NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Miniature golf courses, or rather the miniaturized castles and windmills that frequently adorn them, are among the enduring symbols of the American landscape. While other forms of entertainment have come and gone, Americans have been golfing small for just about a century.|
From the rooftops of Manhattan, where miniature golf courses used to be common, to the deserts of California, miniature golf courses are one of the few cultural icons that can be found in cities, suburbs and rural towns across the nation.
"It's fun. It's great family entertainment," said Steven Hix, spokesman for the Miniature Golf Association of the United States.
That may in fact be the base appeal of miniature golf. Unlike other forms of entertainment, it is free of gender and age bias, making it one of the few activities that moms and dads, kids and grandmas can participate in on equal footing. More or less.
In recent years, mini-golf competitions have become more common, but for the most part it remains a social activity that is as fun for the players as it is for the owners.
Money to be made
Starting your own miniature golf course takes a significant amount of
money, but those in the business say it is a great way to make a living. It is fun and, despite the relatively high buy-in, it is relatively easy to turn a profit.
"It's nearly recession-proof. It's cheaper than going to the movies and more social," said Darrell Gillo, who manages Karts N' Golf in Fremont, Calif. On average, it costs $5 to play 18 holes of miniature golf, which makes it one of the cheapest forms of entertainment around.
People spend an average of between $150,000 and $250,000 to develop an 18-hole course. The biggest variable, according to Hix, is the price of land, which varies tremendously by state and region. Fortunately, courses can be built on as little as three-quarters of an acre of land.
It cost the owners of Karts N' Golf closer to $500,000, according to Gillo, to build out their amusement center. They managed to squeeze two 18-hole miniature golf courses, go-karts and bumper cars on 2.5 acres of land east of San Francisco Bay.
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Close to 150,000 people putt their way through the obstacles and over the miniature lakes at Karts N' Golf every year. And at $7 a person ... well, you do the math.
Hix pointed out that miniature golf courses, most of which are outdoors, have limited seasons in certain parts of the country. In most of the Northeast, courses are open for only up to five months out of the year. Even so, he said, they should be able, so long as they build and run a good facility, to make back their initial investment in the first year.
Overhead is low
Though some handy people have tried to save on start-up costs by developing their own course, Hix said there is little point in doing that. The key to financial success in this business is to build a very fine course and keep it well maintained.
Keeping it maintained depends a lot on the kind of course you build. The more iconic ones, the ones with the clown's mouths and castles, need lots of painting and scrubbing.
But at places like the Shortest Putt in Kennewick, Wash., which is one of a newer breed of miniature golf course built in a natural landscape, maintenance means watering and trimming and planting flowers. Or at Karts N' Golf, also a naturally landscaped-style course, it includes feeding the birds in the aviary.
Either way, most say the maintenance and overhead on miniature golf courses are relatively low and painless. In addition to keeping the courses pristinely clean, Gillo said he frequently changes the obstacles on the runs just to keep the experience fresh for repeat customers.
Successful miniature golf course owners often share another important trait, according to Hix. They are hospitable people who succeed in creating an environment in which they and their employees make all feel comfortable and welcome.
"You can do everything else right and at the end of the day if they haven't had a positive experience, they aren't coming back," said Hix.