Malibu Jack’s Indoor Theme Park Is a Family Affair
In the 1950s, Vernon Hatton became a Kentucky basketball legend when he made a half-court shot to send the University of Kentucky into a third overtime in what resulted in a victory over Temple University. He went on to become an All-American and played in the NBA, but ultimately left the sport to become an auctioneer in Lexington, Kentucky – a career that suited him well. His sons, Steve, Jeff, and Terry, grew up in the auction business, watching their dad in action every Monday morning in a Lexington tobacco warehouse.
“Dad was an entertainer,” Steve says. “He told stories and got people laughing. People drove several hours to come listen to him and eat chili dogs.”
Steve and his brothers carried on the tradition until about 15 years ago, when they decided to branch out from the auction business and open the Kentucky Basketball Academy, a five-court facility that held national basketball and volleyball tournaments.
Steve’s son Tyler began working with his dad at age 12, acting as scorekeeper at basketball games. Though the family enjoyed aspects of the business, they dealt with a good bit of negativity.
“Basketball tournaments had 40 teams and 39 of those teams lost, so you can imagine that there was a lot of complaining,” Steve says. “Just dealing with that negativity was an event itself.”
Steve and his brothers thought about how great it would be to create a place that would foster nothing but good times and fun vibes. Steve had a friend who opened an outdoor family fun center in Kentucky, but the fickle midwestern weather was brutal for business and it closed after a few years. Steve began thinking about offering an indoor facility with similar amenities.
In the meantime, Tyler was studying communications and advertising in college. He also served for a few years on a church mission trip to Argentina where he learned how much he enjoyed helping others and seeing joy in people’s eyes.
“Dad was cooking up this idea of a family fun center with his brothers, and although I knew they were full of great ideas, I wanted to make sure they could refine those ideas,” says Tyler, who worked on branding the concept by creating logos and signage, and officially joined the family business after graduating from college.
The family did some research and found that most arcades were dark and filled with neon. They chose to go in a different direction, envisioning a beach vibe that was bright, colorful and festive.
In 2013 Steve and his brothers found an old tennis center in the Lexington area that was for sale and decided to take the plunge and open Malibu Jack’s Indoor Theme Park featuring electronic go-karts, laser tag, miniature golf, virtual reality activities, a basketball shootout and more.
“We brought in palm trees, waterfalls, bright lights and a boardwalk to walk around,” Tyler says. “It got a lot of people’s attention. Nobody was putting in a huge tropical golf course inside.”
Investors came knocking and after a few years of success, the family decided to open another Malibu Jack’s in Louisville in 2016. The indoor theme park has been so popular that in December of 2019, the owners moved the business to a new location on Hurstbourne Parkway that nearly doubled their square footage from 65,000 to 120,000.
The family did their best to make the transition as fast and seamless as possible, and were closed to the public for just ten days.
“That was pretty good considering all we had to do,” Steve says.
The transition included taking apart and putting together rides, moving games, as well as hiring and training new staff members as the business grew from 35 to 100 employees. The size of the new location enabled the owners to increase their arcade offerings, add an 18-lane bowling alley, and include a high-speed Wave Rider that’s similar to the Super Himalaya ride at the state fair. In addition, a restaurant and bar will open this spring.
“People love being able to enjoy a nice meal right on site,” Steve says. “It enables them to stay here all day in this laid-back atmosphere.”
According to Steve, as soon as the doors to Malibu Jack’s were open, the public flocked to the facility.
“Everyone was so happy,” he says. “It’s just what Louisville needed.”
People are drawn to the friendly competition of go-karts. For kids 10 and under, the Bounce Beach play area is also popular.
“The only time a child cries at Bounce Beach is when parents tell them it’s time to leave,” says Steve, who offers special deals to nonprofit organizations like Angels in Disguise and Big Brothers Big Sisters.
At the original location, Malibu Jack’s was known as a kids’ fun zone, so the owners did all they could to let the public know they had something for everyone – from toddlers to grandparents. Teenagers especially enjoy the indoor theme park for date nights, and adults can also have a ball.
One of Steve’s fondest memories at Malibu Jack’s is when he was sitting by the waterfall under the palm trees, and a little girl walked by with her father and asked, “Daddy, is this paradise?” The dad replied, “It might be close, honey!”
After working for so many years at the Kentucky Basketball Academy, Steve had gotten used to fielding complaints anytime someone approached him. Once he transitioned into the family fun business, he braced himself the first time an employee told him that a parent wanted to speak to him. As the parent started talking, he said to Steve, “Sir, do you own this place?”
Steve nodded, thinking, “Uh-oh. Here we go.”
The man proceeded to say, “I drove three hours with my daughters and we spent $200 here, and it’s the best time we’ve ever had in our lives. We had so much fun, we plan to come back every month.”
That kind of validation is what lets Steve know that he got into the right business, and the whole family feels the same way.
Steve’s wife Amy, Terry’s wife Tammy, and Jeff’s wife Michele all work at Malibu Jack’s, as do Terry’s sons Bryan and Brandon. Bryan’s wife Alex and her sister Noelia do a lot of work for the business as well. Steve’s daughter Olivia works with Tyler in marketing, while his daughter Jessica works in the restaurant and handles photography.
“Honestly, we all work really well together,” Steve says. “A family business brings with it a different dynamic, but we enjoy each other’s company and feel lucky to see each other every day. We’re spoiled when it comes down to it.”
Malibu Jack’s is located at 1915 South Hurstbourne Parkway in Louisville. For more information, call 502–883-0380 or visit malibujacks.net.