April 17, 2021

Retiring: When Mom and Pop Can’t Sell the Farm (or in This Case, the Theme Park)

A once family-owned Frontier Town in New York’s Hudson Valley shut down in the late 1990s, its buildings still vacant. Early this year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York proposed a $32 million redevelopment of the 85-acre site, including a visitor information center, a campground, facilities for shows and festivals, and space for historic exhibits about Adirondack Park.

Ponderosa Ranch, a theme park that operated in Lake Tahoe, Calif., set of “Bonanza,” shut down over a decade ago.

Donley’s Wild West Town is still the site of many happy childhood memories — particularly for the Donley grandchildren.

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“As a child growing up, it was like a fairy tale,” said Shawnah Donley, 29, the daughter of Randy Donley. “It was our backyard, and we were part of what our family did for a living.”

She grew up nearby and recalls school field trips to Wild West Town. After college, Ms. Donley got a job in the live action Wild West show, where her work caught the attention of a talent scout. That led to her professional career as a stunt actor, with credits that include the movie “Contagion” and the NBC television series “Chicago Fire.” She now lives in Chicago and also works as a real estate broker. But while she says her generation, which includes a younger brother and a cousin, hopes to see the park continue to operate, the fact that her family is looking to sell it isn’t a surprise.

“It’s always something that we thought would happen,” she said. “We have our own interests and futures.”

The phonograph section in Wild West Town’s museum. Credit David Kasnic for The New York Times

The Donleys have always been collectors of trinkets and oddities. Larry Donley acquired the first seven acres of the property in 1972 so he could build a storehouse for the antique phonographs and other things he had begun collecting decades earlier. “I didn’t really know what stuff I had, and I still had too much,” he said. Back then, he owned a gas and service station in Berwyn, Ill., around 50 miles closer to Chicago, where he raised his family. But he would eventually sell that business.

Randy and Mike Donley grew up watching their father collect these pieces of Americana and got into the game themselves, snapping up antique guns and military memorabilia and assorted pieces of American history like toys, lamps, telephones, phonographs, music boxes, telegraph equipment and war souvenirs.


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The first building on the park’s site became a museum and showcase for these items. Despite being right off Route 20 and barely three miles from the Illinois Railway Museum, visitor traffic was slow for the first couple of years.

It wasn’t meant to be a theme park at all until Larry Donley built the town’s gold mine and gold-panning attraction to occupy the children of adults who visited the museum, which opened in 1974. “It all kind of evolved,” Mike Donley recalled.

The owner Larry Donley displaying a handful of gold pyrite in the park’s gold panning section. Credit David Kasnic for The New York Times
Second graders panning for gold. Credit David Kasnic for The New York Times

In addition to the museum and gold mine, the site has an operating antique train, a gentle roller coaster (the “Runaway Mine Cart”), a carousel and a water ride. There are also firing and archery ranges, a tomahawk throw and slingshot gallery. Employees dressed as cowboys give roping lessons and gun-spinning exhibitions. The town jail includes authentic 19th-century cells acquired from the jail in the town of Union. Visitors can coax the town marshal to arrest people.

During the height of the season, the site employs about 100 people, many of them students at the local high schools. It draws visitors from a 60-mile radius in northern Illinois, attracting school and day care groups, church groups and camp attendees.

Sid Schroepfer, who will be a high school senior in the fall, demonstrated his lasso-twirling skills in the park one recent Sunday. This is a new job for him, and he said he liked it because he “gets to play cowboy all day.”

“We are selling an experience for parents and grandparents and children,” Mike Donley said. “Everything is hands-on.”

The park has given birth to some careers in show business. In addition to Shawnah Donley, there is Joey Dillon, a gun spinner who now coaches actors on gun handling for films and television. He credits his two seasons in the cast at Donley’s for starting his career.

Actors and workers at Wild West Town relaxing after the students have gone for the day. Credit David Kasnic for The New York Times

He grew up in rural California and developed an interest in gun spinning from watching old Westerns, and when he moved to Chicago to pursue a career in comedy, he fell into a job at Donley’s. “I look back on Donley’s as kind of my fun dorm days with a bunch of college-aged kids, hanging out with them at night and playing pranks backstage,” Mr. Dillon said. He is still in touch with some of his former colleagues, some 20 years later. Mr. Dillon wasn’t aware the property was up for sale.


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Taylor Fryza, who directs and acts in the park’s live shows, remembered visiting the town as a girl. “When you’re a little kid, it’s like stepping into a different world,” she said. Eventually she went to acting school in New York and returned home. She said she was not worried about the place being for sale. “You just put your best foot forward and do as many shows as you can,” she said.

When it comes to the sale effort, the Donleys have displayed a little showmanship of their own. In what the family admits was largely a publicity stunt, they put the Wild West Town up for sale in last year’s Christmas catalog of Hammacher Schlemmer, where it stood out among the massage wands, radio-controlled toys and exercise gadgets. Many years earlier — in 2003 — they listed it on eBay for $12 million, though they didn’t get many serious offers then, either.

And so the operation chugs along, in nostalgia mode for some of its owners. “As much as we enjoyed it, as much as we loved it, it was hard work seven days a week,” Mike Donley said, adding that the grandchildren “didn’t see that as a future for them.”

Larry and Helene Donley live in a house right next to the amusement park and work on the site every day. The family jokes they are likely to ask the next owners for a job. The brothers say they aren’t forcing a sale.

“If they want to find another proprietor during their lifetimes, I’d rather let them do that,” Mike Donley said of his parents. “It’s another challenge for them.”

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/15/business/wild-west-town-theme-park-retirement.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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