Visions of a kid at heart

Barry Zelickson created the Big Thrill Factory from the remains of a Kmart in Minnetonka. Now kids and adults alike are playing and paying.

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Barry Zelickson sat by skee ball games at Big Thrill Factory in Minnetonka. The former big-box retail building has been stuffed with enough games for 800 people.

Photo: KYNDELL HARKNESS • kyndell.harkness@startribune.com,

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Barry Zelickson already has a day job as a senior vice president of Border Foods, a big franchisee of fast-food restaurants.

But there’s also a lot of game-loving kid in this guy.

Zelickson, 54, a Golden Valley native, grew up playing miniature golf and watching movies at the old “7-Hi” drive-in theater in Minnetonka, at the intersection of Hwy. 7 and County Road 101.

The land was redeveloped for Kmart more than 30 years ago. The store sat vacant for the last few years.

Zelickson, who lives with his family not far from the site, was playing miniature golf with his kids in Florida a few years ago when he started thinking about building a course in the western suburbs.

“Evidently, there’s still some kid left in me,” Zelickson quipped. “I started to do some research, and it started morphing into a bigger deal. I created the business plan by late 2011 and went out and raised the money.”

Big Thrill Factory, financed with several million bucks in equity and debt from Zelickson, family, friends and a bank, opened in March inside about half of the space in the refurbished Kmart.

The family-entertainment center features bowling, laser tag, bumper cars, an electronic-game arcade and a full-service cafe that also caters for birthday parties and corporate events.

Zelickson, who operated the Halloween-themed “Spooky World” every October in Shakopee during the 1990s, loves amusements and games. The city of Minnetonka liked the idea at one of its biggest commercial hubs. And Zelickson & Co. have created a play space that will hold up to 800 people.

“We needed a big box with plenty of room outside and parking,” said Zelickson, who hopes for full-year revenue of up to $4 million. “Now, we just have to work on building our brand. The initial feedback has been very good. My mom will even eat there.”

That would be Sue Zelickson, the celebrated broadcast chef and James Beard Award-winning food writer.

Big Thrill Factory operates seven days a week. In July, Big Thrill added a 15,000-square foot outdoor complex, including an 18-hole miniature golf course, trampolines, climbing walls and a giant slide.

Zelickson employs 120 mostly part-time employees and an on-site general manager.

“We’re off to a good start,” he said. “It’s a ‘play card’ system. You can buy an attraction, or buy an hour or two hours of play on anything. Or you can walk in for free and buy something to eat. Or just wander around and leave if you want. In our planning we estimated that the average customer would spend about $17 per visit, including food. We are in that neighborhood so far. We’re pleased.”

The customers range from one or two teen­agers, to field trips of dozens of school or camp kids, to youth birthday parties where it can cost up to $300 for a group of 10 to exhaust themselves for two hours of activity and food. Corporate groups have used the facility for meetings followed by group games and food. And more and more parents are hanging around, Zelickson said.

This is designed to be active, but you don’t need to be an Army Ranger.

Zelickson has tested all the attractions, including the Spider Climb & Giant Slide, which involves a 25-foot grapple up some webbing that he declared a “real workout.”

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