Wild ride

Three Tulsans descend on a French amusement park to unveil the Golden Driller ride.



Courtesy Karen Keith

 

So, a former mayor, a county commissioner and a museum exec go to France to ride the Golden Driller …

It sounds like a joke, and here’s the punchline: It’s true.

On June 30, Kathy Taylor, Karen Keith and Michelle Place celebrated and rode the Golden Driller, the newest ride at Fraispertuis City, an amusement park in the small village of Jeanménil in northeastern France.

Owned by the Fleurent family, the park features an American Wild West theme.

Rides have names like Le Grand Canyon, Le Rodeo and Le Sombreros, where hats spin instead of teacups. In 2013, the park’s co-owner, Patrice Fleurent, wanted to add another ride, the park’s most daring yet. But what would they call the attraction that drops riders 216 feet at 56 miles per hour?

Design and engineering had been in the works for several years, yet no official theme or name had been chosen. Patrice began researching themes and brainstormed with Frederic Beck, a consultant for Fraispertuis City.

The Golden Driller was discovered during a night combing the internet.

After reading up on the statue, the connection seemed undeniable. One detail in particular sealed the deal for the ride’s Golden Driller theme: Tulsa’s golden boy was installed the same year the park opened. Both vintage 1966. It also happened to be the year of Patrice’s birth. And there’s that 66 reference to America’s Mother Road, Route 66, which happens to run through Tulsa. It all just fit.

Park owners went forward with the Golden Driller name while trying to figure out what kind of permission they needed, and from whom. Around that time, the Tulsa World picked up an Associated Press story about the park, which got the conversation going.

Through a tangle of red tape, the request came to County Commissioner Keith’s office.

At first, she thought it was a prank (who wouldn’t?), but a little due diligence proved the project was legit.

Keith learned the Fairgrounds Trust owned the rights to the Golden Driller name and image, but the trademark had not been preserved, so there was no issue involved in using it. The pay-off, as far as Keith is concerned, is increased visibility and media attention for Tulsa. Once that was settled, the relieved amusement park owners invited a small delegation to France for the ride opening in late June. All expenses were paid by the French hosts. Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum asked Taylor, chief of economic development, to represent the city. Keith also was invited for her role on the county commission, as was Place, executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. The museum’s website was one of Fleurent’s and Beck’s references for the Golden Driller.

Fraispertuis City owner Patrice Fleurent and his son Clement at the grand opening of the park’s Golden Driller thrill ride.

 

Fraispertuis City is a family business, headed by co-owner and director Patrice Fleurent and his sisters, Annick, Sophie and Nadia. His son, Clement, is part of the technical team and was instrumental in the Golden Driller project. Patrice’s three sisters oversee food service, marketing/merchandising and human resources. Offices are in the original family home on park property.

After months of thinking they were communicating with Patrice, the Tulsans discovered Fraispertuis City consultant Beck was actually writing the emails. The confusion stemmed from Beck serving as the interpreter for Patrice. When the three women finally met Beck, Taylor says, “It was like meeting the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain.”

Beck has always loved amusement parks.

At 16, he asked Fleurent for a job, but was refused because he lived too far away. Meanwhile, Beck created a website about Fraispertuis City and posted about it on social media. Eventually, the Fleurent family realized they needed someone with his marketing skills to promote the park. Now 31, Beck has been involved with the park since 2006.

It was Beck who met Keith and Place at the train with open arms and fresh macarons, and who became their guide, translator and good friend. “Frederic is such a presence for the park in the region,” Place says, adding he opened up conversations about the park wherever they went in northeast France.

The Tulsans describe everything about the park as immaculate and first class.

Of course, there were many differences between the Drillers’ homes at Fraispertuis City and Expo Square. For example, visitors to the amusement park are more likely to find bagels and croissants at its food stands rather than corn dogs or turkey legs.

“And do the French ever know how to throw a party,” Keith says, describing the ride’s dedication. The 600-person guest list included friends and business associates of the owners, as well as a cult of European amusement park lovers (some from Disney Paris), social media editors, engineers, manufacturers, members of the design team and, of course, dignitaries from Tulsa.

Images, replicas and likenesses of the Golden Driller were everywhere, including one made of white chocolate.

There were trays of meats and cheeses, artichokes and salmon, good wine and a French country-western band.

The Tulsa delegation presented their hosts with a key to the city of Tulsa and framed posters of the Golden Driller. They also brought Golden Driller-themed items such as a whiskey decanter, lapel pins, Tulsa Drillers baseball shirts, USS Tulsa hats and coins. Also, beef jerky — just because.

Like its U.S. cousin, the French Golden Driller sports a plaque, which was covered with flags from both countries. For the unveiling, the French hosts pulled their flag as the American guests pulled theirs. Next, a loud noise. Ominous music. Smoke rose from what looked like an oil storage tank. Sixteen Fraispertuis City staffers — four on each side of the ride platform — waved French and American flags as the ride climbed to the top, then plunged.

This is the only ride in the world where riders can choose from four positions:

seated (meh), seated with a 20-degree tilt forward (now we’re getting somewhere), standing with that same tilt (grrrrrrrr, fierce) or floorless (death wish?).

The Tulsans rode the attraction multiple times — standing, seated and tilting. While waiting in line for the ride, visitors to the park will see panels about the oil industry, the Golden Driller and the city of Tulsa, all written by Place.

Michelle Place and Frederic Beck at one of the ride’s information panels.

 

From his beginning, the original Tulsa Golden Driller was met with mixed reviews.

“Some thought it was an eyesore. Some thought that nothing says ‘Tulsa’ more than the Golden Driller,” Place says.

French Golden Driller, however, is an unqualified hit.

And T-town plans to leverage the public relations and goodwill he generates. “Arts and culture is economic development,” Place explains. Another unexpected boon: the opportunity to meet this “cult” of European amusement parks — engineers, manufacturers, trade magazines. “We made connections from middle America to this European industry,” Place says. “There’s the hope that Tulsa could have a world-class amusement park someday, and we identified the best vendors in Europe, and hopefully opened up the American market to those companies.”

Taylor, Keith and Place invited their French hosts to Tulsa during the park’s off-season and are making plans to match or outdo the hospitality they received. “They treated us like heads of state,” Taylor says.

Elizabeth Ellison, Kathy Taylor, Patrice Fleurent, Karen Keith, Michelle Place, Laura Place and Taylor Hinton in northeastern France’s Fraispertuis City.

 

Keith, too, thinks the VisitTulsa message will resonate because many Europeans know about Route 66.

“When they come here to tour, they’ll have a reason to stop in Tulsa,” she says.

The threesome calls their trip a study in joy. “That’s one of Frederic’s favorite words,” Place says. “He loves the park. His family loves the park. He loves creating the opportunity for families to have that joy.”

“It’s definitely a happy place,” Keith says. Take that, Disney. 

 

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