Celebrating a Legacy of Family and Fun

By Brad McEwen

Like a lot of kids that grew up in Albany, it’s hard to reflect back on my life without thinking about the countless great memories I have of spending time at Albany’s All American Fun Park over the past 30 plus years.

Even my earliest memories of Albany are tied to the Fun Park, or Putt Putt Golf and Games as it was known back then.

Just a few months before we actually moved to the Good Life City, my dad relocated here to begin a new job, coming home only on the weekends. During the work week, the company he was working for put him up at what was formerly the Cricket Inn on North Slappey.

That he spent a few months at a now-defunct Albany hotel that was definitely not known for its luxury amenities, is certainly not memorable, but the Cricket did serve its purpose, giving my dad a place to lay his head each night until he was able to find a house and get mom and I moved up to Albany.

What was truly memorable about the Cricket though, and the only reason I really remember it at all, was its location right next door to the Fun Park.

As lifelong golfer who wouldn’t go more than a mile away from home without his sticks and who hadn’t yet built the relationships and bonds that would keep our family in this community for decades, my dad used that proximity to his advantage, quickly falling into the routine of ending each work day by having a cocktail, grabbing his putter and walking over to the Putt Putt to work on his stroke and compete in the weekly tournaments that were a fixture of the park back in those days.

So it perfect sense then, that now trip to visit my dad at the Cricket went by without the three members of the McEwen clan popping over to enjoy some family fun.

In the intervening years I’ve spent living and working in Albany, the Fun Park has remained a fixture in my life.

From my elementary and middle school Saturdays spent eating pizza and hanging out in the game room, to cheap, high school date nights, to the joy I’ve now experience as a father, taking my children to the park to enjoy Laser Tag, bowling, video games, batting cages, go kart racing, and countless other activities, including of course, miniature golf, the All American Fun Park is provided me with more good times than I can even remember.

In many ways, you could say my relationship with the Fun Park has come full circle, as trips to the park are now a family affair for the three generations of McEwens, looking to enjoy some important quality time together.

And that’s exactly what owners Buddie Blackwell and his daughter Jessie, love to see.

“I just really enjoy being here,” Buddie told me during a recent Beyond the Bank interview on the eve of the Fun Park’s 60th anniversary. “I enjoy fixing everything up and making sure everything is clean and ready for people.

“Then I love to see people come in here and enjoy it. It’s like I prepared a place for people to come have fun. It gives me a lot of pleasure just being able to have a place for people to come and enjoy family time. It’s just so rewarding to get to see families building memories together.”

That Buddie would feel so strongly about the Fun Park’s connection to family makes sense, as the Fun Park, throughout its long, storied history, has always been a business about family, in more ways than one.

The Fun Park first opened its doors to Albany area families back in 1958, when Bob and Rheda Hall started an 18-hole miniature golf course as part of the Putt Putt Golf and Games franchise at the Fun Park’s current location on North Slappey Blvd.

From the beginning, the Hall’s geared their new business endeavor toward providing wholesome entertainment for the entire family. And Buddie said, for Rheda the park itself was family.

“This was really Rheda’s child,” Buddie explained. “Rheda never had any children and this business was her child and she really, really loved it.”

Despite not having any children who might one day take over the business, Rheda did, however, have a nephew and Buddie said thanks to a little convincing, his aunt managed to talk him into relocating to Albany in the late 70s and begin working at the Fun Park part time.

“We’re a family business,” Buddie said. “Jessie’s the third generation taking it over. And the way we’ve done it has always been about family. Like I said, Rheda didn’t have any children, but she used to introduce me as her son. And everybody for years they thought I was Buddie Hall. They had no idea I was Buddie Blackwell.

“So when I came here Rheda said, ‘Don’t expect anything special.’ Well you know I’d grown up in an environment where I never really expected anything from anybody so I said, ‘Well ok.’

“So for the first year I was here I did maintenance—and that was before your blowers and your weed eaters. You’d actually take a pair of scissors and trim around the poles and stuff. So I spent a year doing maintenance and learning how everything operated and this, that and the other, painting, cleaning. And this was my part time job. I’d do this in the evenings.”

Although he was just part time back then, Buddie said Rheda was very open about showing him how to do certain things and letting him gradually learn the business, which was even growing to include other family members as well.

“After a year, Rheda let me come behind the counter and work miniature golf,” Buddie said. “And I became a miniature golf salesman. And my wife Cheryl worked in the game room. And that’s all it took to run the whole place. So we did that for several years.”

During that time, Buddie said, the park continued to grow and expand, much as it had done throughout its history. In fact, expansion has long been an important hallmark of the park’s success over the years.

Although it had started with just 18 holes, Buddie said by the time he went to work there in 1980 the park had grown to include 54 golf holes and a small game room, created following the arcade and video game boom of the late 70s.

“The game room was a new industry so we added on,” Buddie said. “And we figured we’d never have to add on again.”

Buddie could not have been more wrong, however, as growth and expansion continued under Rheda’s leadership for the next several years.

Eventually the park grew to include batting cages (not the park’s current cages) and then in 1993 the family eliminated 18 golf holes to build a bumper boat area. Additionally, Buddie said, they kept expanding the game room, as they added things like Laser Tag and a Maxx Flight roller coaster simulator, and they leased space in the back of the property for what was known as a “slick track,” a decision Buddie said taught him an important lesson about running a family business.

“We found out real quick that if you don’t have control over an area and they’re using your name to get business, that’s not a good scenario,” he said. “So after four years we ended up taking over the property again.

When they took back control of the slick track property in 1996, Buddie said they quickly converted it into the full go kart track you see today, and that that particular addition was the last major expansion the park went through under Rheda’s guidance.

Although she always included Buddie in decision making and always went out of her way to teach him how to run the business, Buddie said Rheda maintained the final say on things throughout most of the park’s history, before finally turning the reins over to her nephew not long after the decision was made in 2004 to break away from the Putt Putt Golf and Games and change the name to the All American Fun Park.

According to Buddie, who by this time had come to work at the park full time and had an ownership stake, the decision to leave Putt Putt came after the death of company founder Don Clayton, who Buddie said had always dealt very fairly with the family.

“Don always believed that a contract should never be more than a page and half long,” Buddie said. “For the last 15 years of our operation as a Putt Putt, we never had a contract.

“I would see Don at the Putt Putt convention every year and he would make time to see everybody for a minute. And Don would say, ‘Well how are things going?’ ‘It’s going pretty good. We’d like to stay a Putt Putt and renew for another year.’ And he’d say, ‘Ok, the franchise fees are this.” And I’d say, ‘Okay,” and we’d shake hands and that was it. Done deal. And he had a check every month. And he knew it.”

After Don’s death, Buddie said the new Putt Putt management tried to raise the franchise fees to include all of the other entertainment, like the game room, the bumper boats and the batting cages, that the family had installed itself, long before other Putt Putts featured those kinds of amenities.

“I said ‘You know, we had an agreement with Don and I’ll pay you a franchise fee on the miniature golf, but that’s it,’” Buddie said. “But they said, ‘We’re not going to do that anymore.’ So we said, ‘Well bye.’”

Buddie said it was disappointing when the business severed its ties with Putt Putt, as the Fun Park had always had a good, long relationship with the company, and had always been an award-winning Putt Putt location.

“We were a part of the Putt Putt franchise and we were the 22nd Putt Putt ever built in the world,” he Buddie. “At the time the Putt Putt franchises kind of broke up, there were a little over 2,000. We were also the 36-hole course of the year one year and we held a national championship here in which they gave away $10,000.

“Rheda won the manager of the year award for Putt Putt and I won the President’s Award that’s given by the owners, who vote on who they think has contributed most to the Putt Putt organization.”

Despite that strong connection to the company, and the disappointment that followed when the family left that relationship behind, Buddie and Jessie said that was the right move for the family, and that it has had little impact on the success of the business, thanks to the strong reputation the family has built over the years.

“People still call it Putt Putt today,” said Jessie. “But they know who we are and what we have.”

“They know the family reputation,” added Buddie. “They know that no matter what it’s called, that it’s still owned by the same family, with the same family values in practice, no matter what. We have a set of family values and we adhere to them. You know we play Christian music, we don’t serve any alcohol and we try to make sure everybody conducts themselves in a civil manner.

“You come here to have fun, so we make it a fun environment,” he continued. “And we don’t want anything messing up anybody’s time to have fun because that’s what they take away from here. The only thing they can leave with is a memory. And we want to give them a memory that will last them for life and something that their family will always say, ‘You remember when we were in the bumper boats and you drowned me? Or the hole in one I made on 18 and won the family championship?’ It’s all about families having fun together.”

Of course thanks to the first major expansion that occurred solely under Buddie's direction, that fun now includes even more than miniature golf, video games, bumper boats, batting cages and go karts.

According to Buddie, around the same time that the Fun Park was leaving the Putt Putt franchise, Rheda was also nearing the end of her life, after a long fight with cancer.

Although she didn’t pass away until 2013, she had been allowing Buddie more and more say in the direction of the business and had entrusted him to handle the continued growth and to take things in whatever direction he felt was best for everyone.

“It went from having three people out here to run it, to having four people out here with the batting cages,” Buddie said about the steady growth of the business over the years. “And then five people with the bumper boats and then we put in laser tag and you had six people. And then we put in a Maxx Flight roller coaster simulator and all of a sudden we ended up not being a mom and pop business anymore—one basically that family members could run and operate with only having a staff of eight to 10 people.

“We’ve gone to where we have a little over 60 people that we employ.”

“You’ve got to know the operations end of it and Rheda made real sure that I learned that. I didn’t really start learning about the financial end of the business until Rheda started dying of cancer and for the last eight years of her life I basically took over complete management and operation of the business.

“Rheda said, ‘If you want to do this, go ahead and do it, this is your business. I’ve got enough to live on from now on. If you do good, it’s you. If you lose it all, it’s you.’ So I said, ‘Okay.’”

While Buddie said he had different ideas that he’d implement from time to time through the years, it wasn’t until 2009, that he made the decision that led to the park’s biggest-ever expansion—construction of a bowling alley.

“I started working with banks and bankers,” Buddie said of the decision to build a bowling center at the Fun Park. “Perry Revell has been my banker since the beginning. I started talking to him about building a bowling center and borrowing money and all of that.

“Every other time we had done something like this we had always paid cash for it. We always did little, small things that we could do and pay for every year. That was Rheda’s business mode. And it worked as long as you were small.

“But as soon as you start to grow, you need more capital. But Rheda had known we were growing and she knew she was dying and she had turned me loose.”

Buddie said he ultimately borrowed the money to build the bowling center and that after making the adjustment of running a business that was carrying debt for the first time, he feels it was the right decision for the company.

Both Buddie and Jessie believe growing and evolving to meet the entertainment needs of the Albany area community had been a huge reason why the park has been so successful over the years. They argue, in fact, that it’s the variety of entertainment options available at the All American Fun Park that have made it as popular as ever.

“I’ve often said this is a hidden treasure,” Buddie said. “The reason I say that is, you start going to any other city around, and unless it’s Atlanta or somewhere like that, you won’t find an entertainment facility like this. It’s really a jewel. People from hundreds of miles around come here. I have people from Douglas and Valdosta and Columbus, a lot of people from Moultrie and Pelham that come here. We’re doing what Albany was founded on—we’re bringing people in here to have fun.”

While things are currently going very well for the Fun Park—leading the Blackwells to hint that another exciting development is on the horizon—Buddie and his daughter know things can change quickly if they’re not prepared to adapt with the times and provide entertainment their patrons want.

In fact, that is one of the key tenets that have led to 60 years of success, and evolution will continue to play an important role in ensuring that the family business enjoys another 60.

“There’s a couple of reasons for our success,” Buddie explained. “Number one, we love what we’re doing. Number two is, we’re always reinventing ourselves; we’re always trying to add something else. What’s new? What’s cutting edge? What we can give people in this area, they can’t find it anywhere else?

“And number three, it’s our core values, making sure this place is always clean and picked up, making sure our staff is always friendly and making sure that this is a safe environment.”

Of course it also helps that the family has always tried to make a trip to the Fun Park affordable for area families. Throughout its history, Buddie said leadership at the Fun Park has remained committed to making sure its patrons are getting value.

“That has always been top of mind,” he said. “We’re a family business and we’re serving families. And families’ budgets are limited, so we’ve always got that in mind.”

“We are a business,” Jessie added. “But we offer a lot of specials throughout the week to give people the opportunity to come out here and have a good time and not break the bank.”

“Our whole price system’s set up like that,” Buddie continued. “If a family comes here and they spend $50 with us, we give them $15 in bonus bucks. That’s a 15 percent discount. You got a little larger family and you spend $75, we give them $25 in bonus bucks so they’ve got $100 to spend. If you spend $100, we give you $35 so you’ve got $135 to spend. So we’re always looking at discounts for families.”

Of course, being able to offer discounts and competitive rates, is a product of looking for ways to run the park more efficiently, which is something Buddie believes will continue now that Jessie is there full time.

Since earning a finance degree from the University of Georgia and returning home to Albany, Jessie has been a fixture at the Fun Park, helping her dad run the business and looking for ways to improve and continue growing, something Buddie said she’s really been doing since she was a little girl.

“You either love this business or you hate it,” Buddie said. “There’s no in between. You either have a passion for it and you don’t mind the hours and thinking about how to make it grow and be better or you don’t.

“My son (James Blackwell) has no interest at all. He’s a doctor of physical therapy and he knew from the age of 8 that he didn’t want to be a business owner. Jessie, on the other hand, at 3 and 4 years-old, she wanted to take the business over. She used to walk around here and catch people not doing things and try to fire them.

Buddie said Jessie actually started “officially” working at the Fun Park when she was in first or second grade.

“All these little kindergarten groups would come in, and daycares, during the summertime and I had Jessie behind the counter working redemption,” he said. “She would take the little tickets and count them, then exchange them for a prize.

“I was paying her a little bit, a dollar or two, and she came to work with me and she just loved it. After a while she said, ‘Daddy, when am I going to get a time card?’ She had seen the rest of the kids that worked here punching time cards and stuff, so I said, ‘I’ll see about that.’

“She was very persistent so we got her a time card and I turned the time and her social security number and all in to the CPA.”

After visits from his CPA and from the social security administration to make certain Jessie was actually working and that her addition to the payroll was not some kind of ruse, Buddie said she became an official employee of the company and has been ever since.

“I knew then that she loved it,” Buddie said. “You could tell she just really enjoyed it. She’s always said that she was going to come back and take over. And the way it’s looking, she is.

“She came here and since she’s been here we went to the card system (a payment method that allows customers to purchase a card they can swipe for games and purchases at the snack bar in lieu of using tokens). She has moved us ahead technology-wise, which we needed. Even though we still keep our core values and family principals, she has moved us into the 20th century.”

Although Jessie’s business acumen has helped the Fun Park continue to thrive, it’s apparent after spending a just a few minutes talking with her, however, that it’s another trait she has in common with her father, and with Rheda and Bob Hall, that I believe is the real reason the Fun Park has remained and will remain a popular and affordable place for families to make memories.

“My favorite things about this place are like his,” Jessie said. “There’s just nothing better than the moment when you do a simple ride or hand somebody a toy at the redemption counter and the kid explodes with joy, like, ‘This is the best day ever!’ I just love that. It’s great. That’s what we aim to do, just make sure that everybody who walks through our door is happy and that they have a great experience.

“I love it here.”

Well thanks to three generations of leaders like Rheda, Buddie and Jessie, who have spent the last 60 years striving to provide affordable, wholesome fun for the families of Albany, there are literally thousands of people in Southwest Georgia who feel the exact same way.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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