Once abandoned for years as a casualty of Hurricane Charley, today this Southwest Florida attraction stands as a beacon of success where, you might say, business is zooming!
By John Sprecher
For those who’ve lived or vacationed regularly in Southwest Florida since 2004, one of the longest-standing reminders of the destructive effects that Hurricane Charley rained on our community was a lonely promise of fun on the corner of Summerlin Road and Safety Street. There, a colorfully painted building that hinted at games and rides and laughter — identified by its signage as Zoomers Family Amusement Park — stood abandoned, overgrown and rusting. Year after year after year, seven years in all.
Fortunately for kids everywhere (and the kid in all of us), a gentleman named Mike Barnes had taken notice — not that Barnes had much chance to avoid Zoomers, given that he passed the vacated property twice every day for those seven years while transporting his two girls to and from school. “The sight of Zoomers always got them excited,” he recalls. “And then one day, I had the opportunity to become interested.”
When Zoomers first broke ground in 2002, the original partners and financiers of the project could hardly have imagined the stretch of rough road ahead of them, as well as their 18 acres of kiddie rides, arcade games and a go kart track that actually traveled right through the middle of the building. But a Category Four hurricane not only destroyed homes and businesses, but dreams up and down the Southwest Florida coast. Add to it a slowly tanking economy that eventually led to the Great Recession, and Zoomers in fact experienced bankruptcy twice — first declared by its owners and later, when the bank itself holding the papers was shuttered by the State of Florida Office of Financial Regulation.
Enter Mike Barnes. A Fort Myers Beach resident for 25 years now, with a history in real estate development and other commercial ventures mostly in his native Iowa, Barnes had followed the history and listing price of the property for a number of years. But when the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) took ownership in 2010, things got serious and he called a family meeting to address the subject of going into the attractions business.
“The site of (then unfinished) Zoomers always got my kids excited,” Mike Barnes says. “And one day, I had the opportunity to become interested.”
“Everybody voted yes,” he remembers. “The kids were 13 or 14 years old then, and very excited about going there and having birthday parties.” In 2011, the property and all of its assets — once upon a time listed for $14 million — was purchased at auction for only $1.4 million.
Barnes immediately went to work and over the next year invested significantly via capital, hard work and enthusiastic vision to reopen on June 12, 2012. Roughly 10 years after the dream of Zoomers began, it finally had come true. And his kids, now 21 years old and who also once dreamed of playing there, realized that and more — getting jobs that lasted until they attended college.
Today, with annual growth of more than 10% and 120,000-plus visitors last year, Zoomers Amusement Park ranks among the top tourism attractions in Lee County and comes highly recommended by visitors on TripAdvisor. Currently, the centerpiece of the park is its two go kart courses — a more traditional “road” track and a speed-lover’s “slick” track” — along with roller coaster, bumper boats, tilt-a-whirl, a 115-foot-long water-dry slide, midway rides for smaller children, mini-golf, plus more than $1 million of arcade games waiting for you indoors. And in an interesting marketing twist, admission to Zoomers is free; you become a paying customer when you choose to play games or ride rides. “It’s fun to wander around the place when it’s packed and see all the smiling faces,” beams Barnes, whose favorite ride is letting it rip on a go kart.
“It truly is a fun business. When you see these faces light up, it’s very cool.” — Mike Barnes
At Zoomers, those faces may be toddlers, a gathering of eight-year-olds for a catered birthday party or special event, teens and young adults on a date, even adult couples or groups sans children. Oh, and those of legal alcohol consumption take note: while Zoomers has always served wine and beer, a new full-service watering hole just opened this January — what General Manager Yicela Almeida describes as something of an “outdoor sports bar with televisions, pool table, air hockey and more, right in the middle of the park, perfect whether you’re alone or keeping an eye on your kids.”
With three to five acres still ready for development, Mike Barnes — who’s a very young 64 years of age — notes that there’s certainly the possibility of new fun and games coming to Zoomers. “We could expand quite easily,” he explains, “and we’ll have the parking to accommodate that growth. I have no attractions background, but I’ve learned a lot and love this place. It truly is a fun business. When you see these faces light up, it’s very cool.”