Message: (Story or presentation that is accessible to people of all ages)
There was a guy named Roger who spent his summers in Rehoboth Beach. He was what they called mildly retarded back then or developmentally disabled today. He loved Funland, and even as an adult he loved hanging around the park. He dreamed of working there.
Then one day, the Fasnacht family that owns Funland offered Roger a job. The family did not feel sad for Roger, and wanted to make his dream of working there come true, and give him something meaningful to do. Roger loved that job and wore his Funland shirt with pride. Just as importantly, that job gave him respect, confidence and a purpose.
Roger wanted everyone to know he worked at Funland and was part of the Funland family. He looked forward to the start of summer each year so he could return to Funland. I can still picture Roger’s smile while he was working.
The point of this story is Funland gave Roger a chance when no one else would, and he thrived. The way the Fasnacht family treated Roger, both while he worked at Funland and throughout the rest of his life – several members of the family came to his memorial service, two days before Christmas — was a lesson I will never forget.
Homily: Land of Fun
Land of Fun Sermon
When I was 16, I had the best summer job I could imagine. I was working at Funland, a small amusement park with rides and games on the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Sound good? Trust me, it gets better.
This was not just any boardwalk, but a boardwalk Playboy magazine said was one of the best places on the East Coast for meeting girls.
I lived that summer, and the next five, above the park, with my dining room overlooking the boardwalk, beach and Atlantic Ocean. Not only that, but the Fasnacht family that has owned Funland since 1962 provided us a house mother who did our laundry and cooked dinner for us six nights a week.
Every other day, my work shift didn’t start until 5 pm, creating the perfect twofer – sleeping as late as you wanted and hitting the beach all afternoon before dinner. It’s no wonder that my first summer, I was one of just three rookies among the 26 person full-time crew, as the Fasnacht family had an employee waiting list longer than the Redskins had for season tickets in their heyday.
Now, almost 40 years after I first worked at Funland, I feel even stronger that it was the perfect summer job. In fact, I’d say it was the best and most impactful position I have ever had – and I’ve had a lot. And that has little to do with the abundance of beach time and girls – well, they didn’t hurt – and more to do with the management style and values of the Fasnacht family, and in particular, those of family patriarch Al.
Al, who was my boss the six years I worked there, turned 91 in November. He still works at the park five hours a day, spending three to four hours on trash and recycling duty first thing in the morning, often lifting 40 pound bags of garbage, and another 90 minutes operating the kiddie rides at night. He relishes and looks forward to those jobs every day, and can’t wait for May to roll around so he can resume roles that no one else in his family wants.
He’s asked all the time about why he takes out the trash. His answer is vintage Al; funny, genuine and full of gratitude.
“When you have no skills, you do whatever’s left. The reason I started doing the trash was because it was something I could do to carry my share of the load. So much of my life has been spent at Funland, and I’m very fortunate I’m still able to help. At my age, you’re not supposed to lift 40 pounds of garbage. I want to be able to contribute and still be a part of something that means so much to me and my family.”
Simply put, Funland, and the four generations of the Fasnacht family who have owned and operated the park since 1962, have had such a huge influence on my life that I was inspired to write Land of Fun to share what makes them so special with a wider audience. I view this church service as another opportunity to do just that.
In my first week at Funland, Al taught me two things I didn’t think much of at the time. How to secure trash bags on Funland’s trash cans – doing things right the first time — and to always pick up any trash I would see in the park. “Think of the park as your
home, and our customers as our guests. We want to make it as nice as possible for them, and that means no trash.”
Later that summer Al asked me to operate some rides for a group of special-needs teenagers who were coming to the park before Funland was normally open. At the time I thought Al just needed bodies to help; I later realized he wanted us to see the fun and joy these kids, who were the same age as me, were having, and why it was so important for them to have this opportunity. These kids could not have gone on the rides while the park was open, as they needed too much assistance getting on and off. In my work on the book, I learned that Al had groups like this in for no charge, and provided lunch for them as well. He was also the first one there to greet them and help them on the rides, and he would contact their schools or organizations in the off-season to plan that summer’s visit.
A teacher who coordinates these trips to Funland and who has worked with Al for many years said he is one of a kind. “It makes you realize there are some good people in this world that want to do for others out of the kindness of their heart and are not looking for any recognition or anything in return. It is the feeling of knowing you’ve made someone else’s day, or year. The generosity he shows the kids is beyond amazing.”
Affordability is another park staple. Funland did not raise ticket prices the first 25 years the park was open – 10 cents each or 12 for $1 — and today, tickets cost just 40 cents, and you can buy 100 tickets for $30. The same is true with the games. Funland arguably has the lowest ride and game prices of any park in the country. Al refers to their pricing structure as “Today’s Fun at Yesterday’s Prices.” He adds: “It costs the same amount of money to run a ride if there are two people on it or 22 people on it, so why not keep the prices at a point where more people can have enjoyment and the opportunity to ride more rides with their money?”
Treating summer employees like family is another Funland tradition. Providing living arrangements, food and laundry were just the start. What I didn’t realize at the time is that the Fasnachts considered its summer workers to be family members for life. Two quick examples:
Once I had kids, I learned that former employees got free tickets for life. It did not take my kids, Graham and Olivia, long to figure this out, so as soon as we’d pull into town for vacation they asked if we could see Mr. Al and get our tickets. He has always loved seeing former workers and their families, and it sure worked with us.
Al and his wife attended Deborah and my wedding, and he and one of his son’s came to my dad’s memorial service. He’s gone to events like these for many employees over the years, and I will never forget that.
I have managed people since working on the Penn State student newspaper in college, and it’s amazing the number of times I’ve asked myself “What would Al do” when faced with a new situation or problem. Al and his family, more than 30 of whom work at the park all summer, lead by example. They showed us instead of telling us, and it seemed like every time a customer threw up – the least pleasant job you can imagine, especially when it took place on one of the fast-motion rides – enough said – it seemed like a Fasnacht was there to clean it up before we could react. That is not the sort of thing you forget easily.
Nor does having a grandchild ride on the same ride, in the same spot, that you rode on 70 years ago as a kid, as a man told Al last year. Funland is a throwback to a simpler time, where people have affordable family fun, where cell phones seem to get used much less often than most places and where generations of family memories are created. Having five rides still in operation from when they bought the park in 1962 lends the park an old-fashioned feel, and appeal. Customers talk about seeing these rides and being transported back to their youth, and of being home. Sharing these rides, and memories, with their kids and grandkids, is a truly emotional experience.
One of the unexpected benefits of writing this book was learning much more about Al and his family. I started this project as a big Funland and Fasnacht family fan. After two years of interviewing more than 100 people – customers, former employees, town officials and business owners, people in the amusement park industry and more – I’m even more of a fan today.
It all starts with Al. His primary roles at Funland have ranged from accountant to personnel manager to ride operator to trash collector, with all kinds of work in between. His primary interests and activities during the non-summer months, and when he and his extended family return home to Hershey, PA, have included Boy Scout master, Sunday School teacher, member of the church choir, prison ministry and the head of the Fasnacht Foundation, which has donated more than $500,000, primarily to charities that focus on helping kids, fighting hunger, providing health services for those who can’t afford them and more.
Al’s prison ministry work is something I learned about – not from him but from his family – and that I think illustrates the kind of person he is. Prison ministry simply means he visits people in prison and tries to help them by spending time with them. He has been doing this every two to three weeks during the Funland off-season since the early 1980s. He visits four Pennsylvania prisons, and meets mostly with prisoners in on life sentences. These are people who are, in many cases, completely cut off from their families, and have little company. One person Al met with had not had a visitor in 12 years. I asked Al why he did this. “Many of the people I visit have been in prison for two-third of their lives. I think knowing that challenges me to be able to do things that can help other people. It is one of those situations where you get more than you give. I know that when I come out of prison I feel good about having been there.
The feeling of the inmates is mutual. “Prison is a dark place; I’ve seen many guys die in prison because they did not have any support system, but Al was there for me. He’s not afraid to open his life up to people. To have someone like Al there, not giving a hand out but a hand up, has been powerful. He truly cares about people.”
Said another: “Al’s visits mean enough to me that I’m willing to get strip-searched before and after each visit. I’m not as surprised that Al has seen me as long as he has as I am amazed he comes to visit me and the other inmates at all. His visits mean that I am loved.”
Every time I re-read what the prisoners, and many others, said about Al, I wonder what it must feel like to have that kind of impact on people – and why I’m not doing more to help others.
Land of Fun is a trip back to a simpler time. It’s the story of a family that puts people and community before profits. It also shows what can be accomplished when you share a common goal; in this case, to provide customers with the kind of experience, value and entertainment you’d like to receive, without worrying about who gets the credit.
As I’ve heard Al say many times, “One of the greatest things in life is the opportunity to do something for someone else.” He and his family have done just that at Funland since 1962, and have taken many others, like me, along for the ride. I could not be more grateful.
Reflection: How do we reach out and lift up people with all sorts of challenges in meaningful ways?