Hanging Up Their Putters

Victorian Park Operates Their Last Season

August 16, 2013

by Kristen Hoffman 

Larry and Verna Belair agree:  the nature of the business has changed over the past decade or so.  Mini golf used to draw a crowd.  Parents and grandparents would bring in their children.  Young couples would have fun, romantic dates on the green.  But as times changed and the economy plummeted, the crowds began to shrink.  This Labor Day, after 22 years in business, Salem’s Victorian Park will close for good.

The Belairs,  while sad to see the park go, are looking forward to having their summers back.  For 22 years, the couple returned from the winter home in Florida promptly on April 1 to get the park ready to open.

The park has always been a sense of pride for the Belairs, “We built it ourselves – physically built it,” Larry said.  “I was a home builder in a slump at the time.”  Before opening Victorian Park in Salem, the Belair family was known as premium home builders in the area.  During the housing market slump of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Larry and Verna started looking for new endeavors.  While wintering in Florida, the couple bared witness to the re-emergence of mini-golf, more specifically, adventure golf.

Mini-golf had been around for generations.  It had its ups and downs in popularity and it was heading towards a comeback in a major way at the time.  Prior to “Adventure” themed courses, most mini-golf courses were flat, with large obstacles like ceramic dinosaurs and windmills with moving blades.

In the early stages of planning, the Belairs scoped out and played on roughly 100 golf courses throughout the southeast.  From there, Larry scoped out the holes that he liked, and the idea was well on its way to becoming a reality.  By Fall of 1991, construction started and the course was opened for the first time in Spring 1992.  When the park opened, there were very few competitors in the area, aside from a flat course just over the border in Methuen.  As time passed, other mini golf courses sprung up, but Victorian Park continued to grow.  By 1993, the arcade and the ice cream parlor were added to the original golf course.  Later, in 1995, Victorian Park extended their season by opening The Haunted Mansion, a Halloween attraction that brought in big numbers.  Larry said at points, The Haunted Mansion would attract 2000 guests per night.  According to Belair, customers would wait two hours to get into the attraction.

But, times changed.  About five years ago, Canobie Lake opened their own haunted attraction.  Mel’s Funway in Litchfield became the new home to Spooky World and Nightmare New England.  Rather than continuing the condition, the Belairs decided to close up shop.  “After 13 years or so, unless you dramatically change your product, your crowds start to dwindle,” Larry said.  But by this time the Belairs were beginning to think about winding down the operation.  They decided to step down for a year to see how things played out.  The Belairs found that they enjoyed having their Octobers back.

“One thing led to another and we came to the decision to remove some stress from our lives,” Larry said.  Originally the Belairs planned on selling the business, but after a few years on the market, they found there weren’t many buyers eager to take on the family entertainment business.  “I think it’s had its time, families don’t go out as much together or go out with their kids.  The last five years or so the kids don’t even really want to do things,” Larry said.  The affects of technology has changed the way families spend time with one another.  “Selling the business was not really an option.”  The land and buildings will still allow for about 20,000 square feet of use for retail or professional office space.

It’s bitter sweet for the Belairs.  Affectionately called Mr. and Mrs. B by their hardworking staff, the Belairs decided it was time to hang up the putters and enjoy their retirement.  For the Belairs, it’s always been about the customers and their employees.  Over the past 22 years, Victorian Park has had close to 200 employees.

The Belairs said out of those 200 employees, they could count the bad seeds on one hand.  It wasn’t uncommon for workers to be hired at 16 and continue to work summers at the park straight through to college.  “It’s been a great run and we’ve had a great group of employees,” Verna said.

Beka Costa, 19, of Methuen just started working at the park at the beginning of the season.  She took the job knowing that the park would not reopen for the 2014 season.  “I love working here—everybody is so close,” Costa said, adding that her favorite part of the job is watching the little kids play, “they get so excited, they’re so cute.”

Nine-year-old Lauren Genest of Salem was celebrating her 9th birthday at the park one recent sunny Monday afternoon.  She and 27 of her closest friends visited her park for the last time.  Genest was upset that the park was closing and said she would miss birthday parties at the park.  Her father, Paul Genest is sad to see the park go too.  While arranging a large sheet cake around a table filled with gifts he said he was sad to see the park go, but is happy that the Belairs will be able to enjoy retirement together.  Genest has fond memories of Victorian Park, adding that he and his wife visited the park several times while dating.

Fred Riley, a grammar school friend of Larry is also a frequent visitor at the Park.  Now a resident of Atkinson, brings his grandchildren and great grand for to the course several times every summer.   “We try to get in here twice a year,” Riley said.  His grandchildren, James Cheever, 12, Riley Cheever, 9, both of Raymond and Jayla Boyd, 9, of Lynn, Massachusetts look forward to their outings at the park.  James, while adding up the score card said he always manages to beat his grandfather at the game.

When Victorian Park officially closes on Labor Day weekend,  Salem will lose a major piece of it’s character.  The Belairs plan to stay active in the Town.  Larry is currently working with various organizations to help complete the Rail Trail.  Some of the attractions will be donated to area groups.  A girls scout troop in Pelham is purchasing the park benches at a reduced rate, and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Salem is getting the park’s “water wars,” attraction.  As for the Frappe Machine, well, Larry has a different plan for that,  “It’s going in my kitchen,” he said.