The King of Golf, Arnold Palmer, was looking to expand his empire back in 1964.
Twenty-nine-year-old Charles “Buddy” Jenkins happened to have some land at 30th Street, at what the time was considered north Ocean City. He had the land for two or three years and he was thinking about how to produce revenue from it.
After meeting with Palmer’s manager, Jenkins agreed to build an Arnold Palmer Miniature Golf Course and Driving Range franchise on his land. Half a century later, it has evolved into Jolly Roger amusement park.
At the time, Jenkins chose the theme of Jolly Roger simply because he was told he needed a theme, and old pirates fit with being on the coast. Now, the park, which greets hundreds of thousands of visitors with a tall pirate statue that remains from 1964, is celebrating its 50th year as one of the premiere amusement facilities on the east coast.
Did he expect this?
“I never look back. I’m (about) present and future,” he said. “I don’t look backwards, except to understand what happened and why it happened and how to build on that. I can’t actually say I had even a thought process about how long it would last or not last.”
Building on success
The golf courses were successful, in Jenkins’ eyes, and the time came to decide what should come next.
“You have to remember that at that period of time, we were considered to be north Ocean City,” he said. “There was nobody up there. It was a major risk. Major gamble. Once that door opened up to prove that people would come here, then what else can I do.”
Adding amusements was the next natural step, he said, and six rides, including the train that still operates today, were added.
“Tourists, at that time, were more families,” he said. “And so the logical thinking leads you to these conclusions.”
In the early 1970s, Jenkins dug out a hole for boats to go around in. The material that came out of the hole created a hill. Today, it’s called Splash Mountain, but back then, Jenkins was wondering what to do next. The solution was to build a concrete slide, as there weren’t fiberglass slides or tubes available just yet.
Sure enough, the slide was a hit. So another was built. And another. And how would you connect them all together? With a lazy river that is now 1,000-feet long. Today, there are more than 15 attractions in Splash Mountain, each providing visitors with a different experience.
“We were in the forefront of a new thing to take this country over and that was called water parks,” Jenkins said. “We were in the forefront. As a result of that, today everybody that manufactures anything, anything in that world, comes to us. We abide.”
Upper management goes around the world to find what’s new and exciting in the world of amusement parks, according to Dean Langrell, director of sales and marketing at Jolly Roger.
One of Splash Mountain’s more recent additions, the Aqua Loop, which debuted in 2012, sends brave souls feet first through a 360-degree loop at speeds as high as 32 mph, and it’s one of eight in the world, Langrell said.
“You drop down full speed so you’re in mid-air for like a second and then you touch it and then you shoot down on your back,” said Kyle Solowski, 22, of Ocean City, who said it was his favorite attraction at the park.
Speedworld debuted just a few years later, in 1976, with similar logic, opening with two tracks, Formula One and Family Track.
Now there are 11 tracks and more than 400 cars on the premises, and it’s the largest go-kart complex in the nation.
But if you ask Jenkins if there is a specific element to Jolly Roger that helped put it on the map, he’ll tell you there isn’t one.
“All of it put Jolly Roger on the map,” he said.
“We understand about the industry, and a lot of other people don’t, you can be called an amusement park, but you have component parts that make up the amusement parks and all the component parks must have the same attention, design, operating, as the whole.”
Eye on the public
There hasn’t been a day when Jenkins feels complacent. Every day in his office, which overlooks Splash Mountain, every line item is looked at and staff wonders how can they make them better.
The public plays a key role in evaluating whether something has gone right or wrong, and Jenkins says keeping an eye on the public is the most important thing he and his staff do.
“You build on success,” he said. “The public tells you what is successful or not. You build on it by having your own standing as much as totally possible.”
Whether it is through ride counters or through interviews on the grounds conducted by two of the more than 400 staff members at the facility, it gives staff an idea of what people like and don’t like. Then it’s up to Jenkins and his staff to change and adapt, accordingly.
“We know for the moment, in the moment, what is working and what isn’t working,” he said. “And we’ll never ever, ever stop because it’s constant adaptation.”
Several local dignitaries appeared at a recent 50th anniversary celebration to pay tribute to the amusement park’s milestone.
One by one, they went up to a podium set up at the Sea Serpent coaster to reflect fondly on Jolly Roger’s achievement and Jenkins’ demeanor.
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan spoke about how he and a friend would practice their golf game at the park’s driving range late at night, and said that was the reason behind his “screwed up” golf swing.
Former Ocean City mayor and current State Sen. James N. Mathias Jr., spoke fondly about Jenkins’ business acumen, friendship, candor and dedication, and included a story about how Jenkins helped him out after his father passed away. After serving as mayor, he was asked what he missed the most. His response was seeing the smiles on faces as people left Jolly Roger.
“You continue to give and give and give and you come here to work everyday to make it all happen and grow those smiles,” he said.
James C. “Bud” Church, Worcester County Board of Commissioners, joked about how the tax revenue the park generated for Worcester County balanced the county budget.
Meehan, Church and Mathias read aloud proclamations celebrating the milestone on behalf of their respective government boards. Meehan also declared the day of the celebration, June 17, to be Jolly Roger Amusement Park Day in the resort town. Ocean City Council Secretary Mary Knight presented Jenkins with a key to the city, while Mathias read a citation from Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and a certificate of recognition from U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin was also presented.
“You had a vision that few had back in that day, to build and develop what you built here today,” Church said to Jenkins. “It’s not only an asset for Ocean City, but for all of Worcester County and as a matter a fact, the state of Maryland.”
“What can I do next?” is a question that is asked daily in Jenkins’ office.
For the rest of the summer, the staff will celebrate the park’s 50th birthday by putting up signage and wearing uniforms marking the milestone.
After the park closes on the day before Labor Day, management will begin to compile a wish list and a need list for the following season. It will be evaluated over the course of the beginning of September, and by the middle of September, when revenue is determined, Jenkins and his staff will have a solid understanding of where the company will be, come June 1.
Jenkins can’t say how many new things have been put in his park and how many things have been hauled to the dump because the park is in constant continuous changing and adapting. Change is the one thing people can expect at Jolly Roger, he said.
“We’re working on it, but there will be change,” he said. “On the amusement side, there’s always going to be change on the rides, all for the purpose of improvement.”
To Jenkins, a birthday allows one to reflect on things one normally wouldn’t reflect upon on a day-to-day basis.
Even though he doesn’t view the birthday this year as 50 years, he remembers employees of the past and present, some who have been with the company for as many as 40 years.
“They had faith and trust that they were going to get a hold of a tiger’s tail and they’re going to have a good time and they were going to get their payroll check every week,” he said. “We’ve had our bumps in the roads and we’ve always had one thing in common. We can do it and we will do it, no matter how bad it may have seemed at the time. That’s why they stuck with me. They’re the ones who deserve these awards, these accolades, because they’re the ones that created it.”
The town has grown considerably since Jolly Roger made its debut, from the Route 90 bridge to annexation further north to the Delaware border.
“The expansion created a whole different atmosphere for building,” Jenkins said. “So where we at one point in time would have been north of where the population was, all of a sudden we began to be more in the middle.”
Growing up in Westminster, Maryland, Jenny Elrod vacationed to Jolly Roger as a child. Now 45, and living in Cary, Ill., she and her family drive for 18 hours over two days — and take a ferry — to vacation in the area, and come to Jolly Roger.
“From my perspective, I’ve got kids from 8 to 17, I need something for everybody to do,” she said. “There’s a lot of activities for the little ones that we can trust that they’re taken care of, and the big kids can go do their thing without the adults hanging around.”