Evermore is not dead yet
After four years, more than a dozen construction liens and lawsuits, myriad sleepless nights, and a brush with bankruptcy, Evermore Park is still alive—for now.
The ambitious 13-acre Renaissance-style experiential park faced closures and reduced attendance due to the pandemic but has since completed construction on most of its 27 old-world buildings and logged record attendance for its lore gothic-themed Halloween events in October. The park has broken even financially in 2021 due to federal grants and growing revenue, and park founder Ken Bretschneider is optimistic Evermore will stay in the black with a slate of upcoming events, including art walks, outdoor concerts, educational museum partnerships, and a Dungeons & Dragons-style battle called Battle Evermore.
The clincher? Utah real estate mogul Brandon Fugal—an early investor who, in late 2021, purchased the park’s Pleasant Grove land and buildings from Utah private investment firm GBR Investments LLC for an undisclosed amount. As part of the deal, Fugal created a new lease agreement that allowed Evermore to stay open.
Fugal is a venture capitalist, chairman of commercial real estate brokerage Colliers International, and owner of Skinwalker Ranch, a Utah ranch known for its paranormal activity and the site of the History Channel television show by the same name. Fugal first met Bretschneider when he was leading his first company, Digicert Inc., a Lehi digital security firm worth $8 billion. Fugal also represented Bretschneider with the master planning of the property, which included the sale of adjacent land for the new Hyatt House and upscale office building to the north. In 2018, he became an investor in Evermore.
“I’m inspired by the vision of Ken Bretschneider,” Fugal says. “He’s a cross between Walt Disney and Steve Jobs.”
Yet, having the vision wasn’t enough when Evermore teetered on the verge of bankruptcy last year. The land deal is the latest chapter in a four-year saga for Bretschneider, who first started the park as a tribute to the magic he found in childhood. The 55-year-old entrepreneur grew up in Canada with an abusive father and found a father figure in a neighbor, Tony Vanderpost, who he described as a “real-life Geppetto,” an inventor who made things in his woodshop. Vanderpost would open his house to the neighborhood kids who were lucky enough to explore his elaborate tree forts, haunted houses, and submarines made of boxes. “It was a safe space, and he made Halloween and Christmas magical,” Bretschneider says.
From 2009 to 2013, Bretschneider, together with his family and friends, created an annual Halloween event that transformed his Lindon home into a “ghost pirate adventure” and his yard into a “haunted gothic cemetery.” The fundraiser for the Utah Food Bank was a hit: three years in, the event drew 5,000 people in a single weekend. Bretschneider and his wife, Patrice, decided to expand their vision by creating an Old World park, where people could live out stories with characters, costumes, set designs, sound, music, lighting, and other visual effects.
Because he and his wife loved the architecture and history found in old European gothic villages, the Bretschneiders spent a month in Europe photographing buildings and searching for authentic artifacts that could be incorporated into their new park. They shipped hundreds of pieces—some older than a thousand years—like columns, statues, furniture, and even real tombstones back to Utah.
Bretschneider says he and his wife set aside double the amount of money they thought necessary for the construction of the buildings in the park—including a Gothic church, a Nordic lodge, and a medieval pub—made with traditional stone and not fake facades as in other theme parks.
“This was a huge, huge project,” Bretschneider says. “This was unique, something that hadn’t been built before, a challenge for even the most experienced contractors.”
In the final months before the park’s opening date, cost overruns quickly spiraled out of control, quadrupling original estimates. Bretschneider continued to invest up to $40 million into Evermore until he ran out of personal capital. He sought outside capital, but it was tough to find new equity investors because the project was so unique and had no revenues yet.
“It was very stressful and chaotic as we were racing toward park opening, but cost overruns continued to mount up,” Bretschneider says. The unfinished park opened in September 2018 with several million dollars in contractor invoices and was strapped with debt.
Manuel Fernandez, a subcontractor hired to do framing, told Utah Business in 2020 that he had to pay for materials out of his own pocket when Bretschneider ran out of money to keep construction work going. The Bretschneiders came close to closing on a $14 million loan, but the deal fell apart after a Utah Business cover story about the park’s financial problems.
Lawyers suggested Bretschneider file for sub-Chapter 5 bankruptcy protection to help Evermore continue. But bankruptcy protection was always a last resort for Evermore’s management team and board, he says. Bretschneider prioritized settling the construction debt as quickly as possible, especially getting payments to the smaller contractors who were most affected. Bretschneider often woke up in the middle of the night worried about making payroll and the unresolved debt.
“There were many nights when I curled up in the fetal position, feeling like I couldn’t make it another day,” he says. “But the next morning, you have to get up and keep moving forward. One of my rules is to never quit unless it’s the right thing to do.”
Fugal didn’t want the Evermore dream to end, either. A paranormal and history buff—with a personal collection that includes a 1400s-era Book of Hours—he knew that if GBR Investments sold the property to another group, Evermore would be nothing more. His investment, along with growing attendance, marked a turning point for the park, Bretschneider says.
Some Evermore debts remain unsettled, and Bretschneider declined to provide details. Millcreek Builders, the general contractor on the project, has yet to be paid for its work. Still, owner John Underwood says Bretschneider has expressed a willingness to diplomatically resolve the lawsuits and litigation he’s facing.
“We are optimistic that with Ken’s tenacity and Brandon’s collaboration, we will soon have a resolution that is acceptable for our valued subcontractors and ourselves,” Underwood wrote in an email to Utah Business.
The park even settled a legal battle with pop star Taylor Swift over the trademark “Evermore” after Swift released an album with the title and sold old-world style merchandise for promotion. Ultimately, both parties dropped their respective lawsuits against each other.
Now, Bretschneider is looking forward to a slate of events that have already started to infuse life back into the park, which employs 30 full-time people and 150 seasonal actors, musicians, artists, and operations personnel. In October, Evermore hosted Lore, a gothic, haunted adventure that had a record attendance of 2,500 to 4,000 people per night. It was followed by Aurora, a holiday-themed event with decorative lighting and performances, which drew 2,000 people per night. The park also expanded its animal program beyond birds and reptiles and is working with museums to develop educational programs.
Fugal talks enthusiastically about Vanders Keep, a new Evermore restaurant inspired by Viking longhouses with 35-foot tall ceilings, large rustic wooden beams, and old-world-themed food and drink like non-alcoholic butter toffee beer.
A fifth-generation resident of Pleasant Grove, Fugal wants to build a legacy for the town. “It’s taken a staggering amount of money to position and improve,” Fugal says, “And we want to make this a destination for the world.”
This month, the park will host Mythos, a fantasy-themed fair with mythological creatures and characters such as fairies, dwarfs, goblins, and dragons. Evermore will soon host an event called Battle Evermore, a fantasy and future warfare experience with a nighttime airsoft gun battle and a daytime fantasy battle. The park also plans to hold a concert series with Adam Reader, known for his interviews of artists as part of the Professor of Rock brand.
Despite the upward turn, Bretschneider still gets anxious about the economy, inflation, and whether another blow from the pandemic is just around the corner. “The stress doesn’t go away,” he says.
When he starts to feel this way, Bretschneider personally visits the park and watches kids and their families explore the world that he’s managed to build despite the odds. “It sounds cheesy, but there’s magic in Evermore, and that was the whole goal,” he says. “More than ever, people need to leave the troubled world behind and have a moment to escape into imagination.”