Three-hundred-sixty degree concourses have become a common feature at Minor League Baseball ballparks over the past two decades, providing fans with a wide variety of stadium views. But beginning in May 2014, the Quad Cities River Bandits will offer a vantage point that, quite literally, takes the fan perspective to new heights. At Modern Woodmen Park, one can watch the game while riding in a Ferris wheel.
Currently under construction, the 90-foot Ferris wheel -- it's actually 110 feet above field level due to the stand and built-in mound it sits atop -- is located beyond the left-field wall. It's the centerpiece of the River Bandits' ongoing "park-within-a-park" project at Modern Woodmen Park. The Midwest League franchise is in the process of adding a variety of amusement park-style attractions, which team owner Dave Heller sees as integral to the ongoing vitality of the celebrated 83-year-old facility.
"We really wanted to do something to make the ballpark the central gathering point of the community," he said. "Baseball is one important aspect, but it's just one aspect."
Jumbo hot fudge sundae experience
Located in Davenport, Iowa, on the banks of the Mississippi River, Modern Woodmen Park (formerly known as John O'Donnell Stadium) has long been considered one of Minor League Baseball's crown jewels. The undulating arches of the Centennial Bridge -- connecting Davenport with Rock Island, Ill. -- are visible from the seating bowl and make for one of the most picturesque national pastime environments one could hope to find.
But, as Heller said, baseball is "just one aspect" of the entertainment experience that the River Bandits hope to provide. For no matter how beautiful the ballpark may be, the simple allure of the game is not necessarily enough to guarantee a steady flow of patrons throughout the grind of a five-month season. "If we only marketed to the purists, we'd be out of a job" is an oft-quoted industry cliché, and it certainly applies to the River Bandits' marketing and entertainment strategy.
"It comes down to the question of 'What kind of team do you want to operate?'" said Heller, a political strategist whose Main Street Baseball ownership group purchased the River Bandits in 2007. "Our market is not nearly as big as Dayton, Kane County or Lansing, and for us to be competitive with teams at the high end of the Midwest League we have to do more than just offer plain vanilla baseball."
If "plain vanilla" equals a no-frills Minor League setting, then the impending River Bandits fan experience is something more akin to a jumbo hot fudge sundae with extra whipped cream. A zipline ride -- soon to be expanded to 300 feet -- greets fans at the ballpark's front entrance, while a Drop and Twist ride is being installed just beyond the left-field fence. (The latter is a 30-foot tall pole with a wraparound bench that turns as it goes up and down; Heller remarked that it will "shake kids like a mixed drink.") Those searching for further thrills can also check out Space Camp, a zero-g "automated gyroscope" attraction that spins its riders upside down. Not to be overlooked are the carousel, half-dozen bounce houses and jungle gym.
The amusement park attractions are not included with the price of admission to a River Bandits game but can be accessed for what Heller calls a "nominal fee" (two riders for $8 on the Ferris Wheel, two for $5 on the carousel or Drop and Twist). The rides -- and concession stands -- will also be open during weekends when the team is on the road, and a series of movie nights is planned as well.
"When you factor all of those things together, it creates a wonderful synergy for the family to come hang out and enjoy themselves," said Heller, who is financing the amusement rides himself. "Here [in the Quad Cities], the nearest amusement park is three hours away. If you want to ride a Ferris wheel today, you either have to drive three hours to the Navy Pier and pay extraordinary parking charges in downtown Chicago, or drive to Des Moines and visit Adventureland. We're offering something completely different."
A new template?
So will the River Bandits' "park-within-a-park" concept set a new template for the Minor League Baseball fan experience?
"A lot of people [in the industry] are watching," said Heller. "But every market is different and what works in one place may not necessarily work in another. In Erie [Pa., home of the SeaWolves], there's an amusement park 10 minutes from the stadium. And Sevierville, [Tenn.,] where the Smokies are, that's just a stone's throw from Dollywood. So it might not work everywhere, but we're confident that it will work in the Quad Cities."
Therefore, Heller will continue to improve (and monetize) Modern Woodmen Park to the extent that he possibly can -- even if there's not much more room to expand.
"The biggest challenge is space. We can't expand north because of the railroad, south because of the water and west because we'd be in the street. We did expand east with the Ferris wheel, but if we went any further we'd be in the band shell."
That leaves little space for, say, a roller coaster, but additional improvements and renovations are planned. The bleacher section down the third-base side will be supplanted by a deck with open fire pits, and eventually Heller would like to build a concourse deck that extends from the right-field wall to the edge of the Mississippi River. It's all in the service of combining modern amenities with old-fashioned charm.
"You watch other clubs put up new ballparks, and they use bricks to try to look retro. We don't have to try -- we are genuinely retro," said Heller. "But we're excited [about the new additions] and, more importantly, the people in Quad Cities are excited about it."
The River Bandits may be taking the park-within-a-park concept to new heights, but it's hardly a new idea in Minor League Baseball. What follows is a brief and by no means exhaustive overview of other amusement attractions that can (or will soon) be found at Minor League ballparks.
Altoona Curve: Skyliner roller coaster
While not on the grounds of Altoona's People's Natural Gas Field, the Skyliner roller coaster is nonetheless one of the ballpark's most recognizable features. The vintage coaster, part of the neighboring Lakemont Park amusement center, towers just beyond the right-field fence.
Asheville Tourists: Zipline
The Tourists' McCormick Field is nestled in a mountainous area, which prompted the team to install a zipline prior to the 2012 season. Before each contest, one ostensibly lucky fan (accompanied by a professional guide) undertakes a 500-foot zipline journey to deliver the game ball.
Birmingham Barons: Power Force Batting Cage
All Minor League stadiums have batting cages, of course, but in most cases they are located in the bowels of the facility and off limits to the hoi polloi. But at the Barons' new downtown home of Regions Field, the batting cages are located on the outfield concourse and open for fans to use during the game. (The players get their licks in before the gates have opened.)
Richmond Flying Squirrels: Have Funn, Go Putt golf course
As reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch in October, the Flying Squirrels' Have Funn, Go Putt golf course will debut in 2014 at the team's home of The Diamond. The nine-hole course, located in an area between the parking lot and the stadium, is approximately 56-by-39 feet.
South Bend Silver Hawks: Synagogue-turned-team store
Over the past two seasons, South Bend's Four Winds Field (formerly Coveleski Stadium) has undergone a barrage of renovations. Perhaps the most innovative and impressive of these improvements was the new team store, a 113-year-old building located beyond left field that was a synagogue in its former incarnation.