Interview with downtown Dells attraction owner Wally Nekyha & employee Don Zamzow

The Wisconsin Dells is home to many family attractions, and five that are located downtown  – The Haunted Mansion, Torture Museum, Shootin’ Gallery, Krazy Mirror Maze, and Wally World Arcade, are all owned by Wally Nekyha and his wife Terry.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Wally, as well as one of his long time employees Don Zamzow, to learn a little about each of the fun attractions.

CHRISTOPHER DEARMAN: I heard you own multiple attractions in the Dells Wally. Which ones are yours?

WALLY NEKYHA: I own five places – Torture Museum, Haunted Mansion, Wally World Arcade, Krazy Mirror Maze, and the Shootin’ Gallery.

That’s quite a handful. What’s your favorite?

The one that makes the most money! (laughs)

Good answer. Which would that be?

They’re all pretty close.

So are you originally from the Dells?

I’ve been up here for fifteen years. Fifteen years ago I bought this place from Tom Diehl (owner of the Tommy Bartlett Watershow). That was the last year that Tommy Bartlett was alive. I was introduced to Tom Diehl through a mutual business associate. We discussed the deal, and twenty minutes later Tom Diehl threw the keys at me and said – here it’s yours. I own the whole corner, with the exception of the ticket booth. The ticket booth is still Toms.

Where are you from originally?

I’m originally from Chicago, but I’ve been up here for fifteen years now. So, I’m the closest thing you can become to becoming an honorary Cheesehead. (laughs)

What did you do before owning attractions in the Dells?

We have a party rental company back home that rents out rides, concessions, stuff like that. Which fits in nicely with this, because all the stuff you see here at the arcade, we can always bring back to Chicago for a party rental or a movie rental. Many times we get the call for movies – we need a pool table or we need a dart game or we need a pair of drivers – something like that. For instance, when Neil Diamond comes to town. Neil Diamond loves to play ping pong. So, they’ll want to rent two ping pong tables to bring backstage at the stadium. Now they can probably go out and buy them for what we charge to rent them, but basically what they’re looking for is service and knowing that they’ll be there.

How long have you been doing that for?

I’ve done this back home for forty years. So, we have a good connection for all the promoters and concierge using the hotels and all that.

What was here when you bought the property fifteen years ago?

This was Tommy Bartlett’s Gyrotron, and there main push was the gyros (an aeronautic ride experience that has rings that move independently inside one another) in back. They had a few games and all that, but Tom decided to sell it, so we bought it.

What came next?

Well, we bought this, got it going, and then we got to know Ben Borcher. Ben Borcher wanted to sell the Haunted Mansion for his father, because his father had originally owned the Haunted Mansion. So, we bought the Haunted Mansion from Ben Borcher.

That’s been around forever. Did you have to do anything to it when you bought it?

When we bought it from Ben Borcher, it needed refurbishing, and it needed updating. Every year we have put something new in there. I’ve probably spent about sixty thousand dollars into it.

What’s some of the stuff you’ve added?

We added a vortex tunnel. We added a multi-image media show that loops Michael Jackson’s Thriller. We’ve added the ghost of Elvis. We added a little laser light show.

Does anything jump out at you?

Nobody touches you. People go into a haunted attraction and that’s the first thing they are paranoid about. They‘ll ask – will anything touch me? Are there any clowns in there? To be afraid of clowns is a pretty fashionable thing these days. Fifteen years ago – everybody loved clowns! Now, every other person is afraid of them. We tell people: “Nothing will touch you. They’re all dead!"

I have a college buddy who is absolutely terrified by them! So, what came after the Haunted Mansion?

The Torture Museum. There was a guy in there. Great creative guy. Made all the torture items in there, but didn’t really know how to promote. But I was like – hey, this has got possibilities. So I bought that.

How many years ago was this?

The Haunted Mansion was five or six years ago. Torture Museum I’ve probably had for four years. Then after that I got the Krazy Mirror Maze going.

If I remember correctly, wasn’t that a gift shop before?

It was a gift shop. We had a few tenants in there, but there was turnover, and we got stuck without a tenant.

The Krazy Mirror Maze was the first of your attractions that you developed yourself. Where did you get the idea for it?

I got the idea for this from an old Charlie Chaplin movie called Mirror Maze. That was the inspiration for it.

I bet you get kids in there that are running around and smack themselves mirrors all the time.

They’ll go bang! Right into the mirrors. I buy ice packs by the dozen! (laughs) We give them to the kids when they do.

Did you build the Mirror Maze yourself?

We had somebody do it, but this concept is as old as the hills. Ripley’s has mirror mazes in many cities. I figured I had a chance to get in here and get established before Ripley’s came in.

How many mirrors do you have in here total?

Probably about two hundred.

How big is the building?

It’s only probably 1200 square feet. It’s very small.

It looks a lot bigger with all these mirrors in here, that’s for sure. How has the reception been to you bringing a mirror maze to the Dells, has it gotten a good reaction from people?

You know, when you have an attraction. Something like this. When you take somebody’s seven dollars and ninety-nine cents – you want to make sure they get their money's worth. You will not be successful if they walk out saying – oh that’s a rip-off. When I’m in the attraction, and my wife’s in the attraction, we listen for feedback. Ninety-nine percent of the people are happy. More than happy.

What’s your favorite aspect of owning an attraction?

My favorite aspect is the joy of owning a well-oiled machine. You got everything clicking, it’s Saturday in the Dells, people are here, and you collect the money! (laughs). I think that’s the biggest payoff for a business – the joy of a well-oiled machine.

Not too much stress?

There’s always stress. There’s always pressure. The hardest thing, like for the people that fail in the Dells, is that they’ll start their business, they’ll throw the doors open, and they’ll expect people to just throw money at them. It’s not that easy.

What’s the hardest thing about owning an attraction?

The hardest thing in the Dells is doing the hours. You got to do the hours. Twelve, fourteen hours a day. You got to do the hours. That said, very few people when they go to work in the morning, enjoy what they do. I love what I do. It’s a hobby, it’s a business, it’s a business, it’s a hobby. Half the fun though is just building them.

How do you go about looking for your next idea?

We go to the big trade show in Orlando (the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Expo). Everybody goes there looking for the spark. It’s funny at the trade show you’ll see Tom Diehl and his crew going this way, and then Laskaris and his group will be going this way, and then Wally will be going that way. Everybody’s looking. Everybody’s searching for the next big thing. It’s the biggest amusement trade show in the world. We go there every year and spend a week there. Spend three or four days on the tradeshow floor, then go to Disney, see what everyone else is doing. I get ideas that way.

Do you do a lot of promotion of your attractions?

My promotion is my location, because our attractions are not destination oriented. You’re just rambling down the street, see it, and say – hey look at that! No advertising at all. And with no advertising, you can reflect that in your price. All my attractions are like three or four dollars cheaper than other people. Then Ripley’s, then the upside down house, stuff like that.

So you are out to grab the attention of people that are just out shopping on the strip?

Yeah, attractions are a great thing because at home people can go buy your hats and your t-shirts in a mall, but you can’t buy an attraction at a mall.

Speaking of malls, they sometimes have arcades, but you don’t usually find them with some of the classic stuff you have at Wally World.

This is a real arcade – we got something in here for twenty five cents, we got something for a dollar. I feel real arcades should have a gumball machine, should have a fortune teller, should have a punching machine, you get what I’m saying? Something for everyone. You don’t have to have the hottest, latest, greatest, but you have to have something for everyone.

What’s some of the more memorable or funny things that has happened here?

So many things. We caught a little kid once. He put a piece of scotch tape on a dollar bill, and thought he was going to stick it in the changer. Stick it in and pull it out and keep getting quarters. So instead, the machine sucked up the dollar. His mother came up to me with him and said –  my son lost a dollar bill. Whenever you have something like that happen, you go open up the machine, because it’s usually a “water park dollar” – one that’s soaking wet. So, I open up the machine and I find a dollar bill with a nice piece of scotch tape on it. I said to the boy, tell you mother what you did, but his mother was gone! (laughs) So, the mother had to be in on it.

We also have a giant gumball machine. On the machine it says: “Winner gumball wins ten dollars” – people are like, what’s a winner gumball? A winner gumball is a gumball that says winner! (laughs)

Well Wally, I know you’re busy so I’ll let you get back to work. Thanks for showing me around and letting me visit your attractions. I look forward to seeing what you come up with next.


How long have you been working at the Haunted Mansion Don?

DON ZAMZOW: Oh, with this and the other owner, probably close to ten years. I retired from the telephone company about seventeen years ago where I worked for almost forty years. So, this is just a little summer job.

What’s your favorite part about working here?

Just getting to sit here and talk to a big variety of people every day. For me it’s a fun type thing, because you get to talk to different people all day long. When you’re used to dealing with people all your life it’s hard to get away from that, but I guess it just gives me something to do. Like all the old people that have summer jobs now, you got to have something to do – you just can’t sit around and die! (laughs)

Do you find often that kids won’t go in due to being scared?

With kids, I usually tell the parents, just take them down the first hallway and see if they can handle it, because otherwise there are no refunds. But you wouldn't believe, there are often many little kids that will just go and march right in. That said, if the parents try to drag them in, they’ll dig right in and just start screaming. I've seen and old man drag them in screaming, and they were screaming all the way out. There’s really no sense in doing that though because they’re going to be looking the closet every night to see what the hell is in there. You know how that goes.

What about older kids or adults, are they ever too scared to go in?

I had a boy in here yesterday, he had to be in his twenties. His dad left and he just stood there. I said what are you waiting for, you can go in. And he said – well I’m scared. Give me a break! (laughs) But some people will ask if there are any strobe lights, because some people get seizures from them, so they can’t go in. Another thing is that some people don’t like clowns – they just won’t go in. They’re terrified!

Well Don, I’m going to go in and see if I can handle it myself. Thanks for taking the time to answer some of my questions.