Sections Sports & Leisure

A New Ballgame

Sonny’s Place Sets Standard for Family Entertainment Centers

Chris Shaw

Chris Shaw says the goal at Sonny’s Place is to provide a wide range of activities for people of all ages.

Chris Shaw says the phrase ‘family entertainment center’ has been around for decades and is certainly not a new business concept.

But it has definitely come a long way since the days when such venues consisted of a driving range and miniature golf course with a soft-serve ice-cream stand near the entrance, he went on, adding quickly that Sonny’s Place, the Somers, Conn. venture he serves as general manager, is probably the best example in this region of how such facilities have evolved.

Indeed, the site on Main Street, formerly home to a driving range carved out of a former fruit and vegetable farm, is now home to everything from go-karts, a zipline, and a rock wall to batting cages, an arcade, and a performance stage for live acts — the country group Trailer Trash performed there last weekend. There is also a bar and a barbecue restaurant.

And while Sonny’s does, indeed, offer a miniature golf course, there is no windmill or clown’s mouth to navigate. Instead, there are fountains, a rock formation, and a number of other landscaping features.

“This is not the type of mom-and-pop operation we saw years ago,” said Shaw, who has owned such a facility himself. “The family entertainment center has come a long way.”

And Sonny’s Place is, in many respects, setting the new standard, he told BusinessWest, adding that the facility has added a new attraction almost every year since the Antonacci family, also owners of USA Hauling and the recently christened Greathorse (formerly Hampden Country Club), acquired the property nearly a decade ago.

Together, these attractions draw roughly 600 to 1,000 people a day, depending on the weather, said Shaw, adding that, while most visitors are from Connecticut and Massachusetts, license plates from other states can be seen in the parking lot.

And there is plenty of room for further expansion — both literally and figuratively, he said, adding that the facility closed its driving range a few years ago, leaving that vast acreage for new activities and revenue streams. The zipline now occupies some of that space, said Shaw, adding that a host of possibilities, from a ropes course to another arcade; from laser tag to bumper boats, are all potential expansion options.

“There are a lot of things we can do to further enhance the experience and provide people with even more to do,” he added. “We’re looking at a number of attractive options.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest paid a visit to Sonny’s Place, a tour that yielded ample evidence of how the family entertainment complex has changed and what it takes to succeed in this new environment.

Setting the Stage

Shaw had Monday, June 22 off from work. He remembers looking forward to it, because he knew there wouldn’t be many other off days for a while.

Indeed, that Monday marked the start of summer vacation for most young people in the region, and by the end of that afternoon, most all other schools had shut things down until late August or early September.

Thus, the very busy season is now underway at Sonny’s Place. This is a year-round facility, certainly, but most of its visitors — and revenue — come in the summer months.

And on that Tuesday, roughly an hour before the facility opened, Shaw had one eye on the weather — thunderstorms and even hail were predicted for that afternoon, and clouds were already gathering by 10 a.m. — and the other on the four months to come.

Sonny’s place has been enjoying steady growth over the past several years, and Shaw certainly expects that trend to continue in 2015 due to continued expansion of the facility and strict adherence to the basic formula for success in this specific business sector.

Elaborating on that formula, he said it involves, well, living up to that timeworn anthem in this business, the one about having something for everyone, meaning, in this case, every age group.

Sonny’s Place has maintained a pace of adding a new attraction roughly every year

Chris Shaw says Sonny’s Place has maintained a pace of adding a new attraction roughly every year — and there is still considerable room for expansion.

Actually, the goal is to have many things for everyone, and Sonny’s Place is accomplishing that — with everything from bounce houses for the very young to a bar with a full liquor license for those who were very young decades ago — as well as activities for everyone in between. For example, 80 students from the class of 2015 at Somers High School were on the grounds just hours after receiving their diplomas for late-night and then early-morning activities that could be placed in the category of ‘safe alternative’ to whatever else the graduates might have been doing that night.

“It’s called a safe grad party, or a safe after-party,” he explained, adding that Sonny’s Place has hosted it the past two years. “They had a buffet served at 11, they also had a hypnotist, and full run of the facility until 5 in the morning.

“We tried to build a well-rounded facility that covers all ages,” he went on. “Mini-golf is good for all ages, the go-karts are good for the teenage crowd — but also for adults, because they like to do it, too — and we have the bar back here so parents can come back and relax, and we have live entertainment for the adults.”

Another part of the success formula, though, involves continually adding new attractions to build on the experience and drive repeat business. This has been the basic mission since the Antonacci family acquired the facility formerly known as Somers Golf Center.

Back then, it had a driving range and a miniature golf course, no doubt with a windmill, said Shaw, adding that, over the years, the venture has added significantly to the footprint while upgrading facilities like the golf course.

The goal was to create an entertainment center that people could spend a half-day or more at, not just a few hours, said Shaw, adding that Sonny’s Place has become a destination in every sense of that word, for families, groups such as summer camps (like the one based in New York State that makes a pilgrimage every summer), and even area businesses.

Indeed, Windsor, Conn.-based Alstom Power, a global leader in power generation, power transmission, and rail infrastructure, will stage three outings for employees and their families at Sonny’s Place this year.

Those visitors, like other others, will have a host of options available when it comes to recreation and possible competition, from miniature golf to mini-bowling; from the zipline to the so-called ‘monkey motion’ jumper, which, said Shaw, blends bungee jumping with a trampoline.

Visitors purchase what is known as a ‘Sonny Moni Card,’ which can be loaded based on dollar amounts or increments of time, said Shaw, adding that they represent another vast improvement over the facilities of years ago — no more feeding quarters into arcade games or buying tickets for individual attractions — and can be used over several days, depending on the amount purchased.

Most visitors will spend several hours at Sonny’s Place, said Shaw, adding that the basic goal in the business plan is to not only extend the day, but bring people back repeatedly over the course of a season that stretches from April to October.

And this goal was the primary motivation for expanding the options in the broad category of hospitality, he noted, adding that a barbecue pit is now open to the public. And then, there’s the live entertainment.

Trailer Trash also made an appearance last year, said Shaw, who couldn’t quantify the turnout — he didn’t have an exact number — but could qualify it.

“There was an overflow crowd,” he explained. “We had to park cars on the old driving range, and we never had to do that before.”

He was expecting a similar turnout this year, and also predicting good crowds for a host of other scheduled acts, including Southern Rain, Jeff Pitchell, Frank Serafino, Lobsterz from Mars, Brass Attack, and many others.

Coming Attractions

Shaw admitted that he didn’t get to see Trailer Trash when it played Sonny’s Place in 2014. He was far too busy dealing with that overflow crowd he described and making sure the night ran smoothly.

He was hoping to get a look for this year’s show, but was hedging his bets in anticipation of another huge turnout.

As for time off? As he said, there won’t be much of that between this summer and the end of the season.

Such is life in the modern family entertainment center, a realm where the bar is being set consistently higher — and Sonny’s Place continues to clear it.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]