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Wisconsin Dells theme park owners plan major expansions along 'the strip'

Wisconsin State Journal

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January 13, 2011

Nick Laskaris considered building a 200-room hotel at his Mt. Olympus Water and Theme Park.

The $13 million price tag gave him second thoughts.

But Laskaris, whose father came here from Chicago in 1970 to open a hot dog and hamburger stand, was not deterred to add more rooms to his existing 350-room resort.

Over the last three months, Laskaris and his wife have purchased six motels and hotels, primarily along the west side of Wisconsin Dells Parkway, commonly referred to as "the strip."

Most of the properties are outdated, so a crew of about 30 workers is busy this winter tearing out carpeting, replacing furniture, light and plumbing fixtures and painting. Laskaris said he is spending about $20 million to purchase and remodel, and by Memorial Day weekend, he will have about 1,000 rooms to rent to his guests. Each guest will get a wristband to ride roller coasters and go-karts and splash in a pool that makes 9-foot-tall waves, all at Mt. Olympus.

But he doesn't plan to stop there. Laskaris, 44, who owns the resort with his wife of 16 years, Eva, 40, eventually wants to have 2,000 rooms. If their plan works, it will bring new life to aging properties, provide relief for some operators who for years have been trying to sell and make them one of the largest hotel operators in the Dells area.

"I think people are certainly talking about it because of they way he's doing it," said Tim Gantz, co-owner of Noah's Ark and the Flamingo Hotel. "It will be an interesting summer, to say the least. I just hope the area is better for it."

The strip is one of most heavily traveled corridors in this tourist area, connecting downtown Wisconsin Dells and the relatively new area of Highway 12 and Interstate 90-94 where in the last 15 years projects have included two of the country's largest indoor waterpark resorts.

The strip is home to Noah's Ark, Tommy Bartlett, zip-lining and Duck tours and dozens of other attractions, including Mt. Olympus.

The state is scheduled to rebuild the roadway in the next five years, and many of the properties along the corridor also are in need of major updates or a wrecking ball, said John Webb, Lake Delton's village president. The actions by Laskaris are a positive step for the strip, according to Webb, and will improve the lodging market that has about 9,000 rooms in the area. 

"I sure don't think it's a bad thing," Webb said. "He's definitely not afraid to take risks. He's not afraid to try something."

The genesis of Mt. Olympus was a restaurant built on Highway A by his father, Demetrios "Jim" Laskaris, who later added a small motel and, in 1975, a go-kart track. They later moved to the strip, adding more go-kart tracks and, in 1995, their first roller coaster, the 90-foot-high Cyclops.

In 2005, the $80 million merger of Laskaris' Big Chief's Mt. Olympus Theme Park, Treasure Island Waterpark Resort and Family Land Waterpark created Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Park. Nick and Eva Laskaris would later buy out the partners.

An indoor theme park was added in 2006, Poseidon's Rage Wave Pool in 2007 and a sand beach in 2010. The park, with six wooden roller coasters, is trumpeted by its towering Greek facade and 65-foot-tall wooden Trojan horse.

"Our whole investment is here on the strip and shame on me if I don't have a big part in cleaning up that environment to assure that our future guests have a nice place to come to," Laskaris said. "Does this have to be done all by Mt. Olympus? Absolutely not, but I'm going to do my part."

Laskaris is in talks or has had talks with many of the lodging owners.

Drew Purta and his family own the 88-room Skyline Hotel across the street from Mt. Olympus. He said Laskaris had offered to buy his place, founded in 1977, but they couldn't agree on a price.

"I understand it completely because our credit crunch is his credit crunch and, instead of building, he has to purchase," Purta said. "Unless (small hotels and motels) change with the times, they will not be able to survive and that would represent the majority of the properties he has purchased. They have not been able to keep up."

Laskaris' first venture into off-site lodging was the 2007 purchase of the nearby Pleasant View Motel. He remodeled it and named it Mykonos Village, after the Greek island. It allowed guests to spend less on lodging compared to his Hotel Rome, and they could drive up to their motel rooms but still have access to all the amenities at the water and theme park.

That success has fueled the purchase of the 72-room Luna Inn & Suites, 47-room 4 Seasons, 155-room RainTree Resort and the 93-room Star Motel Resort. He also has purchased off the strip the 55-room River Walk Hotel in downtown Wisconsin Dells and American World, which has 90 rooms and 70 campsites and he wants to expand it to 200 campsites. All of the properties will get new names.

The RainTree was built in 1997 by Todd Nelson, who later sold the hotel to build the Kalahari. Several owners later, the RainTree was headed for closure, according to Laskaris, who liked the property because of its location, 10,000-square-foot indoor waterpark and 6,000-square-foot conference center suitable for banquets and weddings.

The Star Motel property, for which he paid $6 million, is on 50 acres and will be home to more campsites and a 15-unit tree-house village. The sale was a blessing for the Jakubow family, who opened the resort in 1960. The property had been for sale off and on since Frank Jakubow died in 1999.

"We just kind of lost heart in it," Zane Jakubow said of the family's mood after his brother died in 2007. "All that place does is reminds my mother of the loss."

The family's excitement is relayed on the Star's website, which thanks guests for their patronage and the memories.

"We did it. We sold it," the message said in bold, red letters.

All of the purchases are on land contracts with 10- to 15-year terms, no one loses a job and all of the properties will utilize a single reservation system, said Laskaris, who is spending $200,000 to upgrade the lock systems of all the rooms. Each property will have front-desk staff, but he wants incoming guests to register at a central check-in station at Mt. Olympus.

"I'm not going to put my name on one of these properties and deliver a bad product," Laskaris said. "If you stay at a Mt. Olympus property, you're assured of Mt. Olympus quality."


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