There’s a reason Pat Koch is better known as “The General.”
It’s more than just the role she plays in television commercials with her son Dan for their family-run park, Alabama Splash Adventure. If you see her zoom about the grounds of the Bessemer attraction on her motorized chair, you’ll see her command troops of young workers as if they were soldiers on an army post. She orders, and off they march.
Unlike most military generals, though, if she sees a problem that needs to be fixed quickly, she’s apt to take on the task herself.
On a recent tour of the park, Koch (pronounced “cook”) stopped in mid-sentence when she saw one of their free soft drink dispensers that was in a bit of disarray.
“Just look at this,” she said with a sigh. She pulled up to the dispenser, grabbed some trash and threw it into a garbage bin, then used paper towels to soak up some spills.
“I like things to be nice and neat. I can’t understand people who just leave trash lying around!” she exclaimed, and then was back into tour-guide mode.
Not bad for someone aged north of 80, but who’s been in the theme park business for most of her life.
It’s an attitude she tries to impart to the rest of the employees as her family continues its effort to put the long-troubled attraction on solid footing.
The park that started life as VisionLand in 1998 — the product of a plan by then-Fairfield Mayor Larry Langford and a consortium of other local governments — has seen as many ups and downs as its famous Rampage roller coaster. But since 2014, the facility has seen a turnabout under the Koch family, which has been in the business since before the term “theme park” was even in use.
It Started With Santa
The family patriarch, retired industrialist Louis Koch, started a small attraction in the tiny hamlet of Santa Claus, Indiana, with a population of about four dozen Hoosiers. Located in the southern part of the state about halfway between the cities of Evansville and Louisville, Kentucky, Santa Claus Land opened just after World War II. Son Bill Koch Sr. took over operation in the 1950s and greatly expanded the park to eventually become a full-fledged theme park renamed Holiday World in 1984. A water park, Splashin’ Safari, was added nine years later.
But when Bill Koch died in 2001, the heirs went through a struggle over the value of the park. Dan Koch had been running day-to-day operations, but during the kind of battle that often befalls a family business after the death of a parent, Dan found himself on the losing end and was out of a job.
Soon afterward, Dan and his mother found out about the struggling park that began life as the brainchild of Langford. The one-time local television reporter was well known as being someone with lots of big ideas, few of which ever came to fruition.
His idea of a theme park, which he persuaded several cities and Jefferson County to help finance, was one idea that came to life — and then went to life support.
VisionLand, which took its name from Proverbs 29:18 — “where there is no vision, the people perish” — soon turned into a boondoggle of biblical proportions. After its opening, the park expanded steadily but suffered from poor management, and it entered bankruptcy proceedings in 2002. A management group bought the park for $5.25 million, leaving Langford’s municipal partners holding the bag for a loss of $26 million.
Years later, after stints as Birmingham mayor and president of the Jefferson County Commission, Langford was convicted of unrelated federal corruption charges in 2010; he is now held in a hospital prison in Lexington, Kentucky.
Plans for several adjacent developments such as a factory outlet center, an RV park and a hotel came and went, with only the Watermark Place outlet center being built. That, too, floundered after The Shoppes at Grand River opened in Leeds, and Watermark was bought by a Bessemer businessman who converted it into event and meeting space. Plans announced in 2017 to turn it into a retail clearance center have yet to materialize.
Various owners of the park came and went, and the name changed several times to different combinations of “Alabama,” “Splash” and “Adventure.” The park’s attendance had its ups and downs; as recently as 2005, it was ranked second in attendance in the metro area behind the Birmingham Zoo.
In 2012, new ownership took over and closed much of the 200-acre facility, leaving only the water park and the Rampage roller coaster, which was kept intact but did not operate.
The property came up for sale again in 2014. Dan Koch got financial backing from his sister Natalie plus operational help from his mother, and he purchased the troubled park.
Bringing It Back to Life
Slowly but surely, the Kochs restored Alabama Splash Adventure to operating status, which was no small feat.
“This place was a mess,” Pat Koch said. “It took a lot of work to get it back in shape.”
Holiday World had to work to draw visitors from all over Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois to its rural location, and it did so by aggressively advertising free soft drinks, free parking, free sunscreen and free tubes for water attractions. Those policies came with the Kochs to Alabama.
The coaster reopened in 2015, and the Koch family has gradually added more rides and attractions as business allows. For 2018, several kiddie-sized rides have been added, including a classic Tilt-A-Whirl ride and a high-diving show.
The splash park area still attracts the most attention, especially on Alabama’s stifling summer days.
Pat and Dan Koch have also had to overcome the reputation the park had acquired in the years before they took over. A large fight among youths that spread throughout the park in 2011 during a “$10 before 10 a.m.” promotion scared away many families.
Pat Koch said they have added security, extra lifeguards and EMTs to their staffing, and they close the park before dark — 6 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays and 7 p.m. on Fridays through Sundays plus holidays. “We keep a tight rein on things. We don’t let anybody get out of hand,” she said.
Now one of the biggest obstacles the family faces is spreading the message that the park is open again and what it offers for visitors. Today’s fragmented media hasn’t helped the Kochs get the word out.
“I don’t think people keep up on television or media to what’s going on, because we had one of our publicity people do a video the day before we opened. It’s beautiful! And we had (online) comments like, ‘Where is this? What is this?’ They don’t know, and we’ve been here five years with advertising on TV and on billboards,” Pat Koch said. “So I tell people who come here, ‘Please tell your friends.’ If I had a dollar for every person who’s told me they came a long time ago and didn’t come back — and I hear it over and over and over.”
Thanks to her image in ASA ads and her near-constant presence around the park grounds, “The General” has her own fan base. During a recent tour, several young visitors stopped to say hello, and she recognized several of them.
“We have quite a few regulars here now,” she said.
Pat Koch and her son have had to get used to differences between how people in her native Midwest do things, as opposed to how it’s done in the Deep South.
“I don’t want to be unkind. But let’s just say things are not done as quickly,” Pat Koch said. “We both said the other day that there’s no sense of urgency — is that a good way to put it? Even my children say that I want everything done right away. Yes, I do, because if it’s not done right away it might be forgotten, so just do it.”
There are also distinct differences between running a park in an urban area, as opposed to one that’s nearly in the middle of nowhere back in Indiana.
“Back there, if there was something stinking in the park, people would say it’s a sewer. And I would tell them, ‘No, it’s the turkey farm over there!’ But people wouldn’t believe me if they weren’t from around there,” Pay Koch said.
Alabama Splash Adventure is open daily through August 5, then weekends only through Labor Day. The park reopens on weekends in October for their fall festival.