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The Amazing Maize Maze

The Amazing Maize Maze

By PETER FILICHIA

OCT 21, 2014

You pay about what you’d shell out for a movie ticket, but you’re still in the wild outdoors.

No, you’re not at a drive-in movie. (Remember those?) Instead, you’re immersed in acres of cornstalks that are almost as high as an elephant’s eye. You’re given a flag to carry, which you may well need as you partake in what’s been called “the roller coaster of agri-tainment.”

Agri-tainment, if the term is unfamiliar to you, refers to farm-based fun. At one time that was limited to picking your own produce, tasting wines, and going on rides (be it on hay or pony).

But in the last 20 years, the crown jewel of agri-tainment has become the Amazing Maize Maze — a carefully cut cornfield that’s been manicured into an outdoor labyrinth. Your mission, should you decide to accept it — millions already have — is to get out once you get in.

The Amazing Maize Maze is the brainchild of Don Frantz, who has done most everything in show business. He’s been a dancer in a Seiko commercial and the first “Marvelous Magical Burger King” in test ads. In a producing capacity, he’s worked on the Super Bowl, World Expo, and Liberty Weekend. Frantz has also been a general manager of such Broadway shows as A Class Act and will soon coproduce a new Off-Broadway musical called Disenchanted!

And while no parent is supposed to have a favorite child, Frantz seems to speak most proudly of the Amazing Maize Maze. However, Frantz is quick to proclaim the Walt Disney Company, for which he was a creative director in the early 1990s, as the maze’s godfather.

In June 1991, Frantz, who’d been producing and directing such Disney World attractions as the “SpectroMagic” light parade, saw some culture entertainment TV clips that Disney had been sent. One of them was a tourism promotion for European mazes. Frantz had never encountered a maze, but the idea of maneuvering through one appealed to him.  

Frantz’s preference for a window seat while flying helped the idea along too. He would gaze outside and see field after field after field — all of which ostensibly seemed to have nothing happening in them.

“I was also reminded of Field of Dreams,” he says, before quoting its most famous message: “If you build it, they will come.”

But could Don Frantz build a multiacre maze?

While he was looking for solutions, Disney was trying to solve the problem of making Beauty and the Beast into a Broadway musical. “So many people said it couldn’t be done,” says Frantz, “that the idea was knocked down six times.” But the resolve of Michael Eisner, then the company’s CEO, inspired Frantz to continue his impossible dream, even as, to paraphrase an old Ira Gershwin lyric, “they all laughed at Donny and his notion when he planned an outdoor maze.”

Frantz’s 20th class reunion at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania, proved vitally important. “When I mentioned to the school’s president what I had in mind,” Frantz says, “he was soon taking me to farms.”

Yet even there Frantz met with resistance. “The first farmer said, ‘I spend a lot of time keeping kids out of here,’” he says, chuckling with understanding of the man’s plight. “The way the second said, ‘I plant corn, I grow it, I harvest it,’ made me see nothing would happen there too.”

Third time was the charm. A farmer who had 3 acres to spare told Frantz that he’d been clearing $200 an acre in a year when the sun, rain, and insects had all cooperated. That was enough to start Frantz negotiating. “I told him I’d even give half the corn back to him,” he adds with a grin.

(Indeed: You can’t have a maze without getting rid of some of the corn.)

Frantz’s calling his company the Amazing Maize Maze had its roots in Disney too, albeit in a roundabout way. It started when Frantz was asked to guide the Broadway producing-directing legend Hal Prince (The Phantom of the Opera) and his family around Disney World. Prince was so impressed with Frantz’s three-day excursion that he recommended it to his most famous collaborator: Stephen Sondheim (Into the Woods). So Frantz gave Sondheim the deluxe tour as well.

They kept in touch and, at a dinner one night, Sondheim asked about Frantz’s immediate plans. “And when I told him,” says Frantz with wonder still in his voice, “Steve immediately said without missing a beat, ‘The Amazing Maize Maze!’ Yes, no less than Stephen Sondheim gave me the name, and that convinced me that this was destiny.”

Finding a plumber in New York is hard enough; where does one go to find maze-builders, especially in the pre-internet era? Lengthy research did yield five — “One from Canada, Germany, and Australia, and two from England,” Frantz says, ticking them off on his fingers. “But after I told them the scope of what I was doing, I kept hearing, ‘People will have heart attacks and die!’ ‘There’ll be snakes!’ ‘What if there’s a fire?’ Others said, ‘People will have to be in there for two hours!’ And I thought, Well, a Broadway show is longer than that, isn’t it?”

Luckily, expert maze-maker Adrian Fisher loved the 3-acre plan, as evidenced by his response “Jolly-O! Great fun!” (which also reveals what country he came from). “A maze design is like a chess game,” he told Frantz, “but I get to do all the moves before the player starts.”

“We had to chop down the corn, which had stronger roots than you might think,” Frantz says ruefully. “There were plenty of tillers and shovels. Friends, family, and people I knew from college came out to volunteer and help in ‘Don’s funny project,’” he says, making exclamation points with his fingers. “I honestly can’t even say how much it cost.”

Keeping expenses down, however, was important. “I went to a big store and said, ‘What can I buy a lot of cheap?’ Colored ribbon survey tape was $1.99, so I bought some, but mailboxes were $3.99 each. Instead, I went to a local shoe store and had them give me shoeboxes instead.”

They were needed to house clues. “There are 15 boxes with pieces of paper that you Scotch-tape together. Gradually you build the entire map of the maze — a map that had to be precise so that all participants would feel that they’re playing a fair game. There’s a Maze Master too, who sits in a tower and gives clues through a microphone.”

In addition, there are 15 signs called The Kernels of Knowledge that tell about the theme of the maze or a word scramble that gives a clue. Frantz delivers another lesson he’s learned: “If you have something to do every three or four minutes, you stay engaged.”

Beauty and the Beast helped in yet another way. “A scenic person from the show asked me before I started, ‘How wide will the rows be?’ It was a good question,” admits Frantz. “I’ve found that 36 inches allows two people to walk next to each other. Having one person alone followed by another person alone isn’t nearly as much fun.”

When Frantz opened for business in 1993, Good Morning, America came to do a story. “That resulted in 11,000 people showing up in Annville, a town of 6,000. We raised $33,000, which we donated to the Red Cross.” Frantz did upgrade the shoeboxes to genuine mailboxes, for the former didn’t hold up when the rains came.

More publicity came thanks to Susan Lee, then director of marketing for The League of American Theatres and Producers, whom Frantz met at the opening of (shall we all say it in unison?) Beauty and the Beast. “With her on the phone, it became a three-week media frenzy,” he says with gratitude still evident in his voice. “The Times, the Today show, People, USA Today, Tokyo Broadcast, and BBC — not to mention that the Guinness World Records book named it the largest maze on earth.”

After the success in Annville, owners of Cherry Crest Farm in Paradise, Pennsylvania, approached Frantz. “The farm was about to go out of business, and now it’s had 100,000 visitors in one year, taken in $2 million and become the biggest employer in the township,” he says with pride. There are now three Amazing Maize Mazes in New York state — in Queens, Macedon, and Ballston Spa — and one in North Carolina too.

Were one to take a plane over the fields, he’d see what the mazes were cut to be. An animal, a musical instrument, and a tribute to a famous film are among the mazes. But far be it from us to give away what each is. (You might get a hint on October 25, when Good Morning, America does a follow-up.)

Perhaps Frantz’s favorite compliment came from a father. “He actually told me his family was better for going through the maze,” Frantz says. “Oh, he admitted that 30 minutes into it he and his wife almost had a marital breakdown and at the 40-minute mark the kids were going nuts. But then at the 1:14 mark, when they reached Victory Circle, they were all jumping up and down, yelling, ‘We did it! We did it!’ Compare this to, say, miniature golf. When a family plays, a father must decide if he’ll let his son win. Here, the family acts as a unit.”

There’s no time limit, but there is a time-in, time-out system that allows participants to see how long they needed to solve the puzzle.

“But the journey,” says Frantz, slowly wagging a finger, “is more important than the destination.”

And that aforementioned flag you’re given? The Maze Master pays attention to it. If your flag flags, he may matter-of-factly ask, “Green-and-blue flag, how are you doing over there?” Every participant has been instructed that flag-waving up and down means all is well, while waving back and forth means all isn’t. And if all else fails, there’s the Victory Bridge where one can seek refuge — or make a hasty exit.

“You become more who you are in this maze,” Frantz insists. “If you’re a nurturer, you’ll nurture the others, and if you’re competitive, you won’t. If you’re the type who views the glass as half-full, you’ll get there. You will have to stop to think, but you will eventually have to move. Some make the same choice over and over again,” he says with an indulgent smile before delivering Frantz’s First Law of Solving: “If you want to get to a different place, you have to make a different choice.”

The biggest surprise? “I’ve found that now, more than 20 years after we started, the players are essentially writing the same script that people did two decades ago. They’re laughing just as hard when they turn a corner and discover ‘Here we are again!’”

And, Frantz hopes, the laughter will continue for many years to come.

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