Is the Ark Encounter economically viable?


From a few of the comments on my post about my visit to Ken Ham’s Ark Park, people seem to think I’m arguing for the long-term success of the fake boat. Short answer: I don’t know. But here’s what I do know.

It’s got a fair number of attendees. This is from a one-day sample, so I can’t possibly make any extrapolations, but what I saw were a lot of Christian family groups who looked like they were there on vacation, several buses full of evangelical church kids in matching t-shirts, and a scattering of older couples who were there like pilgrims visiting a shrine. It’s far more popular than other creationist museums I’ve visited, which are typically anemic and a bit shabby. Answers in Genesis has the flashy PR angle down cold, and is getting people to travel to the Ark Park as a tourist destination. That’s a plus for them.

Attendance really is comparable to what I see at real science museums, like the Franklin Institute or the Science Museum of Minnesota or OMSI. That’s remarkable considering they’re almost an hour away from Cincinnati and it’s a drive with virtually no other attractions. Location matters, and they’ve plunked this thing down in a crap location; if you relocated the San Francisco Exploratorium to this nowhere place in Kentucky, it would wither and die. The Ark Park is doing OK, because they can rely on religious fervor to motivate visitors.

However, that parking lot has got to be immensely embarrassing, because it is so dang immense and relatively empty. They clearly anticipated crowds that are an order of magnitude larger than what they’re getting. Maybe they’re anticipating a lot of growth? I don’t think they’ll get it.

Here’s why: there’s nothing there. When I compare it to real museums, it’s solely on the basis of attendance, because the content is pathetic — the Creation “Museum” has equivalent or more content, and the Ark Park just spreads the same stuff out over more square footage. There’s a lot of “tell, don’t show”: big pictures on the wall that explain verbosely what their interpretation of the Bible is, accompanied by…nothing. It’s bad pedagogy that only affirms what true believers already believe. If you’re not a believer already, it’s painfully dreary and dull; Ol’ Ken won’t be winning any souls for Jesus, but he will be reassuring those already on his side that science and American culture are agin’ ’em, and so they better join together.

What about the satisfaction of those attendees? They liked it! I doubt that many came out of it as I did feeling like they were ripped off. A few anecdotes: I was listening to what other people were saying (I was there solely as an observer, so I did not start any arguments, tempted though I was). I’m walking down the long, long, long ramp that winds through the center of the building, and there was an elderly couple walking along. “This is magnificent!”, he said to his wife, and she agreed. Yet all there was to see was this gigantic wooden ramp that was like a blown-up cattle chute, with us as the cattle. They’d clearly gotten the message that was hammered at us constantly about how big the Ark was, so that bigness became sufficient.

On the third deck, a woman bustled by, clearly anxious to just leave, and her teenaged son was trailing behind. “Mommm! Slow down! I’m trying to learn something here!” I spun around in place, looking at what there was to see. The ramp. A bright colorful poster of something or other on the wall. A small room space with a diorama in it. It was as close to an intellectual dead zone as I’ve seen. I don’t know whether the kid was simply using a buzz word — “learn” — to manipulate his mother, or whether he was sincere in wanting to think about the content. This was the point where I was most tempted to intervene and take the person aside who professed to want to learn and explain to him what he really needed to know about this place.

That was depressing, to see someone who at least claimed to want to learn who’d sought out this terrible place that was only teaching ignorance.

It also highlighted something else about the place: where were the docents? Most museums have volunteers who will help explain anything on display, or have experts who will do demonstrations. I saw nothing of the kind here. There were a couple of places where there were bottlenecks, with guides who were there to shepherd groups along; there were a few guards armed with tasers and police dogs. Otherwise, everything was designed to stand alone, which might explain why there so many walls of text splattered about. It’s all so ideologically focused in a narrow way, so it might also be difficult to get volunteer guides who don’t say something heretical now and then.

I expect the attendees stroll out of there to register high satisfaction ratings, in the majority. That’s a problem for AiG. You know that giant parking lot that maybe they hope to expand into? They’ve already captured the audience that is made giddily happy by trudging for 45 minutes through a maze of wooden boxes with amplified pig noises squealing at them. You don’t need substance to appeal to them at all. You could just bus them out to a completely empty giant wooden box, and if you told them it was Jesus-approved, they’d nod and check off the biggest number in the Likert scale of the satisfaction survey. This isn’t just a phenomenon at religious sites, of course.

It is a problem for growth though. Adding more exhibits or longer ziplines or carnival rides will increase their expenses, but won’t draw in more people beyond their already pre-satisfied crowd of Jesusites. The baseline has been successfully acquired. What do they do to make it grow? I have no idea. I don’t think they do, either.

Another concern for AiG. I, too, own a big wooden box called a house. It’s nowhere near the size of Ken Ham’s big wooden box, but maintenance is a non-trivial expense — we’re especially aware of that this summer, because we’ve hired a contractor to redo all the big wooden siding and replace the rotting-out boards in the big wooden deck. My pocketbook is already aching, so I’m a little bit sensitive to this sort of thing. I looked at the already seriously weathered shell of the Ark, and I wondered what happens when all those boards expand and warp in the cold and the heat, and what their maintenance costs will be. I’m also confident that those costs will grow over the years, and that AiG, given their desperate desire for raw overwhelming BIGNESS, have probably cut corners in quality somewhere (which is evident in the paltry content). Just the fact that they proudly proclaim that they have built the largest wooden structure in the world should tell you that they’re at the extreme end of what you can do with this kind of construction.

So I repeat: I don’t know if the Ark Park is economically viable. It might be cruising along just fine right now — that’s entirely possible, given reasonable attendance — and they might even get significant repeat business, because their fans are definitely devoted. But I know nothing about their expenses, it’s not exactly poised for real growth, and it’s got nothing in the interior that ought to make science museums concerned about competition. It’s a shrine to stupidity, which has a built-in strong audience in America. And which makes Ken Ham rich.

Comments

  1. cartomancer says

    I’m trying to think what could be done with it once it finally does go under. The two suggestions I have so far are zombie pirate adventure centre and a ship burial for a very important Anglo-Saxon king.

  2. tccc says

    Just a comment adding more activities like zip lines, arcades, movie theaters, etc.

    Those are generally not done to increase attendance at something like this. The main attraction is what drives attendance.

    These things are added to extract more money from those who do attend. It is a pretty simple RoI:

    if (known attendance figures x number of people who will do the added activity (think 50%+)) x activity retail price > Cost to add activity = do it

    Most of these added activities are essentially “off-the-shelf” installations by companies that specialize in adding them to existing attractions and they can provide realistic numbers of the % that will do the added activity so calculating the RoI is trivial.

    So they are a pretty proven way to increase revenues, even if they have zero impact on total attendance numbers.

  3. Jason Nishiyama says

    I suspect in 10 years time we may be seeing it as part of some abandonporn website…

  4. wcorvi says

    My house is mostly wood. I too am facing huge expense and work this summer to clean the wood and refinish it.

    I go with #2 Lofty’s BurningPerson venue.

  5. says

    #3: Yes. In which case, what is the point of that vast parking lot? It says they overestimated attendance.

    They also already extract a good chunk of money from attendees. I got the senior discount and it was still $43.50 to walk through a wooden box. If they add more rides that they charge for, it’s going to strain their clientele excessively: young families and retired people, none of them looking particularly upscale.

  6. Arnaud says

    I was going to leave that comment:

    there were a few guards armed with tasers and police dogs

    WTF? Why?

    But now I can only say:

    I got the senior discount and it was still $43.50 to walk through a wooden box.

    WTF? HOW MUCH??

  7. says

    I think the parking lot is scaled for their expansion plans, or perhaps will be partially converted to said expansion plans? Zoo, aviary, ‘walled city’, kids area, etc. As the previous commenter said, all to extract maximum $ from people who are already there, well away from anything else to do besides perhaps a visit to Dairy Queen…

  8. says

    Adult admission is $40. They also charge $10 for your car to take up a few square feet in that vast wasteland of a parking lot. If you’re 60 or older, they knock off a few dollars. Kids under 12 are something like half price, kids under 5 are free.

    Those families I saw out there were plunking down a hundred dollars or more to tour this boring thing. Not quite Disneyland prices, but not Disney-quality entertainment, either.

  9. blf says

    The mildly deranged penguin points out that as soon as they install the woo drive, or woo-woo drive if they can con enough rubes, and a few Joseph Smith airlocks†, then it’ll be a perfect vessel to ship teh believers to the promised land where gog et al‡ have their party, as per Revelations (Bookmagic mushroom aided ramblings, Of).

      † According to Con Artiste Smith, the moronic cult (also known as the mormons), came to the Americas in submerged wooden boats with holes in the top (for ventilation) and bottom (for waste disposal). Basically a D Ark (the B Arkers being useless, which is not the same as exceptionally deluded).

      ‡ Not to be confused with grog, barley wine, or vin, et al§…

      § Or saké, whisky, whiskey, beer, bière, pivo, olut, retsina, or other water, even unflavoured.

  10. Noah Tahl says

    Let’s not forget the huge amount of revenue the visitors are generating for Williamstown and Grant County and the rest of the state of Kentucky, not to mention the magnificent tax receipts the park is paying. There would be even more if all you atheists were not trying to keep visitors away, but followed PZ’s example and paid the full fare. Your efforts are probably keeping away the Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Wiccans, too.

    P.S. It might be better to keep referring to the park as near Cincinnati, rather than in Kentucky. Some Kentuckians are not enamored of the situation for some reason.

  11. davidnangle says

    Anybody doubt they’ll run this until a catastrophic structural failure results in deaths? I wouldn’t take any managerial jobs there… they’ll be looking to set up a fall guy.

  12. says

    I’m not anxious to help Ken Ham make money, but the obvious answer would be to get some real animals and make it a sort of ark-themed petting zoo. They wouldn’t even have to be particularly exotic or difficult-to-care-for animals – if people are satisfied with fake pig noises I imagine they’d be over the moon if there were real pigs (or goats, or whatever) they could interact with.

  13. microraptor says

    I have to wonder if the ginormous asphalt wasteland was deliberate: I’m sure most readers here remember the ridiculous attendance claims Ken was spinning about the park, he probably put the parking lot in that size to add credibility.

  14. blf says

    I wouldn’t take any managerial jobs there […]

    I have no idea if the requirement to sign a statement of beliefs (in a bunch of absurd fiction) still exists, but apparently part of yer wages — even if you don’t work there — are deduced to somehow help pay off the junk bond(s? interest?):

    [… A]s part of the TIF agreement, employees working within the TIF district will be subject to a 2 percent employment tax on gross wages for the next 30 years. In other words, $2 out of every $100 earned by people working at or around the park will go directly to paying off the attraction. So while tax dollars might not actually have been used to build the ark, a boatload that would otherwise go back into the community will instead be used to pay off Ark Encounter’s debt.

    A TIF (Tax increment financing) is a mechanism for reducing taxes to pay for improvements. How this works in general, and especially in the case of this particular fraud, has me baffled.

    Naturally, Ken “piglet rapist” Ham took exception to the above excerpted article. I won’t link to his nonsense, but it is easy to find; broadly, he is trying to claim that because TIFs are a case of MEGO (my eyes glaze over) there is no point in mentioning it, and fails to mention it was established specifically because of this fraud, instead implying it was a pre-existing arrangement.

  15. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Sarah A,

    Not a bad idea, but you’d have to feed them, clean up their shit, keep track of their health, keep them from reproducing….

    Taking care of animals is hard; not the sort of thing you’d want to be doing in a boat.

  16. ctech says

    PZ, much better writing. Typically, your writing is so biased that I consider less than a 9th grade english class. This post leaned a little better. I felt you gave me a better, well-rounded view of the Ark and still from your perspective which was great. I hate the loose end of the mom and son story who seemingly hurried off. I would have liked to have known more. Although, I understand that her intentions could possibly not be easily discerned. However, I would like your thoughts on the lady. Do you believe she was possibly fed up with the exhibits? Do you think she maybe just got a stomach ache and was hiking it to the bathroom? I thought you did a better job with the word “learn” as you point out both sides to which saying “learn” could simply constitute any level of commitment to the knowledge source.

    I also agree with your statement that resale/revisit value will be tough for the ark even though I think you’ve been more than once but you were not allowed entrance so I believe this was your first time?? I think no matter what “new” thing they add would fall short of pulling in a person that already visited the core attraction which is the ark. A ride theme park has the advantage that no single attraction creates desire to go. They can continually design and add new rides and attractions to market so I can continually go to Six Flags and get a new experience. Clearly, with the ark there is an interest and curiosity that drives attendance but once that is blown there is not much reason to go back. Personally, I think it was meant as a stimulus to the surrounding businesses which is some of the complaint is that the ark hasn’t lived up to that but there a many more variables to obtaining new businesses. I am just saying that if the “middle of nowhere” became “somewhere” then I could say that I am planning another trip to the ark to see some of the new exhibits as well as any of the stimulus business attractions which could simply be a pizza joint that has really good pizza. Other than that, the christian base is very large so I would think they don’t necessarily need growth but just a steady visitor base to stay in the black and as long as their loans are financed correctly and timeframes then they don’t need to fill the entire parking lot. They just need to break even until, which would include overhead such as building maintenance and payroll, until the surrounding area kicks in. I would argue that any existing business could say that the increase in tourism has not increased their business. Definitely the hotels are doing more money now yearly than they were and I imagine restaurants are not far behind.

  17. zathras says

    As for new attractions I have read they’re building biblical themed attractions near the Ark like some 1st century city. I can’t find the link right now. Also, I have been reading Ken Ham’s fb page and some of his followers have commented they’re looking to going back. As stated Myers saw a lot of kids there so every year there will be a fresh batch of kids for churches/schools to bring.

  18. drowner says

    Yeah, just to piggy-back on ctech’s post: your writing in this post is SO much better than the POOR effort usually given, which I have read daily for years, for some reason. And I’m also left wondering, “Why didn’t you stalk the woman with child to provide her backstory?”

    If you would merely take professional writing advice from your blog comment section, perhaps your career could progress from your current status of esteemed Biology Professor at a reputable university to that of a more respected blogger, or better yet, journalist for the New York Times?

    Awaiting your reply.

  19. Matt G says

    Well at least the security dogs were real. Weren’t they?

    Meanwhile a REAL boat just circumnavigated the globe. The Hokulea, which is a traditional Polynesian design, and which used traditional navigation techniques.

  20. whheydt says

    I have this vague recollection that Ham offers very deep discounts to school (and, one might suspect, church) groups to come to his big wooden box.

    On more technical notes..Ham’s claim that it is the largest wood structure in the world is categorically false on two counts. First, it isn’t the biggest. That honor goes to a USAF test facility. Second, his *structure* isn’t wood. It’s wood sheathing on a steel and concrete structure. Take a look at the various pictures that circulated while it was being built. Look at all the lovely “gopher” steel holding it all up, together with the steel plates where wood is used.

  21. says

    There is a petting zoo! At least, I saw signs to one. I skipped it, I’m afraid, because I was so goddamn bored by the whole place.

  22. says

    #11: Another side effect of the location. The Ark Park is the one reason to go there. It’s easy to get to, as long as you don’t mind a 50 minute drive, since it’s just a short distance off the 71/75 freeway, but that means it’s also really easy to get away from. You leave the park, you get on the freeway, you go somewhere far away. I’m not at all surprised that it makes little economic contribution to the area.

    #22: I know. It’s all part of the hyperbole. Honestly, the parking shuttle ride with Ham’s voice-over was egregiously absurd: first he tells us that the Ark is X feet tall. But it’s Y feet above the ground, so it’s X+Y feet tall! But it has this big wooden prominence that is Z feet tall, so it’s actually X+Y+Z feet tall! It’s a whole ten stories high!

    I guess ten-story-tall buildings are impressive in Kentucky and Morris, Minnesota, but it was an awful lot of buildup for a fact that wasn’t actually that impressive.

  23. Alt-X says

    #18 – Ctech.

    You start off as a troll, something like a teenager would do. I didn’t read the rest, as I doubt it would have gotten any better.

  24. lumipuna says

    With regards to tccc #3, If the AIG wanted to increase their revenue, I now wonder why didn’t they just add side attractions to the Creation Park? Now the Park and the Ark are clearly competing for the same nationwide audience, two expensive sites with identical content.

  25. says

    Biggest wooden structure? Near Tillamook,Oregon there is an air museum in a hangar originally built to house USN patrol blimps during World War 2. According to Wikipedia, it’s 1072 x 296 feet, and the front and rear structures are 192 feet tall. Visited there years ago, and they claimed those (one hangar burned down in the 80s) were the biggest wooden structures. have a picture in a book somewhere in the house of four or six blimps parked inside. BIG.

  26. rietpluim says

    It’s not even a wood structure. It has got non-wood all over the place and it’s not just nails.

    WTF? Why?

    Because they’re fucking scared, that’s way. They fear the world and they fear their fellow man. Religion is the only thing that keeps them from total panic. Share their religion, and they think you’re cool. It’s the only reason they’re proselytizing.

  27. says

    Hamlet wanted to soak the giant wooden tub in pitch but it was deemed a fire risk so they tipped the god sized pot out and made a giant car park with it instead. At least the car park won’t rot and be useful for the next attraction once the first one mysteriously burns down for insurance purposes.

  28. says

    The irony of not being able to afford running a real zoo is too much. If only there had been a family of 8 who cared for 68,000 animals for a whole year to show them how it’s done…

  29. says

    there were a few guards armed with tasers and police dogs

    WTF? Why?

    Fundamentalist religion is heavily steeped in authoritarianism, militarism, and obsessions with “traditional” masculinity. The guards are part of the exhibit.

  30. mnb0 says

    “And which makes Ken Ham rich”
    Given his age his Ark just needs to last long enough to secure his retirement fund. When the thing goes down he can always blame nasty athiests like you.

  31. archangelospumoni says

    Ham and family made $500k/year as of a few years ago from their suckers–er–attendees and donors.
    This should answer nearly 100% of all questions here. He is nothing different from those Sunday morning tv preachers who would cure your paralysis or baldness or probably impotence or ingrown toenail or whatever over the tv if you donated enough. “Operators are standing by.”

  32. Pierce R. Butler says

    slithey tove … @ # 17: … Ham … Blaming atheists as explanation for inability to pay the benefits he had promised the community.
    Saying atheists “shade” coverage of the site to dissuade popular attendance.

    He didn’t factor the atheist-badmouth element into the original business plan?

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