Interview with Concept Attractions, Inc. President Kevin Ricks and General Manager Jim Gehrke

Spending a couple hours recently interviewing the minds behind Concept Attractions, Inc. was an entertaining, as well as highly educational experience that truly was inspiring. Kevin, along with his wife Corena Ricks, are owners of the successful downtown Wisconsin Dells businesses: Wizard Quest, Ripley's Believe It or Not, Dells 4D Theater, The Point, along with the recently opened Oodlesmack Popcorn shop, all of which are helped managed by Jim and Kelly Jo Gehrke. I’d like to thank both Kevin and Jim for taking time to share their behind-the-scenes stories and knowledge.

Let’s start from the beginning. Kevin, how did you end up in the Dells, and what made you get into the attractions business.

Kevin Ricks: How it all got started on this is that I’ve been building haunted houses since I was – my first one I built was when I was twelve – and when I say built it, we actually did build it – it got to the point that schools donated us actual haunted houses that were going to be torn down and they said - make something of it - for a senior parties or something like that. We’d build them in barns, caves, museums and whatnot and put them together – so I always had a love for it. As well as games – I was always known as the “master of games” and I would take a classical game: croquet or Run Sheep Run or Kick the Can or whatever, but I would never do the same – I would put the “Kevin Ricks Twist” on it – and change it up a bit.

Where are you from originally?

Kevin: Originally I was born in Idaho – I live in Wyoming right now, and grew up out West. But, how I got involved in this is when my father-in-law Norm Rollingson - he’s the one that actually built the Ripley’s here, as well as The Wax World of the Stars - he actually hired me on as his marketing manager after I got out of school. So, through my father-in-law being here, and then him hiring me, pulled me out here as a marketing manager. I worked out here in 1987, that’s when I first came to the Dells – for a summer – and I got a taste of the Dells, and that’s where I first said - I like this atmosphere! That’s where it started, and I fell in love with the business. Wax World had run its course, and he was going to get rid of it and I said - I’ll buy it - and then got rid of it and put in Wizard Quest. But before that we built a Ripley’s out in Jackson Hole, Wyoming – that was my first one.

So Jim, how did you get involved, did you two know each other?

Jim Gehrke: No, actually my wife is from Jackson Hole – she was Kevin’s manager out there running the Jackson location, so when he opened the Wizard Quest – she always liked fairies and stuff like that – so it was a perfect mix for her, so Kevin had sent her out here. I’m actually a Cheesehead – I’m from the Juneau, Beaver Dam area and Dodge County – so that’s where I spent my first 50 years, but I ended up meeting my wife through the Jaycees, which we both were involved in. So it turns out, I just happened to be a “jack of all trades” type of guy, and Kevin was looking for a “jack of all trades type of guy”, and so I jumped into this, and through being able to learn the business through Kevin, it just sort of turns out that this is kinda of a niche in life that I wish I had gone into 30 years ago . . .

Kevin: He’s opened up more talents then he realized he had.

Jim: I never realize how many different things that I could do, and Kevin is one of those great types of guys who is, like if it’s a good idea – lets go for it – and he loosens the reigns up and away we go. We actually make a really excellent team – we got a good mix here.

So Kevin, before there was Wizard Quest, you said you originally bought the Wax World of the Stars – I always loved that place as a kid because it had full sized Star Wars figures – why did you end up closing it?

Kevin: It had just been around for so long and it was just stagnant, and you know our market was changing a bit. It was geared to more of the older crowd, and I was geared towards the younger crowd, so we changed that up. But, I do have another idea for a wax museum that involves a “Kevin Twist’ on it – I got a bunch of new attractions ideas . . .

Jim: But he’d have to kill ya! (laughs)

So what happened to all the Wax figures?

Kevin: There in my closet scaring me! (laughs) No, a lot of them got leased out to a wax museum in Prince Edward Island in Canada – a lot of them were sold on eBay, and a lot of them are still in storage.

Jim: And Mexico too, they went down to Mexico City, to one of Norm’s friends – Norm had friends all over the world . . .

Kevin: So yeah, some went down to Mexico City, and some ended up in my museum in Jackson Hole.

Jim: His father-in-law Norm had an airplane hangar - because he was one of these types that decided he just wanted to get into aviation - and he had built an excellent small little experimental plane. So, he had a hanger out by Baraboo at the airport, and the figures were there – the figures themselves, without the heads, were out there standing up with garbage bags hanging over them, and you could see hands hanging out and that’s when I first got on in 2007. You’d go over to that warehouse, and it would give you the creeps with all this stuff!

Kevin:  See I grew up with stuff like that all the time, and it was just normal . . .

Jim: And I’m thinking - what did I get myself into!

So speaking of getting the creeps, what’s your house like Kevin? Is it filled with a bunch of crazy and creative stuff, or is it more of a traditional home?

Kevin: Um no (laughs), our home is pretty creative as well. We have trees inside of it, and you know my wife is an artist with all mediums. She’s a painter, professional oil painter, muralist – all those things, and she also does 3D stuff as well. She sculpts, works with any medium you can think of – so in our home we finish off stuff that you would have no clue is blue board foam – no clue that’s what it is – because it looks like rock or might look like marble . . .

Jim: You’ll see a few examples as you go through the places (Ripley’s and Wizard Quest) . . . it’s incredible!

Kevin: Yeah, so by no means is it. Wherever we live, whatever we do, it always has a “Kevin Twist” on it – and my wife is just as bad as I am on that, so . . .

Sounds like you two make a good match! Do you have any kids, and if so, are they creative types as well?

Kevin: We have four children. All of them have their mothers artistic talent – none of them got it from me. I can draw it in my head and have magnificent things happening in here (points to head), but it will not come from here (raises hands) onto paper. It’s great though because I can describe it, and my wife can put it onto paper – or any of my children can too.

We’re very family orientated all around, and that’s how we build our attractions too.  We believe in team building, that includes the families, and that’s how we run our businesses. We definitely hear everybody’s advice and ideas, because it’s just not my place – it’s Jims and his wife’s – and everyone else’s because their all a part of it. That’s what makes it successful – it’s just not one person.

Well let’s dive a little bit into Wizard Quest. You said it was an original idea, not a franchise?

Kevin: Yeah, it’s the only one in the world. My wife and I dreamt it up – built it – and run it. It’s a team building adventure where you’re seeking out and solving riddles, going through secret passages and hidden entrances . . .

I took my niece and nephew through it this summer and had a blast running around.

Kevin: I do to!

So how did it evolve? How did you get the idea for it?

Kevin: Well, there’s never a lack of ideas. Seriously, as far back as I can remember I was always putting a twist on things, and I always had the confidence that - give me a challenge and I’ll complete it. So, when my father-in-law was going to shut down the Wax World, and we lease these buildings – and he was going to turn them back over to our landlord. I didn’t have an idea at the time, I just knew that that’s too good of a spot, too good of a location to let go. So, I said - I’ll take it over – so I bought out his lease at that time, just finished out the lease and bought it out. We finished out Wax World, and in a matter of almost three months - just under three months - I got the wheels going in the brain and decided…and came up with, well, I had about three different things that I was thinking about possibly going to do . . .

Can you say what you were thinking about?

Kevin: Not really . . .

Because your still going to do them eventually?

Kevin: Because we ARE going to do these others – it’s just timing is the most important part. But, basically I have just been a fan of fantasy and science fiction. There is a plethora of great authors out there who have written incredible books, and at the time the technology in the theater and cinemas, the world was finally catching up to the ideas of these authors. In the past they could never create a movie that could complement the author - but now they can. So, it was just at the time that the Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potters, was just starting – and I knew that this is a theme that will never die. There are just too many people out there who love it. So, that’s why I first choose fantasy as our theme – I believe in theme.

The other thing was having four children of my own. The problem that I have, and the challenge I have there is keeping us as a family active. Doing things together as a family, because when they come home from school or sports, it was immediately going to the computer and playing video games and whatnot, and I didn’t grow up that way. I was always building forts and haunted houses – doing that kind of stuff . . .

It’s sort of scary where the world is heading with the younger generation . . .

Kevin: It seriously is! And so I was seeing that that’s where the majority of young people’s time was being spent - was being on a computer or watching TV, playing video games and whatnot. So, we got to do something that allows them to play those types of games with their parents. I love playing video games, and I’ll play them with my kids, but I believe in being balanced as well. So long story short, I took the theming of fantasy, and decided to build a video game – a live one – and that’s where the idea was born. It just went from there. So basically we just started spinning the wheels and said – OK, this is what size of a building I basically need – and what’s going to be fun? What do they enjoy the most in video games – and I talked a lot to the age group that I wanted to draw in – and I asked - what are your favorite video games? Why do you like that video game? I played some of those video games to see what was dragging them in there – and let myself be dragged into it too.

So, it sounds like you’re the chief designer, but do you have a team to help you design something like this?

Kevin: You have too. I am the chief – I am the game master 100% - where I think of putting the game together and I conceptualize it in here (points to head), but it’s really rough. Then I take it out to my wife who is really good at both of us kicking things back and forth, ideas and that, and then between my wife and Jim, any idea I can come up with – they can make happen. Jim doing the interworking of any of our stuff, and my wife being the one to cover it up and make it look good.

Jim: Because I can only do stick men!

Kevin: Now, well that’s one of the talents Jim has realized that he now has. He’s artistic as well, and he can cover some things and make things look good. It truly is a family thing too, because I have a cousin that has worked for me, building some of my stuff. Every one of the wizards (on the game monitors) at Wizard Quest except one is a relative - so it does come down to a team definitely. And, we have a core team here that once we want to change up anything, we kind of run it through everybody – bounce back and forth – and it’s how we do it. That’s why we’re successful that way too - is because normally where you have to hire out to get things done – we really don’t have to.

So you guys build all the hidden entrances and secret passages yourself – do you have any of that kind of stuff in your home?

Kevin: (laughs) None of its built in there – but I never built my own home – and if I were, there would be.

That’s one my dreams - to build my own home filled with that kind of stuff . . .

Kevin: And I think it used to be a dream of mine too, but as I get older, I think it’s getting appeased by the attractions that I’m building.  And so, if I were to ever build my own home – then definitely I would have it in there. The idea of the home I have in my mind is incredible!

What is your favorite aspect of operating Wizard Quest?

Kevin: Seriously it would have to be the reaction you get from the families of those who go through and experience it, and come out and are just in awe. Of how everybody in their family enjoyed it. How it brought them together, and just saying: “That was the funnest thing we’ve ever done in our life.” The comments we’ve got where: “We have traveled all over the place, and there is nothing like this we’ve ever done.” – or this is our most favorite: “We come to Wisconsin Dells every year because of Wizard Quest.” – those type of comments. So, actually it’s talking to our guests and getting a feedback from them. And of course more times than not it’s a positive one, sometimes it will be a negative one, but we appreciate those too because we’ll change them if it’s one that we can change.

Jim: There is nothing better than when they come out of the tunnel and you can hear the little kids go - “Wow!” - And that’s when you can pretty much sell them. Even if they’re questioning it, or if a kid is afraid or something – you just say “You want to come in and take a look?” – And we let them take one look (out the tunnel, overlooking the place) and I have yet to have somebody go: “Where not going to do it now . . .” – once they see it.

What part of the game are you most proud of designing in there?

Kevin: Probably the ball pit. That was one of my ideas in there to give you a – just because it reflects my personality, it reflects my taste – I like creating experiences you’ve never had before. Have you swam though, underneath there?

I did the first time, when you originally opened, and I thought I was going to die! I’m a big guy . . .

Kevin: Yeah, and if you’re not claustrophobic – you’ll STILL be claustrophobic!

I told myself that I’d never go in there again!

Kevin: Now that’s a cool experience – because you never did it before in your life. Nobody swims through balls – nobody – anywhere – I mean, even when you go to McDonalds and stuff like that you always can just stand up – but when you’re enclosed in a 36 inch circle – you’re not standing up! And it’s hard – especially your guy’s size to try to turn around and go back! You got to go to the end – once you’re in, your committed – so that feeling, and that’s our highest maintenance too because balls go flying everywhere, but just creating that experience. We probably get more comments on that who are like: “I hate it, but I love it!” – you know type thing. “That was the coolest, but I only need to do it once!” (laughs)

My nephew went through a few times, but I was like – once is enough! Speaking of which, you guys ever find anything in there? Like money or personal items?

Jims: Oh yeah . . .

Kevin: Underwear – all kinds of stuff!

Jim: If they’re missing a cell phone that’s the first thing we ask – were you in the ball pit?  Yep . . .

Besides the ball pit, what would you say is the most unique thing about Wizard Quest?

Kevin: The most unique thing about Wizard Quest is that it is the only one of its kind in the world. We’ve had several, several people that want me to franchise it. And this is where we’re at on that is – at some point I will – either franchise it or build more, but I will never flood the market with it – because of the uniqueness.

But, we have a three stage plan for it, and we just got out of our first stage – and are just entering our second stage. And until we’ve completed those three stages, it will not be available, or I will not build another one, until I’ve gone through the three phases.

And by phases what do you mean – making the game the best it can be, or more on the business end?

Kevin: Basically both. The first phase is basically getting all the wrinkles out and finding out what are the core pieces that your guests like so we can incorporate those, and honing the game to where you want it to be. Basically the second phase is to take that game, and take it to the point where it’s continuingly changing all the time, almost on its own, to where we don’t have to.

Because we have such a big repeat base coming, we want something new for them every time. So we are just entering that phase, and I will do a major overall in the game – that’s gonna happen – it won’t happen for 2012, but it will happen where we will overhaul the game completely to get us through that second phase. Where it’s a standalone, continuingly changing – I don’t know if you ever played the game Oblivion . . .

I don’t believe so.

Kevin: Neither have I, but my kids have, and it’s a very, very popular one out there. Basically you can still have your main quests in this game, but as you are pushing forward to that quest, sometimes you got to go off and do these little quests to achieve that goal. And once you go off on one of those others quests, it might take you in a whole different direction where you may not ever even get back to the original quest on this trip, because this has turned out to be fun and you’re trying to accomplish all this. So I’m taking that same mentality into the Wizard Quest game where there will be so many quests, within quests, within quests, within stories, within stories, that your head will spin – not to overwhelm you, but to give you a plethora of choices where YOUR choices will truly make a difference to your experience.

Have you ever thought of offering a season pass?

Kevin: That’s where the second phase gets into. Once we’re to that point we will – we already talked about restructuring our pricing where we have all day passes, and season passes, so it will get to that at one point. Then, our third phase is basically – in the second phase we are going to bring to life more of our characters – their personality and tell their individual stories – cause right now it’s really just the stories of the wizards, but then we’ll get into another part of our business where we’ll start manufacturing of our little figurines and plush and jewelry – and all that . . .

Like toys, and comic books…

Kevin: All that stuff. And so that’s where our third phase is. To branch off and develop an arm of the business where we’re actually wholesaling to other businesses – as well as where we want to become the largest fantasy manufacturer in the nation, if not the world. To where we would have our own manufacturing company where we would be building all of our stuff. Because we have the talent . . .

Have you ever thought of trying to get it made as a movie?

Kevin: It would make an incredible movie. The story is all here and it changes from time to time, but the core story is all in my head – and that’s where really we go to begin anything. You have to have a story to actually capture the true theme of an attraction. You got to have a story, and that’s really the only way you can make it come to life.

Sounds like there is a lot more Wizard Quest to come in the future . . .

Kevin: Yeah, I’d like to build at least one more because I got so many ideas that I’d do. Ever since we built this one, there are things that I’d change, because the secret passages – the ball pit and that kind of stuff are the key to it. The new Wizard Quest would just be chalk full of it. I just read a story where a family got lost in a corn maze and ended up calling 911 – and that’s kinda what I would like to do with Wizard Quest! You get down there and it’s like - I can’t get out! Help! (laughs)

That would be pretty cool! So, let’s now delve a little into Ripley’s . . .which place is more popular?

Kevin: They’re pretty even. This year we did a little bit better with Ripley’s because we did the major renovation with the Vampire Gallery and the new lobby - because vampires are so popular right now.  And we did such a good job on that. We got a lot of free press, but typically they run fairly parallel to each other.

Do they have a catalog or something of all this cool stuff?

Kevin: No, typically, like I said, you don’t get to pick what you want. Typically, a typical franchisee will tell them the theme of what they would like to do, and then they’ll send it to corporation, and the corporation will then tell you what you can do. With ours, a lot of time I’ll go out there and see what they have and whatever I fall in love with – and if it’s really cool – I’ll build a theme to that.

Jim: He has a very good relationship with Edward Meyer who is the archivist at Ripley’s . . .

Kevin: He is the Robert Ripley of this century.

Jim: He goes around and does the buying and all that.

Kevin: He’s an extremely close friend of mine. So typically, because we’re not a big, big market here – typically the Corporate owned ones and the huge markets like New York and Orlando – they get first choice on the good exhibits and all the really good stuff goes out to them. But, we get some really cool stuff out here just because of my relationship with them. To give you an example, what we’re going to showcase this year – we’re going to introduce Shrunken Head Alley. We’re going to have an alley of all shrunken heads in there – and they’re authentic. There’s five known Caucasian shrunken heads in the world – Ripley’s owns I think three or four of them – and we got one. So, that’s great – that’s something a franchise my size wouldn’t normally get.

Wow, so do you guys have to buy this stuff or is it all on loan?

Kevin: It’s just on loan. It’s all owned by Ripley’s Entertainment, and we rotate them and stuff like that. But, if it’s a key, key piece – I mean, Ripley Corporation will usually let us hang onto it as long as it benefits us.

What’s your favorite exhibit that you showcase now?

Kevin: Well, it changes as you get new things, but obviously that Caucasian shrunken head I think to me, the coolest thing – the rarest thing that fascinates me. That probably is my favorite. But by far and always it will be the hobbies and personalities of  men. And what they do – they do weird stuff! And by men I mean women as well. Just things that they will try or do – it just fascinates me.

Jim: Yeah, we have Peter Kurten’s head too!

I was gonna ask you about having that head – what’s the story on that?

Kevin: We don’t have time! (laughs) – Peter Kurten – he’s what really inspired vampirism to come out – and it’s a long, long story, but it’s an actual disease . . .

When I found out I was going to be seeing it, I started reading a little bit about him. He sounded like a pretty sick individual!

Kevin: Extremely sick, extremely sick individual – and the way he grew up he didn’t have a chance. He was going to be sick from the beginning. Had a terrible childhood life. But, his crimes were so horrific, and the way he would kill’em and bleed’em – that they decided they needed to study his brain because they were so bizarre and horrific. They were positive that he had to have some sort of abnormality of his brain. So, that’s why we have his actual head - because it was split open and studied.

It’s a mummified head then?

Kevin: It is. Yeah, the hair is still on it, the eyebrows, everything.

So does that creep you out at all?

Kevin: Not really. It creeped my wife out a little bit when we – we did a ton of research into it once we decided we were going to do the Vampire Gallery. We did a ton of research once we knew he was going to be our key piece in there, and the thing that freaked her out the most was that the last thing he said before he died – just before the guillotine came down to take his head off - he asked the executioner if he would feel the severing of his head and the blood running down his body - because that would be the pleasures of all pleasures. That was the last thing he said. Another thing he said, when he was an older teen, nineteen or eighteen years old…he went through – it was either a wax museum or torture type museum – he went through a museum where it was all these torture victims and stuff, and they showed all the different torture devices and how they were done – and he loved it. He said, I’m going to be here someday - I am going to be in this someday – and he is!

So as my wife and I are trying to build this whole thing around him we’re like, should we really do this? This is kinda freaky! (laughs) So he’s immortalized and the freaky of freakies. (laughs)

Jim: Glad he doesn’t get dizzy, because he spins all day long! (the mummified head is displayed on a rotating hook)

Do any of your employees or you guys ever have any haunting here? From having shrunken heads and all this creepy stuff . . .

Jim: The staff has been saying since this new section has come in, that they have been hearing more things, but personally I’ve only experienced it one time. It was about 3:30 in the morning, and back in the temple the ceiling above it had fell down, so we were feverishly trying to put it back together. My wife and I were back there, and all the sudden it sounded just like a plate glass window crashed up in the front. So, I grabbed the Dewalt drill - I guess for protection reasons - and a flashlight, and headed out to the gift shop. And there was NOTHING anywhere! But there was just this crash, it was just like if a front window went out in the place, but I found absolutely nothing . . .

Surprisingly, Wizard Quest makes more weird noises – and it’s a brand new building built in 2004. There’s more quirks and clunks and doors clunking and things like that. It’s just weird because like I say, it’s a new building, so I don’t know if it’s something out of the foundation with the old wharf building that was there, or if it goes back to the river men, but yeah it has weird noises. Whereas with Ripley’s, where you would think, because we even have like that warlocks chest is up there . . .

Kevin: Yeah, we got a lot of strange stuff up there . . .

Jim: Otherwise there really hasn’t been too much, except lately. Like I said this year the staff is saying they’re hearing different clunks and strange noises. But in either building, if I shut off the lights I’ll yell out – goodnight everyone – it’s just one of those things that you do. When the wife first did that when I started at Wizard Quest I was like - OK, that’s different – but after a while you do kinda feel like – whether you believe it or not – that there is no use irritating the spirits. Tell them - goodnight everybody! (laughs)

So Kevin, you haven’t been creeped out or anything . . .

Kevin: It takes a lot to creep me out – it takes a heck of a lot to creep me out. So for me, I’ve heard stuff, but nothing has raised the hairs of my neck.

Any interesting stories about any particular artifacts you have or have had?

Jim: The fertility statues were interesting. A couple years ago we had the fertility statues come around - which they actually run them around the world at the different museums. For which women, they come from everywhere! We had a gal that missed the showing in New York City. She flew out here with her mom from New Jersey. They came here strictly to touch the statues. She couldn’t become pregnant, and was about to go through all the in vitro fertilization stuff, and they didn’t even have enough time to do anything else. I suggested to them that they should take the boat tours and stuff, and they said: “Oh, we got to get back to Madison to catch a flight in a couple hours – maybe we’ll have a chance to come back.” But, they actually came out for that, and she actually DID become pregnant! But, I’ve also had underwear mailed to me from Missouri, Florida . . .

Kevin: We’ve had hands faxed to us, you know, put on a copier machine then faxed to us of their hands. Rub them on the statue, and then fax them back – along with personal underwear and stuff . . .

Jim: Yeah, that made you feel really uncomfortable taking people’s underwear, rubbing them around on a statue and putting them back in a Ziploc bag, then sending them back to people. It was quite an interesting thing!

Do you have a wish list, if you could have anything, to put in the museum as an artifact or exhibit?

Kevin: The coolest thing I’ve ever seen is what was in the warehouse that’s in San Antonio, Texas right now. At their Ripley’s, there is a full adult elephant - with two trunks. Coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Again, that is a personal choice, but I just loved it. I just thought it was so cool.

Well, I know you guys have to get going, so to wrap things up I was going to ask about your future plans - but I know you have to be secretive . . .

Kevin: There is always future stuff. We always, like I said, if the timing and everything is right – I have lots of ideas – and you know, your timing is right because I was just extremely tempted yesterday at my meeting for another thing that was just on the backburner - and it just got moved to the front burner!

That will give me something to look forward to for sure. So do you have any end goal?

Kevin: The end goal is that we just want to be successful. Continue to build, and as long as people are happy and enjoy what we are doing, we will continue doing it. I’ll retire someday and pass it onto my children. And Jim will retire someday, but along the way we are just going to try to enjoy ourselves and as opportunities come up, and if it looks good and we have the money, we’ll build more – we’ll do more stuff . . .

Jim: Between Ripley’s and Wizard Quest, it’s a continuous work of art. That’s what it is, and that is what will make it really rough to actually replicate exactly what we have here, because it’s kind of like how Alex Gordon started with the House on the Rock. He just kept adding to it, and adding to it, and adding to it, and that’s the way we do things here every winter. We just keep adding to it – adding on there – and it just keeps getting neater on the inside.

Sound like a fun place to work – let’s you be creative all the time.

Jim: When you get into something like this . . .

It’s not really work . . .

Jim: Yeah, it’s the old cliché - that if you enjoy your job, you never work a day in your life – it’s more of a hobby.

Kevin: Yeah, we definitely work outside of the box here – we’re not box dwellers – not at all.

Thank you Kevin and Jim for taking the time share your experiences! For more information, please visit their website: