By Mike McLean
Spokane Journal of Business
At the age of 75, Gary Norton, owner and founder of Silverwood Theme Park, continues to be its pilot, always attempting to steer it to new heights.
The north Idaho theme park, located about 180 miles northeast of the Tri-Cities, has overcome economic turbulence in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Also, in 2021, Silverwood added a single-rail, steel roller coaster named Stunt Pilot and tallied record attendance for the park.
Norton said big improvements are in the works for Silverwood next year, including a major expansion of the Boulder Beach Water Park.
Though details of the expansion likely will be announced in August, he hinted that it will include “one major attraction that will be bigger than anything we’ve ever done in the water park.”
Silverwood plans to invest $15 million in the expansion, which Norton said is more than the cost of developing the original water park that opened in 2003.
Another addition to the park will be a food-and-beverage complex with a large kitchen that’s expected to produce more food than all of the other food operations in the park combined.
In his current project, though, Norton is improving the park’s workforce-scheduling software.
“It’s something I wanted to try myself,” he said. “I’m trying to take it further and make it more automated.”
On a typical day, “Eight hundred people have to be put somewhere,” he said.
The employee schedule changes every day due to several variables, including weather, the day of the week, seasonal timing and staff availability, he said.
The software project, which includes tweaking the scheduling system’s computer code, harkens back to his roots as a tech entrepreneur, when he made his first fortune through International Systems Corp., a Spokane company he founded in 1977 that made computer systems, including software, for the banking industry.
Norton opened Silverwood in 1988, after selling ISC. At the time, Silverwood was a roadside attraction featuring a daily airplane stunt show and a working 1915 steam train that he famously outbid the Walt Disney Co. on.
Now, the 413-acre park boasts more than 70 rides and attractions. The park has 120 year-round employees and ramps up to 1,600 seasonal employees. Including turnover, the park typically handles over 2,000 employees per year.
Four of Norton’s five children and six grandchildren work or have worked at the theme park. His son, Paul Norton, is Silverwood’s operations manager, and granddaughter Stephanie Sampson is the public relations manager.
There’s no business model to follow to make Silverwood work, “especially in north Idaho, where it shouldn’t.” he said. “Over the years, we figured out how to put a formula together that works.”
That formula emphasizes quality and customer satisfaction, he said.
“Profit will take care of itself if you have that,” he said. “People don’t mind paying a good price if they have a quality product.”
Norton declined to disclose annual revenue, although he says the park has been debt-free since 2019.
Because Idaho was less restrictive with pandemic-induced lockdowns than other states, Silverwood was able to open in 2020 and was one of few theme parks in the U.S. to turn a profit that year, he said.
The following year, the park attracted a record 803,000 visitors.
Attendance lagged a bit in 2022, largely due to a slow start caused by an unusually wet June, he noted.
The fiscal forecast is favorable for this year, with Canada fully open, schools back and group sales looking good, he said.
Norton has put off the notion of retiring after momentarily considering it when Atlanta-based Herschend Family Entertainment wanted to buy Silverwood. Herschend operates Dollywood Parks & Resorts among several other theme parks and entertainment venues.
“A couple of years ago I got an insane offer,” he said of the Herschend bid. “They thought we had the best park they had seen, so they wanted it and were willing to pay premium price.”
Norton described the offer as an ego boost that certainly got his attention. Upon further contemplation, though, the offer wasn’t a good enough reason to leave Silverwood behind.
While some people spend retirement years fulfilling their bucket lists, Norton said he’s went through that phase in his younger days.
“I started filling my bucket list in my 30s, when I made money in the computer business,” he said. “But that wasn’t creating something.”
When he does take time off during Silverwood’s off season, the theme park remains on his mind wherever he goes.
“I’m always still working on software stuff and new ideas,” he said.
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