SANTA CLAUS, Ind. — While growing up in Eckerty, near Patoka Lake in Southern Indiana, a highlight of each summer for Matt Eckert was a visit to Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari.
“It has — and always will be — a great place for families,” he said Tuesday after being appointed the park’s president and chief executive officer by its board of directors.
Eckert, a staff member of the park since 2000 and a former Arthur Andersen Co. accountant in Indianapolis, said he plans no significant changes to the park.
“The park has been on a tremendous ride the past few years in terms of expansion and guest visitation. That is definitely something I want to see continue.”
Eckert said as the park continues to grow, the geographical region for marketing it will be expanded beyond the current focus on Louisville, Nashville, Indianapolis and Evansville.
The positions Eckert fills were held by Will Koch until his unexpected death in 2010.
Since then, Dan Koch, Will Koch’s brother, has filled in as president.
Dan Koch plans to now return to his law practice in Florida.
Lori Koch, Will Koch’s widow and the park vice president, said, “As president and CEO, Matt will work closely with our board to keep our family’s park flourishing.”
When Eckert was asked how he felt about having such big shoes to fill, he said he was very comfortable and confident.
“The park staff is fantastic. I’m anxious to move them toward our goal to have as many families visit the park as possible.”
Eckert said he believed he got the board’s nod because of his long experience with the park, first as park controller and then hand-picked by Will Koch as general manager.
Of Will Koch, Eckert said, “He was a wonderful man, a wonderful friend and a wonderful businessman. The park is what it is today because of Will Koch.”
Lori Koch said, “I know he (Will) would be pleased with our choice.”
Will Koch brought incredible growth to the park by introducing a new ride or water experience nearly each season. Eckert said that absolutely he will also pursue new rides and water experiences.
“That is something we have to do as a park to keep our guests happy.
“One thing Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari prides itself on is keeping wait lines down. To do that, we must add new and innovative rides and water experiences for best enabling us to deliver the best time for our guests.”
Eckert said the park also will continue providing free drinks, free sunscreen and free parking.
“Absolutely. Those are things we’d never be able to discontinue. They are too popular,” he said.
He believes some other parks can learn Holiday World’s very good practice of maximizing value with the free features.
“We really try to not nickel and dime our guests, so once they’re through the gate they can truly enjoy their day and not have to worry about how much this experience or that experience is costing them.
“I think that is something that is really appreciated by our guests, and we take lots of pride in it.”
Eckert went a step farther, saying, “I feel like everything we do is top-notch. We set the bar for many other parks. As a former member of the human resources committee of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, Eckert said major players, such as Universal and Busch Park, still seek his advice on best practices.
“I feel like that is a complement.”
The bottom line is that the park hosts and hostesses make the park guests feel as welcome as if they were visiting in their homes.
“We will continue making sure our staff lives and breathes our cornerstone values of friendliness, cleanliness, safety and services,” Eckert said.
He said he wouldn’t be interested in Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari trying to buy another theme park.
“At the present time, I think it is smart to continue our growth of Holiday World (formerly known as Santa Claus Land), for it’s such a special place. We need to focus our attention on making it better and better.”
Eckert is a certified public accountant and a graduate in accounting and insurance from Indiana State University.
He and his wife, Tonya, 36, a surgical nurse for Jasper (Ind.) Surgical Association, have three children: Abigail, 11; Claire, 8; and Drew, 4.
Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari expects to open for its 67th season on May. 4.
Holiday World was named the country’s Top Value Park by Consumers Digest. Splashin’ Safari is ranked as the nation’s No. 1 Water Park by TripAdvisor.com.