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Sam's Fun City Turns 20, Opens Friday

A Pensacola landmark is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, but will running with a new set of rules when it reopens this month.  

“I bought 50 acres on the corner of W Street and Highway 29, and the park now sits on about 25 of those (acres),” said Richard Sanfilippo, the owner of Sam’s Fun City in Pensacola.

When he first closed on that land over 20 years ago, it was not a pretty site. “It was abandoned. It was a junk yard. Have had thrown trash here for years. It took us almost a year to clean the mess up. It used to be a truck training ground. There (were) no buildings except for a small loading dock on the property so it was basically a clean slate.”

Sam’s Fun City was built on that clean slate. The park, which is named after Sanfilippo’s daughter Samantha, worked to fill a need in the region.

“A young lady named Sheila Bowman was the head of the tourist section of the chamber of commerce at that time and I (asked her) what kind of things could I do, and she mentioned a few things that the community needed and one was more family recreational facilities." he said. "And so, Sam’s Fun City was to fill that bill.”

At first, the park was mainly an outdoor venue with 12 rides and three go-kart tracks. The only building was a ticket booth.

“Since then we’ve had phases of adding things. We added a miniature golf course, we added bumper boats, we added an arcade which has expanded three times, and we added a big group pavilion for group picnics and activities. And, of course, we added a water park back in 2006. I tried to get it in 2005 but we had a little hurricane issue that came through.”

That, of course, was Hurricane Ivan. Even though the park had insurance the storm still caused a loss close to $750,000. Sanfilippo says they took out some Small Business Administration emergency loans to help rebuild and reopen. Business at the park was also disrupted by Hurricanes Dennis and Katrina.

“Katrina hit the Mississippi coast and New Orleans pretty severely, but it affected about a third of our business," he said. "Our August business used to be almost primarily folks from that way, regional tourism.”

Regional tourism was also disrupted by events like 9-11, the BP Oil Spill and the great recession. But even in the aftermath of Ivan, Sam’s Fun City didn’t stay closed for long.

“We actually only had it closed for about a week," he said. "We opened up most of the park, because that time we were still primarily an outdoor facility and we were able to get most of it going. We actually opened up and had some free days for people who were just bored to death. We thought it was a big deal back then to be a whole week without power or without normal activity. Now we’re going through months of it.”

Like most of the state and the nation, Sam’s Fun City has been closed since mid-March. Richard Sanfilippo says that there is no way to turn 2020 into a profitable year. Spring is one of their busiest seasons with school outings and spring breakers jamming the park in a normal year. He says he may need to get another SBA. loan to get through the year.

Sam's Fun City will be reopening on Friday, but things will look a bit different. 

“We will be changing the way we operate significantly. We have to take care of every person. Every soul that walks through the gate now is going to be seriously our responsibility and we want to make sure we do our best to provide a safe environment that they can count on and have some fun without looking over their shoulder and worrying all the time.”

The biggest change is that now Sam’s Fun City will be a gated park. In the past, customers could enter and exit without paying an admission fee. Now all guests will have to pay an admission fee and wear a wrist band to enter the park. This will help keep attendance to 25% of capacity. They will also have employees act as guides, taking groups of guests through the park in intervals so they can enjoy all the attractions safely.

Sanfilippo says they have about 100 employees during the summer season, mostly young people. Now those employees have to walk a fine line between making sure guests have a good time, and making sure they do it safely.

“It’s a big request, a big ask to take a high school kid and not only do they have to have a personality and have to treat people correctly, but now they really have to try and reinforce a bunch of rules that are sometimes not as clear as we’d like them to be," he said. "But, we follow all the CDC rules that we can get our hands on that relate to our kind of industry.”

In addition to the new admission policy, there are a number of other new safety measures being taken at the park including screening each person who enters the facility, keeping records of all guests, and limiting the number of people on train and coaster rides. For the complete list of rules, visit the Sam's Fun City website.

Looking back, Richard Sanfilippo says that on that day the park first opened in the year 2000, he never dreamed he’d still be here 20 years later.

“No, I don’t think so. This is my second career, and it’s been harder work than all of my other careers put together," said Sanfilippo. "It’s a lot of work to keep a place like this going. We are in a community that is just marginally big enough to support a facility like ours. Bigger cities like Mobile and Montgomery, they don’t have facilities like this. So we have to really rely on a lot of repeat business and annual pass holders, and then we get a bit of tourism, as well.”

Sam’s Fun City will be reopening for the season on Friday, May 22. 

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.