By Larry Austin
Island Dispatch Editor
Four years after buying Martin’s Fantasy Island, Apex Parks Group announced the permanent closure of the Grand Island park this week.
American Coaster Enthusiasts, a club of roller coaster fans who report on the theme park industry via a page on their website called ACE News, broke the news this week that two Apex Parks properties were likely closing, including Fantasy Island.
“It was recently learned that small parks and family entertainment centers were approached with a list of rides for sale from Indiana Beach (Monticello, Indiana) and Fantasy Island (Grand Island, New York),” ACE News wrote on its website. “Both properties are operated by Apex Parks. A few of the rides will be moved to other Apex facilities, but most are being sold or even discarded. It would appear a buyer coming forth to purchase the parks is, sadly, not an option.
“There has been no official statement of the parks’ closing, but the sale of the rides is a sad indication that such a heartbreaking scenario is the case.”
The official statement came just two days later, when Doug Mandell, director of marketing for Fantasy Island, issued a press release that said: “Despite significant effort and a great deal of investment in infrastructure, rides and new themed areas, we have not seen an improvement in operating results. As such, we made the difficult decision to cease operations. This was not a decision entered into lightly. Team members are being assisted by their supervisors and the company is working to minimize impact to those affected. Guests may visit www.fantasyislandny.com for answers to commonly asked questions.”
Apex Parks Group, based in Aliso Viejo, California, announced the acquisition of Martin’s Fantasy Island theme park from owner Martin DiPietro in 2016. At the time, the park had over 25 rides, including the Silver Comet wooden roller coaster, and seven water attractions. Other attractions included live shows, such as gunfights at Western Town.
The park on Grand Island Boulevard was a Western New York destination with low-price entertainment and free parking. The park opened in July 1961 and over time grew to 75 acres.
At the time, the late Apex Parks Group CEO Al Weber Jr. said, “We’re excited to work with the Martin’s team to continue the successful operation of Martin’s Fantasy Island. The addition of this beautiful family-niche park is another step toward Apex’s goal of growing to become the leading company in the fragmented out-of-home entertainment business.”
DiPietro sold the park to Apex after owning it for 22 years ago, calling his ownership “a labor of love. I decided Apex Parks Group was the best choice to ensure that Martin’s Fantasy Island continues to be the best family fun park in the area. Their track record in the family-oriented amusement business is unmatched, and I have every confidence that their success will carry over to Martin’s Fantasy Island.”
“This week the Island lost a local gem and regional landmark with the closing of Fantasy Island,” said Eric Fiebelkorn, president of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce on Thursday. “For nearly six decades, our community enjoyed this unique and eclectic attraction that drew visitors from far and wide. Our Island families have countless stories of working there and enjoying so many different events over the years. Who can forget their great marketing slogan from the ’70s and ’80s, “Fun, WOW!”? For years, Fantasy Island was uniquely intertwined with the local Grand Island culture. During the 22 years that Martin ‘Marty’ DiPietro owned the park, it was always generously available to local organizations for events. Marty and his team made sure Fantasy Island was a good business partner to the rest of the Island’s small businesses and was always willing to support the community in any way he could. Unfortunately, that level of local connectivity and involvement dissipated after Apex’s purchase of the park.
“Small business remains the heartbeat of America’s great small towns and villages like Grand Island,” Fiebelkorn said. “It is more critical now than ever that our local business community be tightly knit together and support each other in any way possible. Also that our local residents choose to shop local and shop small whenever possible. Fostering this sense of community is one of the main objectives of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce. So, sadly, today we say goodbye to Fantasy Island but hold all the great memories that were made there close to our hearts. Although this loss stings and leaves many asking why, we think it might be better to focus on what great thing may be coming next. This could be a fantastic opportunity to reshape our town center and chart the geographic heart of our town on a new and exciting course. We encourage everyone to point their energy in a positive manner. Let’s do something grand!”
ACE members visited the park in 2015 when Martin’s Fantasy Island hosted a stop on ACE’s three-day tour of Upstate New York roller coasters.
ACE Vice President David Lipnicky, when making his first trip to Fantasy Island to ride the wooden Silver Comet, said that he looked forward to coming back. “I love the woody out here. It is a really great run,” he said of the Silver Comet. “The scenery, the landscaping, and then just the natural beauty of the place is really great.”
ACE member Tim Baldwin, who had ridden over 1,000 coasters, called the Silver Comet “a classic twister. You’re always turning left, turning right, sudden drops. And they’ve really put a lot of care into it.”
According to the Apex Parks Group website, Apex had 13 Family Entertainment Centers, two water parks, and one amusement Park Resort in California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and Indiana. “Apex Parks Group is currently one of the largest owners of Family Entertainment Centers in the United States. Apex Parks was founded in 2014 to acquire and operate best-in-class out-of-home entertainment assets and is committed to excellence, to the communities they serve, and to delivering value that exceeds expectation,” the website said.
The Apex move to close the park stands in contrast to the observation ACE members made whey they visited Fantasy Island in 2015. In a story about the ACE visit, the Island Dispatch wrote: “To ACE members, the success of the Silver Comet is more than just its steel and wood, but the blood, sweat and tears the family-owned park puts into its main attraction. ‘We love the big chains, but it’s really a neat change of pace to go to a great family park that the locals love,’ Lipnicky said.
“ ‘Their heart is in it,’ Baldwin said.”