The Business of Having Fun
Cincinnati Gentlemen, June 2006
Theme Park Legend
Dennis L. Speigel calls himself the Johnny Appleseed of the theme-park industry. For 23 years he's planted more than 400 seeds of fun in 40 countries as president of Walnut Hills-based International Theme Park Services Inc. (ITPS), widely regarded as the leading full-service consulting firm for the leisure industry. Speigel has amassed more than 6,000,000 miles of air travel assisting all aspects of entertainment project development, including amusement parks, resorts, aquariums and zoos. Today Speigel’s busy planting a seed closer to home, a project he calls the “Purple People Bridge Cl!mb.”

Scheduled to open early this spring, the attraction will allow people to walk on top of the Newport Southbank Bridge’s trestles and, at the apex of the bridge, out onto a Plexiglas floor suspended directly over Appleseed’s old stomping grounds, the Ohio River.

Paving the Path
A local man contacted ITPS to do a feasibility study for a Purple People Bridge climb, similar to a bridge climb that exists in Sydney, Australia. ITPS did the study but the man didn’t have the capacity to realize the project, so the idea went dormant. Several months later, Speigel contacted the man and bought the idea “lock, stock and barrel,” Speigel says. ITPS redid the feasibility study, evolved the concept and then contacted Newport Southbank Bridge Co., the owner of the bridge.

Speigel’s new company, Purple People Bridge LLC, secured a 20-year-lease on top of the bridge—basically, aerial rights. Newport Southbank Bridge Co. will receive a “very fair and reasonable” contribution from revenues, Speigel says, and will continue general maintenance of every part of the bridge not associated with the climb.

“We think it’s going to be phenomenal,” says Speigel of the project—the first of its kind in the northern hemisphere. He predicts it’ll boost tourism, and generate national and international excitement.

Climbing to the Top
Here’s how the two-and-a-half-hour experience will work: The attraction begins at a center of operations based at Newport on the Levee. The 7,000-square-foot facility features films and murals detailing the climb and local history, and plasma-screen TVs showing live climbers in action. Tickets, which are on sale now, start at $60. Once a groups’ climb time is called, they’ll store all personal belongings in a locker and change into their climb suits, which can be worn alone or over clothing. Climbers then pick up safety belts and headsets that use bone-conduction technology for communication. Instead of covering the ear, the headsets conduct sound to the inner ear through the skull, allowing climbers to hear ambient noise and their guide simultaneously. To take the proper precautions, a walk through a metal detector and a breathalyzer test is required.

After attending a climb simulation, climbers are taken to the base of the bridge in Newport, Ky. They’ll traverse the first four spans of the bridge while walking on a series of catwalks and ladders linked together to form a pathway. Climbers are secured to the walkway via their safety belts, but not to each other. The climb will climax at the apex of the bridge’s final and largest span as climbers stand on a see-through, Plexiglas floor. The climb guides, who have auditioned for their job, share local history of both cities and the bridge. Climbers walk on the bridge’s normal walking path back to the center where they receive a free photo taken during the climb and, of course, the opportunity to buy souvenirs in the gift shop.

Speigel also plans to promote seasonal and theme climbs. He’s already teamed up with Chef Jean-Robert de Cavel for a theme climb that features jumpsuits that look like tuxedos and a private dinner at Jean-Robert at Pigall’s, spotlighting signature dishes from cities around the world that boast famous bridges. Speigel also is talking with Hofbrauhaus Newport and Jeff Ruby, and is actively seeking corporate sponsorship for various aspects of the project.

Dedicated to Fun
Speigel delights in showing off artist renderings of the bridge climb, the brightly colored jumpsuits, headlights climbers will wear on night climbs and the high-tech headsets. Since 1960, when he was a ticket taker at Coney Island, Speigel has delighted in working in the theme park industry. It’s what he’s done professionally, his entire life.

A graduate of Morehead State University, Speigel’s first job out of college was back at Coney Island where he was eventually named assistant park manager and later, assistant general manager of what is now called Paramount’s Kings Island. In 1974 he became vice president and general manager of Kings Dominion/Lion Country Safari in Richmond, Va. He managed the park for Taft Broadcasting and the Kroger Co. from 1974 to 1980. Speigel served as vice president of operations for Taft from 1980 to 1981, and served as vice president of international operations from 1981 to 1983. He left Taft in 1983 to found ITPS in response to, what he calls, a global explosion of theme parks. “The day I left I was busy and 23 years later, I’m still busy,” Speigel says.

Busy and having fun—everything about Speigel screams fun, including his company’s headquarters. The small lobby features a bright red ceiling, yellow walls, blue baseboards and a multi-colored floor. Popped popcorn sits in an old-fashioned popcorn stand and several fluorescent signs don the walls, pointing to employees’ workstations and sporting the phrase “I’m 4 Fun.” Speigel’s office is jam-packed with memorabilia from his many travels abroad. Large, blown-up dinosaurs guard staircases, a painted Mickey Mouse smiles from a door and a life-size skeleton hangs inside a closet.

While local folklore suggests Appleseed wore a burlap coffee-sack shirt and a tin-pot hat, Speigel dresses smartly, sporting a fancy diamond tie tack. But eccentricity is a common theme between the two of them, as is the spreading of something to be enjoyed by many. No matter where his travels take him, Speigel says one common denominator connects us all: “Everybody wants to have fun,” he says, emphatically. If all goes as planned, this spring his latest planted seed will bloom into fun for thousands of local thrill seekers who are eager to view Cincinnati from a bird’s eye view, on top of a bridge.

AT A GLANCE

Currently Driving: C6 Corvette

Last Book He Read: “Angels & Demons” by Dan Brown

He Admires: Dick Clark, “entertainment business genius”

Charities, Awards & Organizations: Conductive Education, a new program he and his wife, Donna, are piloting in the greater Cincinnati market for children with cerebral palsy; International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions president; Morehead State University Hall of Fame inductee; Cornell University Amusement Parks and Attractions Institute program creator; Travel and Tourism Industry Advisory Council to the United States Senate, inaugural member.

—Story by Kara Gebhart Uhl
—Photo by Deogracias Lerma