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Guy Revelle, co-founder of Splitsville, doesn’t remember when, but he thinks talks about putting one of his bowling centers into Walt Disney World were initiated on the Disney side.
Splitsville’s other co-founder, Mark Gibson, isn’t sure who approached whom, but as he recalls discussions got serious toward the end of 2008 and the beginning of ’09.
“I think it was one of these things where somebody said, ‘Disney would like to talk to you about working on something with bowling’,” Revelle says.
Disney decided it wanted Splitsville—that much is clear.
“At Downtown Disney, we are always looking for exciting and new experiences for our guests and Splitsville feels like a perfect fit,” remarks Keith Bradford, vice president of the dining/shopping/entertainment promenade in Disney World, Orlando, where Splitsville will soon settle in.
“The initial discussion was pretty generic,” Gibson reports. “They wanted to know why we thought our concept was differentiated, why we thought it could perform well over extended periods of time, how we thought it would be attractive to locals versus tourists, to a family versus an adult. Kind of picked our brain as to why we’re doing what we do, why we think it works, and why we think it could survive the test of time.”
“The main thing,” adds Revelle, “was taking such an iconic building, a former Virgin record store, and having to retro fit it. And being in the heart of Downtown Disney, they wanted something really special.
“It was looking at how can we do this on two floors instead of one? How many lanes? How can we handle the number of people who will come through Downtown Disney so the waits aren’t too terribly long? What type of food? What do we take from the original Splitsville? How do we ramp it up for Disney customers? We cater to families and kids, and team-building and convention parties, but we also cater to the late-night and more of the adult business. It was trying to bring that all together.”
Three years and “tons of meetings” later—“we just kept talking and figuring out how we were going to get this thing done,” Revelle says—a spectacular showcase for bowling will open this December at Walt Disney World Resort, arguably the nation’s most spectacular tourist destination.
The newest Splitsville will be about double the size of the original in Tampa and the other locations in Miami, Dallas and Fredericksburg, VA: 50,000 square feet, including 5,000 square feet on a third level for offices and storage. Both customer levels will have a kitchen, outdoor seating (for about 50 on the first floor, 100 on the second), and a front-of-house sushi bar.
Decor will be “retro and hip.” Revelle says they’d like to go with old-time masking. “At Splitsville, we don’t do the big masking units like all the big bowling centers and some of the other boutique centers do. We have Gold Crowns in Tampa. We’ve used the old star shields. At Tampa, eight of our lanes have above-ground ball returns. When we opened, we had all these girls, our servers and bartenders, this young crowd, and they’re like, ‘That’s the coolest thing yet!’ We’re still trying to work it out at Disney.”
Ordinary bowler seating is replaced at Splitsvilles by what the partners call pod seating—basically high-top and mid-top seating similar to banquettes. The concept has changed somewhat since the first Splitsville in 2003 but it’s still designed to resolve what Gibson and Revelle regard as a problem in bowling: “getting up and down from low chairs. This way, you can slide in and out of a booth,” as Revelle describes it.
“The menu was developed in Tampa, kind of for Florida, so it works,” Gibson reports. Everything except entrees and entree-size salads will be sharable.
“The original thought was if people are bowling or waiting to bowl they’re going to be very active, moving around a lot, socializing. So we thought sushi, pizza, appetizers, sliders. But [in case] people want to have it served entreestyle, the servers and bartenders will query them at the table. We may trim down a few items so you’ll have the best of the best, but for the most part the menu won’t stray too far from what we’re doing in Tampa.”
Other operational decisions the partners are pondering include time bowling, a change from other Splitsvilles.
“I think at peak times—most evenings and weekends–it’ll have to be hourly just in order to get the most customers through the process and on the lanes as possible,” muses Gibson. “During the daytime, we could potentially do per-game. We don’t want to make it too difficult for people to understand [the pricing], so we’re trying to not change the vocabulary too much for customers.”
Every Splitsville has a greeter who meets the customer, but depending on how busy the night is he may be stationed at the Welcome Center, where house policies are explained, reservations are made and bills are paid. At Disney, a greeter will be at hand daily to supplement a fully staffed Welcome Center.
Staff at Disney will number between 250 and 300, Revelle is guessing.
And then there are the lanes.
They are part of a new relationship between the bowler and the spectator that Revelle and Gibson are creating at Splitsville.
At Disney, 30 lanes all told, but not in-line or divided between private suite and public lanes. They’ll be in clusters scattered around the floor. “There’s a bank of four over here, another bank of six, another bank of four over there. You’re not just lined up with a bunch of other bowlers. You’ve got your own little area, your world,” Revelle explains. Ten lanes will be downstairs, 20 upstairs.
But not everybody is bowling. Some are just eating or drinking or hanging out. Maybe that’s all they want to do. Those folks can take a seat at one of the tables between the lanes. Choose mid-lane or near the pindeck.
“Think of bowling,” says Revelle. “You’re always looking at the backs of heads. You’re not really getting to see people bowling. But to be able to be eating and drinking and having fun halfway down the lane and watching people bowl at you, to see the ball go past and break the pins, to see the bowlers’ faces and the high-fives, the cheering, the fun where they’re looking at you—it makes you feel like you’re bowling whether you’re picking up a ball or not. It makes you part of the action.”
Could this the next big change for bowling?
When we talked with Revelle and Gibson, the construction crew was busy on the build-out. Demolition had been completed and the workers were busy infilling. Elevators and escalators had been ordered. Final-permit paperwork had been submitted to Disney for approval.
“We’re sitting back right now,” Revelle told us. “We’re comfortable with the stores we have. They’re doing well. We’re concentrating on Disney because it’s such a big deal. We’re always looking for great premiere locations, but we’ve got a lot of our company going into the Disney [project].”
Besides the four Splitsvilles, the partners have Stumps Supper Club, a lunch and dinner restaurant featuring Southern cooking, “deep-fried dancing” and live music; Tinatapas, a small-plate Spanish concept, named for Revelle’s wife, Tina; and Howl at the Moon, a dueling-pianos bar and joint venture with Cincinnati entrepreneur Jimmy Bernstein. The three properties are in the Channelside development in Tampa, along with the original Splitsville.
Revelle and Gibson graduated from Wake Forest together in the mid-’80s and immediately plunged into the bar business, Gibson the “brains” and Revelle the “heart,” as Revelle puts it.
“Together we make a human. If we were both like Mark we wouldn’t have any sales. If we were both like me we wouldn’t have any money in the bank. So we’re really a strong partnership. He handles a lot of the legal stuff, leases. We both deal with operations and real estate. And I’m more the concept/marketing guy.”
Ask Gibson for his take on the partnership and he will give as good as he gets. Revelle, he informs us, is “outgoing, big personality, works long hours, never met a person he didn’t like. There [are] the number guys and the marketing guys and the world’s generally divided in two. He’s always out there promoting, selling, pitching something. He’s head cheerleader.”
Revelle may have the last word when he says, “My joke is that I have no responsibility here whatsoever. I’m a coach, and I’m going to hook you up with my right team member that’s going to get you everything you need.”
Their first venture was a daiquiri bar in 1990. It was in Key West and called Fat Tuesday. But the bar had no food menu and “we saw that to have sustaining power in this industry, you have to do food and do it well,” according to Revelle. “That’s when we turned the corner.”
On the other hand, “We’ve always been good with entertainment, whether it’s been DJ music, live bands or bowling. We feel that takes us to a different level, puts us in another category than just restaurateurs.”
Splitsville, bringing together both specialties and adding bowling, started out on a bar napkin. Revelle knows that’s a cliché about entertainment businesses but in Splitsville’s case, it was true.
“A large space was open in Channelside where we already had two locations. Somebody had gone out of business. We said, ‘What could we do with this big space?’ We were with our other two partners, just talking. Somebody threw out, ‘What about bowling?’ I said, ‘Has anybody done bowling where you didn’t have all the lanes together, where they went at it from a food and beverage standpoint?’ We didn’t have a bowling alley in my hometown in North Carolina so I was not a big bowler.”
They leased the space and turned to the problem of columns standing everywhere. Where could the lanes go? “Our architect was like, ‘You want me to do what?’ ‘Just play around with it. See what you can get done.’” The clustered-lanes concept was born. “We said, ‘What if we put a bar right here between the lanes and a dance floor?’ When we first went to Brunswick, they thought we were crazy.”
Naturally for a company whose mission statement for Splitsville is “reinventing bowling for America,” Downtown Disney looked to the partners like a great fit. “In a good way, it’s kind of over the top, which is what you would expect at Disney,” says Revelle.
Mark Gibson adds, “Disney is one of the most unique places on the planet and [in] a bowling and broad-based entertainment context, I think Splitsville is one of the most unique entertainment offerings. Disney is all about creating memories and for a family or a couple visiting Orlando, [Splitsville will be] a great way to spend an hour, an hour and a half creating memories and having a great time.”
“When Mark and I started, the goal was to make sure we laughed every day and build something we could be proud of. One of the slogans we’ve used is, ‘It’s L&D—not life and death, but lunch and dinner—so let’s have some fun with it,’” Revelle says.
“I had a friend of mine who told me about this book, The Simple Truth by Alex Brennan-Martin. He went to Houston, started Brennan’s of Houston. It’s a small bar but it made a huge impact. When you get ready to come into management at any of our businesses, you have to read The Simple Truth. Everybody’s got their mission statement, but what’s your simple truth? Why are you in business? Why are you here?
“Our simple truth is: giving permission to have fun.”