Episode 321: John Dunlap talks about micro amusement parks, being the exact customer and attractions as a luxury

Business Strategy, Entrepreneurship, Guest Experience, Leadership, Podcast

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John Dunlap is the Chief Executive Officer of Five Star Parks and Attractions.  John has been in the attractions and hospitality business his entire life, dating back to when he worked in a restaurant kitchen at 14.  He later went on to start a travel agency, which led to a career with Starwood, then had the opportunity to take on the role of Executive Director at the San Diego Zoo, thus beginning John’s transition into the attractions industry.  John became CEO of Five Star Parks and Attractions in January 2022, which provides financial backing to family entertainment centers and micro-amusement parks to achieve lasting success.  In this interview, John talks about micro-amusement parks, being the exact customer, and attractions as a luxury.

Micro-amusement parks

“We coined the concept of micro-amusement parks.”

There are so many different types of facilities that fall under the umbrella of the attractions industry.  Many of them are well-defined, such as a zoo, museum, or aquarium, whereas in the FEC sector, the definition of a family entertainment center has been stretched considerably over the last several years.  While the differentiator between an FEC and an amusement park is generally defined by the presence (or lack) of a gate, there are several subsets of family entertainment centers.

When Five Star Parks and Attractions was born, they identified the subset of what became known as the “micro-amusement park,” which is smaller than a traditional regional park, yet larger than a standard family entertainment center.  The micro-amusement park includes properties that are fully indoors, as well as those that are a mix of indoor and outdoor experiences, often with rides, food, and games.

Being the exact customer

“I get most of my best customer feedback from my kids.”

When asked about leadership lessons that he’s gained from his wide variety of experiences, John says that he is fortunate to have been the exact customer at each point in his career.  He talks about when he began working in hotels, he recalled back to his childhood, where he viewed staying in a hotel as a luxury, which formed the standard that he strived for when delivering the guest experience.  John says that he is “mortified by mediocrity” and he regularly looks for what can be improved.

John then joined the San Diego Zoo around the same time that he had his first child, allowing him to once again see the guest experience through the eyes of a child.  This influenced decisions that he was a part of at the zoo that led to substantial growth.  Today, now that his kids are older, he is once again the exact demographic that Five Star Parks and Attractions serve.

Because the work is so important to him personally, John never feels like he’s trading time for money, and says he feels like every day he gets to work on his passion project.

Attractions as a luxury

“We never take for granted that we’re competing for a limited share of wallet.”

Just like John’s perception of staying in a hotel as a luxury, he looks at the attractions industry in the same way.  Considering variable economic conditions, John states that they recognize that there are countless other ways for people to spend their time and money.  As a result Five Star has invested heavily into the properties that they have acquired to upgrade the experience, enhance the existing brands that they’ve brought into the portfolio, and focus heavily on training and development.

As Five Star looks to the future, the company’s growth plan includes acquiring additional brands that deliver a high quality experience that meets the mindset of attractions being a luxury, along with continuing to reinvest in the experience at each property in the portfolio.


To learn more about Five Star Parks and Attraction, www.fivestarparks.com.  To get a hold of John directly, reach out via email at jdunlap@fivestarparks.com.

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  • Scheduling and correspondence by Kristen Karaliunas

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