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Omaha Magazine

Let The Good Times Roll: Margaret White Shows Multiple Generations Fun

Nov 28, 2022 08:11AM ● By Dwain Hebda

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

It’s hard to summarize Margaret White and her landmark business, Papio Fun Park, in just one word, but “family” comes pretty close. After all, three decades of local families have patronized the amusement center, founded in 1990 by White and her late husband, Paul. One can hardly describe the park—a delicious throwback to a simpler time—without using the word, as in “offering fun in a family-friendly environment.” 

It’s a word the White family cherishes. Every one of the couple’s five kids has worked the center’s front counter, loaded pitching machines, or wrangled the park’s go-karts—getting their first taste of employment alongside legions of non-kin employees over the years. Even today, one of White’s grandsons is on the payroll, ushering in the third generation of the family line to work the park. 

And at the head of this decades-long endeavor is White herself, who’s guided the business with a steady hand and business savvy, capitalizing on new entertainment trends and varying audiences in a manner that defies changing times and tastes. And she’s done it all according to a remarkably simple set of operating principles. 

“I don’t think [the business is] that much different. We still pretty much cater to families with young kids, or groups,” she said. “When I say young kids, I mean elementary, junior-high types. That’s pretty much still our target, and that’s our birthday demographic, too. I would say 90% of our birthdays are kids who are turning somewhere between 6 to 10. 

“After all this time, we have a pretty good feel for things. Last night, for instance, we had a group of Girl Scouts here. It was about 150 kids, and I knew from past years they’re going to need this many pizzas, they’re going to need this, they’re going to need that, they’re going to need this many go-karts.” 

White’s simplistic assessment of the company’s success belies the expertise it’s taken to thrive for three decades. The past decade is littered with the remains of closed businesses which catered to kids and young families as the world has become more crowded with new sport teams, technology, and entertainment options. Yet White’s connection to, and hard-won experience with, her customer base have woven a very different narrative for Papio Fun Park. 

“We have a lot of requests for parties for, maybe a 12- or 13-year-old, and I’ll say, ‘Just go on our website and buy the wristband at a discount,’” she said. “Kids that age don’t care about the helium balloon bouquet, they just want to play. 

“Back in the ’80s everything was somewhat a la carte. You came in and bought a game of golf or you bought this or you bought that. Now you can buy different packages from us that’ll give you different options, pricing, that kind of thing. The audience hasn’t really changed, the packaging has.” 

While Papio Fun Park has evolved its offerings over the years–adding laser tag and arcade and trampoline games to augment batting cages, go-karts, and mini golf–it’s also benefited from White’s readiness to fine-tune ideas until they work optimally. 

“The first time we went to an unlimited, stay-as-long-as-you-want pass, my staff freaked out. They said, ‘We’re going to become babysitters for junior high-schoolers,’” she said. “And I thought well, that might be, but let’s try it. We experimented with it just for Friday and Saturday nights, and it only took us three weekends before we changed the concept to be used anytime. 

“I think that’s one of the nice things about being a small business. You’re able to change the rules when you need to. Large corporations have to jump through so many hoops in order to get anything approved. I just make up my mind and say, ‘Today we’re going to do this,’ and the staff looks at me like, ‘OK, we’re going to do that.’” 

Despite business demands, White has also taken the lead in investing in her community. She’s a longtime advocate for Papillion and its merchants and is a familiar figure within the local chamber of commerce.   

“[Margaret is] a golden ambassador at the chamber, which means that she has spent years supporting the businesses coming in,” said Karen Gibler, Sarpy Chamber president. “She leads our executive dialogue group, which is a small business owners group. She shares her experiences, helps advise businesses, and really volunteers her knowledge. She’s a pillar of the community.” 

Gibler’s comments were echoed by Joe Hunter, who’s worked closely with White on various foundation projects as executive director of the Papillion Community Foundation.

“There’s not a person around with a bigger heart than hers,” he said. “She’s a phenomenal mentor to anyone who has the good fortune to work with her. She serves on my board, and she’s one of those confidants I have in my life where if I ever need something, or if I’m just having a tough day at the office, I can go to her and normally she can check my perspective and kind of straighten me out.  

“She really has that guiding hand, and I think that’s how the community really engages with her because she’s been around so long. She knows everybody and there’s really not much she hasn’t encountered throughout her life and her career.” 

White’s stature in the business community was solidified with induction into the Sarpy County Business Hall of Fame in 2020, the same year she successfully guided Papio Fun Park through the pandemic. The latter experience held a sort of acclamation of its own, given how clients returned in droves after the lockdown and have done so ever since.  

“I really like this town,” said White, a Washington, D.C., native. “What I have learned about the Midwest over the years is people do business with people they know. I think that’s just part of the Midwestern culture. My kids used to laugh and say if you need to know about somebody, ask Mom. She knows everybody.” 

Visit papiofunpark.com for more information.

This article originally appeared in the December 2022/January 2023 issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

 

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