Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Fantasy of Flight to Close as Public Attraction, Will Focus on Private Event Business: Attraction has world's largest private collection of vintage aircraft

AUBURNDALE | Troubled by waning attendance and image problems, Fantasy of Flight, an aviation-themed attraction boasting the world’s largest private collection of vintage aircraft, closes to the public April 6.

Kermit Weeks, the charismatic former aerobatics champion and aircraft designer who built Fantasy of Flight in part to house his collection, said he delivered the somber news Tuesday morning to staff inside the attraction and airfield just off Interstate 4 near Polk City.

“I turned 60 last year and the clock is ticking; it’s time to move on,” Weeks said. “So the bottom line is, instead of focusing on a business that quite honestly is not sustainable, I can focus my energy and resources toward a dream that will sustain.

“I have great employees, a great product,” he said, “but people think we’re (little more than) a dusty old airplane museum.”

Weeks said he failed to change that misperception over the 18 years Fantasy of Flight has operated, despite adding elements such as aerial demonstrations of rare, vintage aircraft, tram tours that give visitors a glimpse of ongoing restoration efforts and a zip line.

Over the next few years, Weeks said, he’ll continue to build on his private event business while working on plans to create a new destination attraction, one where aircraft take a back seat to character-driven entertainment and opportunities for self-discovery.

“I’m going to get some of the best minds in the design business,” he said. “We’re going to look like the big boys up the street,” meaning major theme parks, “but with a completely different product.”

Fantasy of Flight was a good fit in a county where aviation continues to be a thriving business, said Mark Jackson, director of Central Florida Tourism and Sports Marketing.

He expressed optimism over Weeks’ assurance of a new venture.

“Kermit has always been a visionary and someone who has a unique ability to make the necessary changes to his products and offerings, which ultimately will put the business in a more competitive position,” Jackson said in an email.

“Fantasy of Flight has played an important role in the message we convey to potential visitors. I’m looking forward to what Kermit’s creativity and perseverance will come up with next. We’ll certainly be there to help him market his next great idea.”

Bobby Green, city manager of Auburndale, which annexed the Fantasy of Flight property in 2008, said growth along the I-4 corridor bodes well for Weeks’ future plans.

“If there’s anyone that can reinvent Fantasy of Flight and the opportunities of that property, Kermit Weeks is quite capable of doing that,” he said.

“I think with Florida Poly, and the things happening with light rail, I think he realizes he’s in the center of the universe ... Let’s remember that Legoland (Florida) used to be Cypress Gardens. Whatever happens there will be good for Auburndale but will also be good for Polk County.”

Without mentioning specifics, Weeks said the closing will result in a reduction of his workforce. At one time the attraction employed as many as 70 people.

It’s the second reduction since May 6, when Fantasy of Flight cut operating hours from seven days a week to four, entertaining guests Thursday through Sunday, only. A general admission ticket was most recently priced at $29.95 for ages 13 and over.

Weeks said he intends to concentrate on restoration of rare, vintage aircraft, which is the reason he developed the property following the destruction of his Miami air museum by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Weeks has said he bankrolled Fantasy of Flight with royalties from the work of his grandfather, a geologist involved in the oil industry. A part of his collection of aircraft, some of which dates to the dawn of aviation, is scattered around the globe.

Despite efforts to fuse the museum aspects with interactive, immersion experiences, putting visitors into the belly of a B-17 Flying Fortress to witness aerial battle at an altitude of 25,000 feet, Fantasy of Flight never quite earned its keep.

“In its current form it is not a sustainable operation based on attendance numbers,” said Kandice Stephens, the attraction’s operations manager, adding that Weeks’ long-range plans call for a “main attraction” for which people will travel out of their way.

“His (Weeks) vision is to use quality entertainment to help people discover themselves, pushing their boundaries, facing their fears,” she said.

For those who enjoy aviation history, plans are to open an aspect of the present aircraft collection in a reduced capacity and admission price later this year, Stephens said.

“We’ll be reduced to just one (hangar) with a select number of aircraft with historic value, no tram tours, no back lot (tour),” she said.

Meanwhile, the events staff will be retained and the facility will continue to host weddings, meetings and corporate events, including team building and birthday parties.

Groups booked for admittance to the attraction after April 6 will be issued refunds, the release said. Groups currently contracted only for private events will not be affected by these changes.

Annual passholders will receive a pro-rated refund based on the date of purchase. Questions may be sent to: btaylor@fantasyofflight.com.

Story, photo and comments/reaction:   http://www.theledger.com

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