Across the United States, there are fewer mini-golf facilities than in decades past. But today’s mini-golf centers are more distinctive in style, more diverse in terms of offerings, and more in tune with what today’s patrons look for in recreation. Mini-golf is thriving on new terms — attracting a younger generation to novelty features and a more immersive experience.
Consider that the sport was once played almost exclusively out of doors, whereas many centers now succeed by offering indoor play. In doing so, they’re tapping a whole new clientele on inclement or excessively hot days, even at night. “For us, the indoor-outdoor aspect certainly helps,” noted Patty Ethridge, who with husband George owns Golf Shores Fun Center in Corydon, Ind., which has 18 indoor and 18 outdoor holes.
The indoor course at Golf Shores Fun Center is an immersive experience with black lighting, artwork by local schoolchildren on the walls, and 3-D glasses for maximum visual interest. Ethridge’s strategy also involves giving patrons plenty to do — from an arcade for the children, to a coffee shop where parents regroup, so family members can all take a break from each other without leaving the facility. “People keep coming back because there is just so much to see here,” said Ethridge, who has owned the center for 14 years. “It really helps to have multiple different things under one roof.”
Myriad attractions certainly give Etheridge an edge over other local mini-golf parks, most of which have shuttered over the past two decades, Everett said. “But they were all outside,” Ethridge pointed out. “Now there’s nothing indoors for the next 100 miles, which is fine with me.” Not one to take her 28,000 annual visitors for granted, Etheridge entices local families with birthday party packages, as well as promotions for military families; Fort Knox is 40 minutes away.
Lunar Mini Golf, a national chain formerly known as Glowgolf, also benefits from a climate-controlled course at its location in Phoenix, Ariz., said Kale Thompson, manager of the Lunar Mini Golf facility in Phoenix’s Paradise Valley Mall. “If it’s particularly cold or particularly hot, especially in the summer, or if it’s raining, people like to come inside and play,” said Thompson. “And the fact that it’s glow-in-the-dark makes it unique.”
Thompson said business is strong in Phoenix, where there’s relatively little area competition in the mini-golf category. Attendance holds steady, spiking on weekends and in summertime, when children are out of school. “It’s definitely a family thing, but we get adult couples who come in for date nights, and we had the Red Hat club come in recently,” said the manager, referring to the women’s social network. “It really is an all-ages thing.”
Design is also key for many of today’s successful mini-golf centers.The generic courses of yesteryear, with their hokey windmills and juvenile color schemes, are giving way to more unique, visually striking courses that offer a more memorable — and more grown-up — playing experience.
Often, the style will revolve around a local theme, as at City Putt in New Orleans, which has two 18-hole courses: one themed around cities and culture across Louisiana, and another focused on New Orleans itself, with signs detailing the city’s historic sites at each hole. The State of Louisiana opened City Putt in 2013 as New Orleans’ only mini-golf facility, and its regional design has been a hit with both locals and tourists, said Manager Suzy Thibodaux. “The New Orleans charm — it’s something different,” she explained.
In Littleton, Colorado, the Colorado Journey mini-golf course is themed around the Mountain State; each hole highlights a different aspect of Colorado landscape and lore, said Manager Meredith Morris Whyte. “Coloradans have a lot of state pride, and that makes it kind of fun, cool attraction,” explained Morris Whyte. “We get a lot of repeat customers; it’s a clean, attractive place for families to come to.” Morris Whyte said a strong social media presence, including frequent Facebook outreach, has helped boost attendance at the center, which is administered by Littleton’s South Suburban Parks and Recreation District.
A tropical island theme draws players to the mini-golf attraction at Lost Island Adventure Golf, a Waterloo, Iowa water park. General Manager Eric Bertch said Lost Island’s organic theme, featuring tiki figures and carved rock work, gives it an upscale edge over the area’s only other mini-golf facility which has a more generic design. “The experience is different at our facility. And that’s a trend in the attraction industry overall — the idea of creating an immersive experience is definitely on the upswing, not only for mini-golf, but for theme parks and laser tag and so on,” said Bertch.
Mini-golf attendance has grown steadily over the years, in tandem with an upward trend at the 18-year-old waterpark, which welcomes approximately 125,000 guests annually, according to Bertch. Over that time, mini-golf has represented a consistent 10 percent share of overall visitation at Lost Island; weather, rather than economics, represents the biggest challenge for the outdoor facility. “Recreation is sort of a recession-proof industry,” reflected Bertch. “Everyone is going to be spending money on some entertainment. There’s always a market, regardless of the broader economy.”
In Bertch’s view, the challenge for mini-golf and the rest of the attractions industry is to capture that market by adapting to modern tastes. “Maybe you’re only updating a few holes at a time,” he explained. “But you have to give them a reason to come back.”