Alive! photos by Summy Lam and John Burnes
The City took over Castle Park in 1993 and through ongoing renovations turned it into a full-service affordable fun center for the whole family. Plan your visit!
Did you know the City manages its own mini-golf, batting-cage and video arcade fun center in the Valley, and that it’s designed to be substantially less expensive than commercial facilities? And, in most cases, more lushly landscaped and developed?
We do. Many people don’t know about it. But it’s perfect for families looking for affordable fun, and for groups looking for an affordable party location. And that makes it perfect for Alive!’s annual Summer in the City.
Castle Park in Sherman Oaks was originally the Malibu Grand Prix (Malibu Castle) and operated under a City license. But, according to press from the era, by 1993 it was failing, and its degraded atmosphere was scaring off the family market.
So the City took over the lease, made it family friendly, and developed it into one of the Valley’s most popular family fun centers.
In fact, Castle Park attracts more than 250,000 golfers to its three 18-hole mini-courses per year. That number was limited by last winter’s rains, so it’s likely to grow this year.
Castle Park has 28 City employees assigned to it, including one Sr. Park Services Attendant, two Park Service Attendant IIs, one Sr. Gardener Caretaker, five Assistant Park Services Attendant IIs (part time); 11 Assistant Park Services Attendant Is (part time), and nine Special Program Assistant IIs (part time).
Read all about the popular Castle Park fun center in this month’s interview and photos.
Far Above Par
On June 5, Club CEO John Hawkins and Alive! editor John Burnes interviewed Andrew Baird, Sr. Parks Services Attendant, Club Member, at Sherman Oaks Castle Park. He’s the facility director.
Andrew, thanks for giving us a tour of this really fun place. It was a blast to walk along the three courses, see the fun structures, and get in the batting cages.
Andrew Baird: Sure!
Tell us about your City career
and how you got to this position.
My path with the City started aquatics, where I started out learning to swim at the pools, as a young person growing up.
Which ones did you go to?
Primarily Verdugo Hills Pool as a patron; I learned to swim there. I was part of all their teams, the Learn to Swim Program, Junior Lifeguard and the Swim Team, and that led into City employment because that’s where in aquatics finds its employees – from the people who are members of the community swimming. I became a locker attendant. That’s how they find lifeguards, by training these kids to swim, and they end up becoming part of that.
I followed that path. I became a lifeguard a few years later, and from there I became a pool manager. I learned how to teach CPR and first-aid classes, all that kind of stuff. I did all that for Rec and Parks for about 10 years, and from there I became a full-time Administrative Clerk with Personnel in the Worker’s Compensation division. I did that for a couple years, and then this position opened up. I interviewed for it with all of my experience in aquatics running swimming pools, and I was able to acquire this position and bring my skills, knowledge and passion here and for trying to grow and develop things.
You were a City parks kid from the get-go.
I definitely am.
Do you still swim?
I’m going to get back into it. I was actually talking about that this morning with somebody. I took a little bit of time away, which I think was good, and now I want to be back in the water. I just needed a little time away to remember how much I appreciated it.
Give us a broad overview of Sherman Oaks Castle Park. What is Castle Park all about?
Castle Park is a very unique Rec and Parks-operated facility. It’s a family fun center. Our mission is to provide to the community that we serve – the City of L.A. and residents of Southern California – a family entertainment option at an affordable value. We stay cheaper than all of our competitors. We stay accessible to everybody. We’re not for the rich; we’re for the community. We’re $6.50 right now for a round of golf. Our competitors are $12, $13 or $14. We’ve tried to keep it that way.
It’s intentionally done that way to make it affordable to everybody?
Yes. We may end up adjusting the rates a little bit just because we’re putting a lot of money into the courses and trying to make them better, but we’re not going to go anything extravagant. Everything is self-sustainable here. Nothing runs off of taxpayer funding. Everything comes from the fees.
So you either put that back into your infrastructure or you give it back to the general fund?
We give a about half of our money to the general fund, and the other half goes into our account to operate the facility – pay for labor, pay for upgrades, anything like that. Anything that’s left, we save, because some of the upgrades are very expensive, so you need to build up for them.
This is a public/private partnership – the batting cages and arcade are vendor-operated. That’s something like Train Town in Griffith Park, or the Greek Theatre, or Olvera Street. How does this work as a business?
We have a few different layers here. We’re actually sitting on Army Corps of Engineers property land. The City has as a long-term lease from the Army, and the City operates the facility here. Within that, we have three concessionaire contractors that run the batting cages, the arcade, and the café. They all have contracts with the City. They pay the City rent to be here. And as part of what we do as City employees, we oversee that they’re following the contracts. We all end up having to work together because even though they’re not City employees in the arcade or the batting cages, they’re still Castle Park employees, just like our employees are with the City. We all have to work together because we want it to feel as much as possible like one business to our customers. We meet with the concessionaires every quarter just to make sure we’re working toward a shared vision of what the park is going to be.
There’s really nothing else in terms of a family fun center like this in the City, is there?
Nothing that the City of LA operates. The closest thing would be up in Santa Clarita – there’s Mountasia, but nothing like this. This is one of a kind. You won’t find another Sherman Oaks Castle Park anywhere, and our customers acknowledge it. They come in and they love that we are what we are.
And even within the City – you mentioned 100 parks, but only one Castle Park.
Talk about the history.
My understanding is that the City still had the lease of the land from the Army, but the City allowed at one point a private company to come in and develop the facility that you see today, Sherman Oaks Castle Park. Originally it was called Malibu Castle. They operated this from the 1970s when they built it, and they built different locations around Southern California at one point. They operated it from the ’70s until the early ’90s where the company started scaling back what they were doing. The City came in and became the operator of the park. The City took over the operations. Three of the private concessionaires were kept. We took over operation of the mini-golf and of the overall grounds.
Is the number of visitors growing?
It’s growing. For the last two or three weeks, for example, we beat our numbers for last year each day, so we know what we’re doing is working. We are seeing growth. Things like rain can affect us.
Sure. And it’s been very rainy this past winter.
We had a very quiet winter in a lot of ways because we had a lot of rainouts, and this mini-golf course is outdoors and can’t operate in the rain. But now that it’s finally dried up, we’ve added a lot of different improvements and put a lot of money back into this park. It’s sunny. It’s clear. Southern California weather has returned. We’re seeing people come. We believed it would happen, and it’s happening.
What’s the most popular part? Of the three basic elements – mini-golf, the arcade and the batting cages – which draws the most people?
Golf brings people in.
It’s the biggest attraction. A few people may want a specific arcade game or something like that, but for the bulk of our clientele, golf is the attraction. They come for the golf; $6.50 right now gets you 45 minutes of just pure fun. And then after that, they usually will stay and they’ll grab a slice of pizza or they’ll play in the arcade for five minutes, but golf is what brings them here. The concessionaires acknowledge that. There are other arcades around the City. There are other cafés. You can get a slice of pizza anywhere else, but where are you going to find three mini-golf courses all next to each other, all 18 holes, all full-size mini-golf for the prices that we offer and the care that we put into the facility? People acknowledge that that’s the gem of the park. Castle Park is a very special part of Rec and Parks that should be cherished.
Give me a few of what you consider the highlights. We stopped at some of them on our tour, but the attractions, the decorations …
The props, we call them.
Right, that people really like.
One is the candy house, which a lot of people refer to as the gingerbread house. It’s very popular. People take photos in front of it. It’s just a lot of fun.
Another area that’s growing in popularity is by our windmill. That whole area is currently being converted into a Central California Coast look. The plants are being changed. We have a new little cottage that we built there. That’s going to the theme of that area, to go with our overall vision that we have for the park – to have little microworlds within the park itself. We’re going to have our California Central Coast park.
We have another prop that’s our El Dorado Sheriff’s House. That’s going to become our Southwest Desert area. We have our haunted house that we’re working on getting plant life around it that feels haunted house-y, so it now has music. We’re just building the atmosphere, having it be a little microworld. We want Castle Park to be an escape, but having the golf course represent an escape within the escape with little microworlds.
I knew about your features before I came. But what was surprising to me once I got here was the greenery and the landscaping. It’s not an afterthought. You’re actually taking care to grow the pines into the palm trees. It’s really beautiful here.
I don’t want anything to happen here that’s not thought out. Every single thing that we do, from the grass to the other plants to the trees to the props – everything I want is part of a greater plan for the facility. I want a vision, to know where we’re going and why we’re doing it.
We’re sitting in one of the banquet areas outside the boat house, and it’s beautiful to look out on all the landscaping.
It is. I remember when I first was promoted to here a little over a year ago, I was sitting out here doing an interview for some new prospective employees. Coming from my cubicle environment downtown to this, I stopped, and I looked around. I took a breath. What a great place we have for the City, for the community, for the residents of the greater L.A. area. I’m lucky to be a part of it and to be able to lead the staff here into building something that the community can embrace and love as their own.
Why is it important for Rec and Parks to have a facility like this that’s affordable for people to come in and be together as a family, or as a date, or whatever?
It’s important because, when you go into the private sector, the price can go up a lot. They are not necessarily about making their fun affordabile for families; it becomes more about profit. Rec and Parks is not about making profit. We’re about keeping things affordable and accessible to the community. That mission created a family fun center that follows that model and mission, that you don’t see anywhere else. Other companies price themselves out of affordability for the average family, but we’ve kept that mission. Our goal is to always maintain accessibility to everyone. It’s rare to have that model in the business we’re part of.
Has any of your competition tried to come in here and buy you out?
No. I think they know that it’s the City and the City won’t do that. But we had another city, Pasadena, come through recently, and they like what we do. They wanted to come and check us out and consider whether they wanted to develop something like this over there.
To give back to the people.
Right. That’s the closest thing we’ve had to somebody saying like, “We like what you do. How can we borrow from that?”
But I do get calls from people who see an opportunity for their business here, and they’ll often call and say, “I would love to add this to your park.”
What do you tell them?
I have to explain to them that, with the City, there’s a process. We can’t just do business with anybody. You need to get a contract to be a vendor and so forth. I always explain to them how, if they’re interested, they can become part of that process, and any company is welcome to apply. But I also explain that we have vendors for pretty much everything already established. But they can try to be a vendor if they want.
You mentioned to me that you’ve been working on improvements. What have you been working on?
All across the park, and not just by the City but also by the concessionaires, too. Here’s a rundown: We rebuilt the windmill. We put new carpets down on all three of the courses. One of them actually was done not with a carpet, but for the first time ever we’ve done a turf, which we’re really excited about. The old carpets acted like sponges, and so when it rained they just kind of held that water in for a couple days at a time, and unfortunately we don’t get to open as fast as we would like to serve this community. Based on a couple early rains that we saw in the last month or so, this new turf dries fast.
We’re dry within hours. As soon as the pavement’s dry, the turf is dry. We’re ready to go.”
Also, we’re doing different plant projects around the park. We have a new golf ball machine for the golf balls that’s pretty fun that a lot of people like with the tokens. We installed a new sound system. The haunted house has sound now, so at nighttime it plays a spooky tune, which is a lot of fun. We’re really trying to bring the course to life.
Dates and Parties
This has to be a gorgeous park at night.
It is. It’s almost a completely different look at night. That’s when date night happens. A lot of couples come here on Friday and Saturday nights.
I assume in the morning you see a lot of school kids and friends being supervised. But Castle Park is a big date night, too, on weekends?
It is. Depending on the time of day you come, the demographic is very different. Like, right now, we’re sitting here around noon, and as I’m looking around I can see a lot of school-aged kids and different camps. That’s our daytime business. But come nighttime – seven, eight, nine o’clock at night, and even later than that – date night comes on the weekends, and sometimes during the week. Early in the morning, seniors come in. A couple days ago a group did a golf tournament for seniors here. That was a lot of fun. We had more than 100 seniors.
When you say date night, you’re talking not just people who are teenagers, but it’s college students, even people in their 30s and 40s?
Sure. We get all ages.
We are in one of your private party areas. You must do a robust business in private parties.
It’s big. Right now, we’re sitting in the boathouse, which is one of our three party areas. The other two are the gazebo and the pavilion. The boathouse and the gazebo each seat about 30, the pavilion about 70. During the weekends we host on average a good eight parties a day. And it’s building. Our summer parties are pretty booked up already.
We were talking about affordability. Our rates are much more affordable than the party packages that private companies offer for a family to come in for a party. The public takes advantage of it.
Would people do weddings here?
It’s funny you mention that. A few months ago, a couple came through here, and they were very interested in doing a wedding here. We have done weddings in the past. One of the caveats is that we don’t serve alcohol. If that’s really important to them, it can be a deal breaker.
Do you close the park for special parties?
No, not during regular hours. Groups can rent out parts of the park. They can rent out some of the party areas. They can rent out the courses. Two courses at a time would be the max. But we always have to keep at least one course open, preferably two if it’s busy, so that way we’re still serving just any guest who comes to us.
What’s your favorite part of the park?
I love the courses. They’re beautiful. They’re lively. You can just see the joy and the fun that the kids are having as they walk around. To experience that every day and try to make it better through make improvements, and see the improvements happen, and then see the appreciation of it that our customers have – it’s special. They notice the work we put in. They can tell that we care about the facility as a City, that we’re improving it for them. We’re reinvesting into it for them, and they’re pleased. To me, that is probably the most rewarding part of it, is just seeing that in their faces.
What’s your favorite prop or hole?
Right now I appreciate the windmill. It’s a lot of fun. When we started looking at how to redesign and bring new life to parts of the park, that was one of the first ones we targeted, and so as the first one it has a special place for me.
What are in the plans to develop this further?
We’re going to continue to develop the courses, and add more interactive things. Our partner with the arcade, they’re going to be putting in an attraction for basketball. That will be up front next to the batting cages.
Yes. That’s going to be a nice addition to the park. We’re hoping for this summer.
We all work together – something that the arcade does benefits the City golf; something the City does benefits the arcade. We’re separate, but it’s a partnership, and we build it together. Everything rises together here.
You mentioned interactive. What would an interactive mini-golf hole look like or do?
Just ones like the windmill right now. Ideally going forward we’d like to have it where it starts to rotate again. We’d like to have, on some of the 18th holes where if you get in a hole-in-one or something, that maybe it talks to you or it has some kind of reward that it’ll give out or something like that. We’re looking to add something to bring the courses more to life, have them feel like they’re always changing and improving. Every time someone comes here, we want the park to feel a little different.
But it’s important to create a balance between preserving the old and embracing the new, and walking the line between the two. We’re fresh, but at the same time we remember who we are. We’re Castle Park. Our competitors don’t have a castle. We’re unique in that way. We want to preserve that uniqueness.
What do you love about your job?
I love being able to come into work every day and know that the work we put in can have an impact. Castle Park is not my Castle Park; it’s the City’s Castle Park. It’s all the employees and the concessionaires here. We’re all in this together.
I love working on new projects because I know a month or two later I’m going to see the result of that project completed, and that’s just very fulfilling.
Talk about your crew.
I have an excellent crew here. There are three full-time employees here, and a Sr. Gardener. And we have half-time and part-time employees. I’m not the one out here hosting parties. I’m not the one cutting the grass. The work that makes Castle operate, is being done by them. We try to be their best advocates.
All to keep this unique place in the City running well.
Yes. We’re a one-of-a-kind facility in the City. We’re something very special that I’m lucky to be a part of. The City is lucky to have this, the community’s lucky to have this, and we’re working every day to improve it for everyone.
It’s a wonderful place. So come check us out. Or come back, if you’ve been here before.
Andrew, thank you for the tour and for taking the time talking to us.
Thank you very much.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Club Director of Marketing Summy Lam (foreground) captures Andrew Baird, Sr. Parks Services Attendant, Club Member in front of Castle Park.