Going Bananas: Having fun serious business

Chris Burn remains in the driver’s seat of a Grand Junction entertainment center that’s generated increased revenue every year since Burns and his wife, Heather, opened Bananas Fun Park in 2004. New and different attractions and quality service keep customers coming back, Burns says. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Nearly drowned out by the cacophony of beeps and buzzes at the nearby arcade, the sounds of construction have returned to Bananas Fun Park.

Workers pound nails and saw lumber as they erect walls, ramps and balconies. They’re creating what soon will look like an alien jungle with garish colors illuminated under black lights. What better setting for a space-age battle?

Less than six years after opening a laser tag arena at the Grand Junction entertainment center, owners Chris and Heather Burns are renovating the facility. The arena will expand upward to include two stories and feature a futuristic jungle theme. A laser maze also will be updated as part of a project budgeted at more than $100,000 and scheduled for completion Feb. 15.

Firm believers in the axiom that if they build it, customers will come, the Burns have repeatedly added attractions to Bananas since they launched the venture eight years ago.

A 10,000 square-foot special events pavilion opened late in 2009.

When it comes to the business of fun, capital investment is a serious matter, Chris Burns says. “You’ve got to update this. People want the newest and best.”

The strategy has worked. Even as other entertainment venues in the Grand Valley have come and gone, Bananas Fun Park not only has survived a recession, but also generated increased revenue each year, Burns says. And 2011 was the best year to date.

The last eight years have gone by quickly, Burns says, but business has grown steadily enough that he sleeps better at night. “I feel pretty good about it all.”

Bananas Fun Park represents the ongoing evolution of an entrepreneurial endeavor that began 14 years ago when the Burns launched Bump-N-Jump, a business that rents out inflatable play structures for parties and other events.

What started out as a part-time venture with three inflatables quickly turned into a full-time enterprise that still brings in an important chunk of revenue.

Even as they were expanding Bump-N-Jump, the couple had an even bigger venture in mind in a family entertainment center. The Burns purchased a 6-acre site along what’s now the Riverside Parkway and constructed a a fun park with an 18-hole miniature golf course, a large lagoon for bumper boats, a go-cart track and baseball and softball batting cages. A building houses an arcade, cafe and offices for the operation.

The laser tag arena now undergoing renovation was added in 2006. The special events pavilion — a bright green and yellow fabric structure that at more than 40-feet tall has become something of a landmark — opened in 2009.

The pavilion has been one of the best capital investments at the park, Burns says, in offering a versatile venue that accommodates a variety of uses.

The pavilion houses Bump-N-Jump playground equipment that younger clientele use on a year-round basis. But that equipment can be quickly deflated and moved out to make room for conferences, holiday parties and other events. A dance night attracted more than 800 teen-agers to the park, Burns says.

Birthday parties remain a mainstay of business as Bananas hosts more than 50 celebrations a month. Corporate parties are less frequent, but some big annual events bring thousands to the park, Burns says.

New facilities like the renovated laser tag arena and pavilion — not to mention the games in the arcade that are as sophisticated as they are expensive — help drive repeat business, Burns says.

But so do a spotlessly clean operation and customer service that fosters a friendly and welcoming experience for families, he adds.

“I just preach customer service. That all matters,” he says. “How hard is it to be nice or to thank somebody for coming?”

From the beginning, Burns has strived to instill his philosophy and work ethic in the hundreds of high school and college students he’s hired over the years to work at Bananas. For many students, working at the park was their first experiences with employment.

“I help them learn about life,” Burns says.

But Burns also leads by example. He works nearly every day so he can personally make sure the facilities are clean and operations are running smoothly.

When restroom toilets need cleaning or party balloons inflating, Burns often handles such chores. When landscaping work is required in the spring, Burns plants each and every flower himself.

It’s a frugal approach Burns says also has helped curb costs. “That matters in business. Most everything we do, we do ourselves.”

As workers complete renovations at the laser tag arena and laser maze and the sounds of construction cease, Burns says he’s looking forward to offering yet another new attraction to bring families to Bananas Fun Park.

Still, Burns doesn’t plan on resting on the laurels a growing business venture affords. “I sit and think of all sorts of things. What can we do to make it better?”