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Values, Vision Help Guide Waldameer to New Heights

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The Business Magazine is proud to introduce our new “Risking It All” section, which highlights the entrepreneurs who took risks and made sacrifices to build their businesses in our region. This month, we sat down with Paul Nelson, 79, owner of Waldameer Park & Water World, to talk about the challenges and opportunities of running a business at 23 and keeping it profitable in the current economy.

When he was just 11 years old, Paul Nelson made a deal on a handshake.

The promise? That if Nelson worked hard enough, family friend Alex Moeller, who had run Waldameer Park since the 1920s, would eventually hand over the former trolley park that was founded in 1896.

“I just kept coming back every summer, through high school, and college, and right after the service,” says Nelson, who shadowed Moeller, doing everything from dishes to janitorial work with the hopes that Waldameer would someday be his.

His hard work paid off, and Moeller kept his end of the bargain — leaving Waldameer to Nelson upon his death in 1965.

“I took over the park when I was very young,” says Nelson. “But Mr. Moeller had provided me with the life lessons I needed to know how to handle different situations.”

Still, it was Nelson whose vision and work ethic pioneered the expansion and innovation by which the park is known, first with upgrades to the aging infrastructure in the 1960s, and the addition of the Whacky Shack, Pirate’s Cove and L. Ruth Express Train — which today are among the park’s most beloved attractions.

When other amusements parks of similar size retracted or shuttered in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Nelson, made a risky but well-calculated decision to expand, going into debt to open Water World, which features a dozen water slides, lazy river and wading pools. He also sold Waldameer’s carousel and Blue Goose ride, using the $1 million proceeds to further expand the water park and build additional picnic shelters — decisions that resulted in record attendance.

Today, the family owned and family friendly park is set to undergo another major expansion, having acquired three properties as part of a $30 million, 10-year plan that will see the addition of a wave pool in 2014, additional parking, fountains and gardens, an outdoor restaurant, and more. It’s the biggest improvement to the now-52 acre park since the opening of the $7.5-million Ravine Flyer II wooden coaster in 2008.

Nelson, with a small and dedicated full-time staff of several family members, including son-in-law and park president Steve Gorman, has ensured that Waldameer stands apart from others across the country.

“Money has been tight the last few years,” says Nelson. “Other parks have lost attendance and their revenue has gone down. Ours, however, has climbed dramatically. It’s our philosophy that sets us apart — we let the customer choose what he wants.”

With several decades of ownership and management under his belt, Nelson offers one critical piece of advice for others considering running their own business.

“One of the biggest lessons you can learn is to use your time wisely, because time is valuable,” he says. “If you want to work 40 hours every week for the rest of your life, don’t go into business for yourself.”

Regardless, Nelson is happy with the handshake he made all those years ago.

“I enjoy what I do,” he says. “I’m 79 and can’t imagine doing anything else.”

For more information about Waldameer Park & Water World, visit www.waldameer.com.