the go cart track, mini golf course, or dinner show sure), and a theme park on the scale of HRP just wasn't right for the market. Also, operations was a bit stubborn about their park, and wasn't willing to make compromises to cater to the audience until it was too late (i.e. twilight admission).

Nonetheless, the fundamental issue was that they borrowed a huge amount of money under the premise of unreasonable attendance that simply couldn't be met, so the investors finally called their bluff, and bankrupted the park.

I'm not sure how owners are financing Lost Island, but I wouldn't think they're nearly as underwater as HRP was when it opened (even without correcting for inflation).

July 8, 2022 at 3:19 PM

I live in Iowa and love theme parks...and I have only seen anything about this place on this site. Perhaps that's part of their problem.

July 8, 2022 at 4:25 PM

From what I've heard, these are the big problems currently plaguing Lost Island...

-Virtually no advertising has been done for this place. Many people in the area don't realize there's a theme park there until they see signs for it at the waterpark, and those that know of it aren't aware that it has opened.
-Only about 2/3 of the park's attractions are currently operating. Additionally, the place has an incomplete feel like it was opened before it was really ready. These have resulted in mediocre reviews aside from general praise for Volkanu.
-Staffing shortages have resulted in a 6 P.M. closing time, when the original plan was to stay open until 10 P.M. to attract visitors in the evening after the waterpark closed.
-The park is not selling combo tickets that allow access to both the theme park and waterpark, nor are they selling season passes for the theme park. Instead, every visit must be purchased separately.

Personally, I don't think there is cause for panic...yet. While I'm sure the owners hoped for more, I'm suspecting they knew the waterpark would likely need to prop the theme park up for at least the first year. The general economic issues going on this summer are also playing a part, so while there have been mistakes made, it can't be blamed solely on the operator. However, if the park fully opens next season with a proper staff and proper marketing yet fails to attract visitors, then they might be in trouble. For now, I think the best option for the park is to step up their advertising game and start offering two park tickets as well as passes that will allow visits both this season and next season. That'd get word out about the place and hopefully up their visitor numbers, then next season they can hit the ground running.

Personally, I think this park has a lot of potential, and I'm tentatively planning to trek out there next year to check the place out. It's always hard to launch a new park and there are likely to be hiccups along the way, but I've got a lot more confidence in this one becoming the next Holiday World than the next Hard Rock Park provided the operators know what they're doing and can correct their mistakes in a timely manner.

July 8, 2022 at 6:17 PM

I want to correct some things said above that are 100% incorrect:

1). The park does offer a combo ticket, island hopper. You can visit the
Water park and theme park for $55. You can also get a two day pass for $69, one day visit the water park, one day visit the theme park.

2) There are three rides currently down, which does. It equal 1/3 of the rides, by a long shot. The three rides are: launch coaster, carousel, and the log ride. The launch coaster should be ready by the end of July. The park has been very upfront regarding these rides as unavailable. It’s unfortunate, but not really in their control. Keeping the park closed until all rides were available is not a good business move.

I agree 100% they need to step up advertising. I think they thought people would naturally come over from the water park. I have already seen more advertising in the media. It will take some time.

People in this area don’t like to spend money. 4 tickets and food/parking for a family can be pricey in Iowa for a quick daytrip. Waterloo is a blue collar community. However, the water park is full! The water park does sell season passes and those are popular. I’ve heard a lot of people say they will get season passes for the theme park next year once they offer them. People in the Cedar Valley don’t realize how lucky they are to have this in their backyard. When my husband and I first moved here, we noticed restaurants were busy from 5pm-7pm, but then dead. Iowans are predictable and not exactly spontaneous!

The park is gorgeous and the theming is awesome. If you join the Lost Island fans page on Facebook, 99% of the park reviews are positive and very complimentary.

I am not sure what it will take to draw people to the park. If the numbers don’t come up after the launch coaster comes on, I will be concerned. The Waterloo area also has a mid-size university (10,000 students) and 2 large universities each with 30,000 students, both 1.5 hours away. So, in mid-August when those students start returning, they might see some traffic from that. I did read they would be open weekends after August 21st, through the end of September. School kids go back to school the week of August 21st, and everything pretty much ends at that time.

July 8, 2022 at 11:34 PM

To add to what Russel said,
Harrison "Buzz" Price, who was the industry guy that did the economic feasibility studies for pretty much every park in the country from Disneyland through the 80s (which is basically every park), wrote in his book that it is common for ego's to take over and disagree/get mad at him when he would give them the estimated numbers. He cited Jovanovich particularly for Sea World Texas, which was built to be the biggest and busiest Sea World park, did not do as well as he was expecting (though the numbers were almost exactly what Buzz Price told him they would be) and eventually they were in so much debt they had to exit the business and sell the parks to Busch.

I guess its possible for this parks attendance to go way up when there is more buzz around it, but if they need 10x the attendance its getting now just to survive...well good luck with that. Disneyland Paris had 8 years of profitability of the first 25 years it was open, and for that it was just kind of like "oh well...its massive, draws millions of people, and employs tens of thousands of I guess we'll just lose money until eventually people like it better." DLP literally got bailed out by the Prince of Saudi Arabia and lets be serious he didn't care if the place made money he just wanted the prestige of saying he was part owner of a Disney property (FWIW it was a terrible investment for him the entire time he was in it until Disney bought the property).

July 8, 2022 at 10:24 PM

Poppy, I will acknowledge that my information comes from reports that are a couple weeks old, but I just took a look at the website and here's what I found...

1. It appears you are correct regarding a hopper option. Whether or not that was an option a couple weeks ago or has been added very recently I'm not sure, but none of the reports I heard mentioned those. That said, it is not mentioned on the buy a ticket page and requires scrolling down to the bottom of the page, where it is listed as a day of add-on option. It is also simply listed as "Island Hopper" without clarifying that such is a two-park ticket.

2. Excluding the seven attractions considered kiddie rides (which I didn't factor into my calculation as they generally have negligible appeal to visitors over the age of 7), Lost Island appears to have eighteen total rides: eleven family rides and seven thrill rides. In every report I read, there were four to six family rides noted as being closed, and I didn't see a single report mentioning more than three operating thrill rides. That would indicate a third or more of the attractions as not operating. Now, about half did look like flat rides that were close to opening, so if they've got more open now than in late June that's great, but it's still a really tough sell to charge $50 for a ticket with only fifteen operating attractions and multiple major attractions out of commission. I'll also note that nowhere on the website did I see an indicator that any of the rides were not currently operating.

I do agree with you that postponing the opening until they were 100% ready to go may not have been the best option if it would cause them to miss a good chunk of the summer, but they really should have been a lot more upfront about what was available. If I just looked at the website, I'd expect everything was open, and if I then paid $50 to visit and found out half of what I wanted to do was actually closed, chances of me going back would be pretty low. I think it would have been much smarter to advertise this year as a preview of the park, charge $10 or so less and drop the parking charge (which may be yet another reason people aren't visiting as waterpark parking is free), but instead it seems they opened with poor communication both on what was actually available and that they were even open in the first place.

July 9, 2022 at 7:12 AM

Here's where we really should give Universal and Disney credit for building on their parking lots. Too many theme parks don't realize the value in creating a walkable resort area. Even SeaWorld Orlando screwed this up--they could have built Aquatica, a shopping/dining district and more hotels where the parking lot is, and moved the parking across the busy roads. Instead, they sold off plots of land piecemeal around the resort, so you need to drive everywhere and hit a ton of lights to go very short distances. Can't say that's the biggest reason for the issues here (let's start with advertising) yet, it's something I don't think is considered enough at the planning stages.

July 9, 2022 at 12:43 PM

I do think lack of local advertising a bad move. In Illinois, constantly see ads for not just Six Flags Great America but places in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan so not advertising in-state for this makes little sense. It's still early and plenty of parks who survived rough starts but trickier today and while postponing a poor move, at least trying to ensure top rides ready for opening better. See how it works out, be nice for it to survive but harder to pull it off today.

July 9, 2022 at 9:05 PM

AJ Hummel, they were absolutely upfront with people about which rides were closed. There are three rides not currently up. When they opened, the Ferris wheel, drop tower, and I think one other ride were delayed but were open a few days later. They announced all of this on their social media, through press releases, and I believe their app. I don’t look at their website much.

That being said, I know it wasn’t ideal that they opened without everything open. They unfortunately had the fire that put the log ride on hold, and supply chain issues have caused delays with a part for the launch coaster and the entire carousel. The launch coaster is what people are really excited about and word has it, people are waiting for that before they come.

The water park is hugely successful. The family that owns the parks knows what they are doing. The water park is rated #2 in the US. Like I said above, they definitely need to step up advertising and invest in a huge campaign. However, they may be waiting for next season to be their grand opening. What if the launch coaster doesn’t come? Then they wasted thousands on advertising.

Every single review I read about this park is positive. Sure there are little things people complain about such as lack of shade and want more places to sit. People are complaining about the cost. However, I’ve also heard people say once you go, you realize the cost is 100% worth it. It’s a well done park that I am sure will grow over time.

I am sad to read this article as they have really just had a soft opening. I’m hopeful it will take off. The Bertch family has out their heart and soul into this park. They are a wonderful family who is constantly giving to the community.

July 10, 2022 at 8:13 AM

I'm within two hours away and heard nothing about this place. I also can't spend that much. That's pretty hight to get in unless there is a special for a family pass. Things are tight as it is and a lot of people are used to getting Adventureland day passes for $20 each, which made it possible for families to go.

July 10, 2022 at 10:40 AM

and I would never think to look on a park's Facebook page for ride availability information — I'd look on the place they're charging $50 for tickets for an under construction theme park.

but I guess that's the cool thing about "soft openings" is that you get to charge full price while trying to downplay expectations for your product.

July 11, 2022 at 12:41 PM

I agree wit SarahMB, I think the comparisons to Adventureland (and their pricing) could be a factor.

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