The rise of technology means stroking a ball through pipes and into a clown’s mouth just doesn’t cut it any more. To now have a chance at success, mini-golf courses have to be more interactive and off the wall. Even for the Putt-Putt Corporation, mini-golf is now just one part of a “fun center” approach.
For more than 50 years, USA Today reported, a giant orange dinosaur has overlooked a miniature golf course on Route 1 in Saugus, Mass, providing a kitschy splash of color on a normally grey road.
Memorial Day is one of the most popular weekends of the year for the country’s miniature golf courses, but this one was the last for the Route 1 Miniature Golf Course and its giant dinosaur, USA Today reported. In an increasingly difficult business climate for old-school miniature golf courses, Route 1 decided to cash in on its property and now will close its doors for good, leaving many local community members distraught at the idea of losing the beloved dinosaur.
“It’s been there for so long,” Joe Attubato, Saugus’ retired Public Works Director, said following the sale. “It’s hard to picture Route 1 without the dinosaur.”
Miniature golf as most know it didn’t begin to take shape until the 1950s, USA Today reported. In 1954, Don Clayton and his Putt-Putt Golf Corporation opened a course in Fayetteville, N.C. that featured two unique innovations: Each hole was encased by an aluminum barrier, and the carpet that players putted on was more expensive, designed specifically to endure the conditions.
It sounds simple now, but Clayton had just built the only course in town that players could play somewhat consistently, and his course’s popularity exploded because of it, USA Today reported. Within 20 years, the Putt-Putt Golf Corporation had franchised out dozens of locations across the southeastern United States.
It wasn’t until the 90s, following the rise of at-home technology, that Putt-Putt’s popularity began to slow down, USA Today reported. And while there’s only scattered empirical data to explain this downturn, prominent figures within the miniature golf industry point to the rise of technology as the biggest problem.
Kids—as current and future customers—simply seek more interactive pastimes nowadays, USA Today explained. It’s a phenomenon that has negatively impacted industries similar to miniature golf, like paintball and roller skating, which reported participation downturns of -6.8 and -9.7 percent, respectively, between 2008 and 2013, according to a recent Sport & Fitness Industry Association study.
“In the age of computers, children aren’t as interested in outdoor activities,” said David M. Callahan, the current CEO of the Putt-Putt Corporation. “Fifteen years ago, we used to only be a skill-based miniature golf brand.”
The Putt-Putt Corporation has survived by moving past its name, USA Today reported. The company now arrives at most of its profits through its “fun centers,” which include some combination of laser-tag arenas, restaurants, arcades, bumper cars, go karts and batting cages. Miniature golf has become a smaller slice of a much larger pie, and while golf-only sites used to be the norm within the Putt-Putt Corporation, today they’re few and far between.
“We’ve had to become more forward-thinking.” Callahan told USA Today. “Fun centers will generate significantly more revenue than just generic miniature golf. We have to offer people more than just golf.”
Miniature golf by itself simply doesn’t cut it anymore, USA Today reported. The courses that do exist now survive by getting weird—and while that may offend the sentimentalists, it’s given rise to an unprecedented wave of creativity within the industry. The USA Today report included these examples of new-wave courses:
- D&D Miniature Golf in Tennessee sits in complete darkness, and is lit only by black lights reflecting off giant statues of giant mythical creatures,.
- A pop-up miniature golf course in Portland, Ore. forces players to putt through a series of laser beams.
- A recent turf exhibit in Los Angeles saw architects design a variety of different miniature golf holes, including one that suspended the hole in mid-air with the help of a giant, secured balloon.
- A miniature golf course in Illinois asks users to putt their ball through a functioning roller coaster.
- The Toledo Mud Hens converted their minor-league baseball stadium into a miniature golf course during the off-season.
- A pub called Swingers recently opened in London and features a miniature golf course inside an underground World War II bunker.
Then there’s Urban Putt, a restaurant/miniature golf course in downtown San Francisco. “It was all a naive idea at first, something I did with my friends for fun” Steve Fox, who raised more than $53,000 on Kickstarter for the venture, told USA Today. Each golf hole at Urban Putt is handmade and crafted to look like an art exhibit as if it were a gallery. The venue has become so popular that it now routinely boasts up to 400 customers on an average weekend. “It’s unique, something different,” Fox said.
But even these new miniature-golf concepts are now relegated to the fringes as one part of a larger experience, USA Today reported. Mini-golf in the age of computers needs to be tricked-up to work, so designers keep pushing it in every direction, trying to offer something so zany that people might actually want to try it.
And that’s why over time, courses like the Route 1 Miniature Golf Course in Saugus simply found themselves on the wrong side of that equation.
“That label probably stuck for a while—that we were old, and we were kitschy and nobody liked it,” Diana Fay, the course’s owner, told a local radio station last year. “But now that we’re leaving everybody’s upset, so I guess the town was pretty happy that we stayed.”
But while the golf course will soon go, the orange dinosaur won’t suffer the same fate, USA Today reported.
Tim Shea grew up in Saugus and when he heard that the Route 1 miniature golf course’s orange dinosaur might disappear, he was so upset that he formed a Facebook group to try to save it.
His movement caught traction, so much so that the new developer announced he would find a spot for the orange dinosaur in the series of hotels and apartments he’s developing on the land.
Even Shea chalks that up as a success, USA Today reported. He hasn’t been to the Route 1 course in years. He knows business isn’t as nostalgic as he is, but it still hurts.
“This used to be a place where all the neighborhood kids would go,” said Shea, who’s in his mid-50s now. “Every little kid in town. Generations of them. There was the ice cream store next door and the dinosaur … it’s iconic.
“Keeping the dinosaur there will help ease the pain,” he continued. “Still, it’s like losing a little piece of your heart.”