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New Business Does Its Best to Lose Customers

June 23, 1988|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Times Staff Writer

Get lost.

Page and Audrey Penk hope Orange County residents will do just that--and pay $2 for the privilege.

Getting lost is half the fun of Maze Craze, a wooden labyrinth the Penks have constructed on an empty corner of the Golden West College campus in Huntington Beach. For the price of admission, customers get to wander the maze's 1,600 yards of twisting pathways in search of four checkpoints and a way out.

The attraction is patterned after the human mazes that are all the rage in Japan, where on a typical day thousands of people may wind through any one of more than 20 such attractions in the country. Page Penk, 24, read about the phenomenon in a recent issue of Smithsonian magazine.

"I thought, 'That sounds like a lot of fun. How come we haven't done that in the U.S. before?' " Penk said. He was flying helicopters for the Navy at the time, but when he was discharged in February he began exploring the possibility of building his own maze.

He secured the land from Golden West for the summer, paying rent and a percentage of the ticket sales, and bought the lumber: 800 6 1/2-foot posts and about 45,000 linear feet of rough-cut cedar planks. After three weeks of construction, slowed by hitting buried water mains and electrical lines, the Penks opened for business June 11. "As far as we know, it's the first one in the U.S.," Penk said.

Opening weekend was a mixed success. On the upside, about 250 paying customers negotiated the maze, more than the husband-and-wife team expected because they hadn't started advertising yet; on the downside, vandals broke into the maze Saturday night, spray-painting slogans on the walls and stealing the ink stamps at three checkpoints. A guard dog now roams the site at night.

Penk has also been fiddling with the maze design since opening day, to make it more difficult (the six-foot wall sections are made to be easily moved). On the first day, people were completing the maze in as little as 5 to 10 minutes; now the average time is 20 to 25 minutes and rising. Also, Penk hopes to entice repeat customers by changing the maze periodically.

The Penks are not worried about competing with such amusement giants as Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm with their decidedly low-tech attraction. "I think one of the great things about it is its simplicity, that it's not so high-tech," said Page Penk.

"At Disneyland, they do everything for you," Audrey Penk, 25, said. In her mind, the showy theatrics and thrill rides of the amusement parks are no match for the mental stimulation of solving a giant puzzle.

The Penks, Fountain Valley residents, are hoping to break even and maybe turn a small profit with Maze Craze. When they disassemble it at the end of summer, they hope to sell it to someone who will find a permanent site; then they plan to do some traveling.

"I don't want to run mazes for the rest of my life," said Page Penk, who described himself as something of a schemer and a free spirit. He would, however, consider taking on a consulting role, "now that I've made every single mistake you can possibly make."

THE MAZE CRAZE AT A GLANCE

Where: Corner of Golden West Street and McFadden Avenue, Huntington Beach (Golden West College campus).

Admission: $2.

Parking: Free.

Principal feature: An outdoor maze with 6-foot wooden walls and 1,600 yards of pathways, covering 25,000 square feet. Visitors must find their way to four checkpoints before navigating a way out.

Hours: Open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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