Monster Mini Golf franchise creator builds success, gives back

AT: Dean Lamanna

LAS VEGAS — Offering a more affordable alternative to the higher-end, craft cocktail-slinging family entertainment center chains springing up in North American over the last decade, Monster Mini Golf has emerged as a surprising success — bringing a traditional form of amusement indoors, adding popular music and fantastic fluorescent props, and setting it all aglow in retro blacklight.

The brand was created by Christina Vitagliano and is franchised through Monster Entertainment, LLC, which she owns with her husband, Patrick Vitagliano. The company, now in its 15th year, has overseen the opening of all-season miniature golf courses in more than 30 locations across the U.S. and Canada. The Vitaglianos personally own two specially licensed Strip-area venues in Las Vegas, where they are based: Kiss by Monster Mini Golf at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino and Twilight Zone by Monster Mini Golf at Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel & Casino.

Exuding the pride and confidence that come with profitable entrepreneurship and a reputation for community involvement, Christina also displayed earthy wit in announcing the company’s latest project — a perpetual fundraising campaign labeled “Share a Pair to Support Public Education,” launched last November.

“Monster Mini Golf has a lot of balls, and we’re using them to help raise dollars for local schools within the communities where we are located,” she said, explaining the company’s decision to donate 100 percent of online and onsite sales of special-edition golf ball sets to randomly selected local public schools. “Currently, public school funding gets pushed to the bottom of the agendas, and it’s affecting our teachers, students and the future of our country.

“We wanted to make a difference.”

Putting for the gold

Greeting Amusement Today in the party room at the Bally’s Las Vegas location — a theater lobby-like space filled with vintage 1950s sci-fi movie posters and other details inspired by the adjacent 18 Twilight Zone-themed tees — Christina described the obstacle-filled course that led her from a vague idea in 2003 to this lucrative and philanthropic place.

“It’s a really messed-up story,” she said with a laugh, recalling her dissatisfaction with an otherwise thriving antique auction house she had established in a leased, century-old mill in Danielson, Conn., after managing nightclubs in nearby Providence, R.I. “Pat and I traveled all over the world collecting antiques, and I loved the business because the research was amazing, but every day I saw greed. After about five years of it, I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

While figuring out what was next, Vitagliano kept hearing people around town, especially those with kids, complain about the cost of entertainment. “It stuck in my head,” she said. 

She sold the most valuable remaining part of her auction house, the mailing list, and the couple fell back on the income from Pat’s concert rental company — the sound and lighting equipment for which occupied only a portion of the old mill’s several thousand square feet.

Vitagliano filled her time writing a memoir, looking into self-publishing it when she felt it was almost finished. But she quickly learned that it would cost about $5,000 just for the editing. “We didn’t have the money, so I told my husband I was going to create a business to raise it.” She determined that her new work would be “something fun for families and cost less than the movies.” What it would be, she did not yet know.

It finally came to her on the return trip from a weekend in New York City.

“I turned to Pat and said, ‘I know what I want to do.’ He goes, ‘Great. What?’ I said, ‘I want to do mini golf indoors.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because we’re in New England and I have to make money year-round.’”

Near the end of the three-and-a-half-hour drive, Vitagliano had an epiphany that involved the old mill’s vacant space, her husband’s background in concert production and her own knowledge of the nightclub business — specifically, the latter’s use of black paint on walls and ceilings, and even blacklight, to hide imperfections and create atmosphere.

“I turned to Pat again and said, ‘What if we made it a blacklight mini golf?’ He thought it was kind of cool.”

With money extremely tight, Vitagliano leaned on some part-time income and her own determination — plus a lot of scavenging — as she spent the next several months assembling odd pieces and lumber for the miniature golf course. The condition of the old mill, she felt, lent itself well to a monster theme, and she went with it.

“I’m not artistic,” she said. But she found ways to create some things as she imagined them, including a giant, sculpted tree that she made using 75 cans of spray insulation foam. “My first course was completely not legal. Back then, I had no idea.”

En route to completion, Vitagliano decided the attraction would need arcade games but knew she could not buy them. Knowing something of how the vending business worked from her nightclub experience, she contacted several outfits to no avail before a company in Milford, Conn., expressed interest in supplying machines and pool tables. They agreed to a 50/50 profit split.

Another challenge was obtaining glow-in-the-dark golf equipment. While managing to find balls at Walmart and on eBay that glowed in blacklight, Vitagliano resorted to spray-painting a set of old miniature golf putters she bought online with fluorescent colors. “I totally winged it,” she said.

With less than $5,000 invested in the attraction, plus a tiny local print advertising budget, the first Monster Mini Golf opened on Memorial Day weekend of 2004. “The day before, everybody was laughing at me,” she said. “My landlord was like, ‘You’ll probably get eight people.’”

Vitagliano proved the skeptics wrong as business grew steadily over the summer. On one rainy Sunday afternoon in mid-August alone, she counted about $3,000 in the till. But then, she became concerned that some of the wealthy businesspersons among her customers might be thinking about swiping her concept. Discussing with Pat her intent to franchise Monster Mini Golf, she did some online research and found a company in Chicago to assist with the crucial financial and legal details and paperwork.

Pat sold his own small company to partner with his wife in taking this major step, and the couple roughed it for nearly a year — giving up their apartment, selling belongings and moving into the mini golf’s office space in the old mill in order to pay off the business loan.

“It was horrible,” said Vitagliano, describing how they slept on a mattress on the floor, built a makeshift shower in the restroom, and subsisted on ramen noodles and delivered pizza. “But when we became legal to sell franchises 10 months later, we sold our first one — and were able to finish paying off the loan — the first week.”

Monstrously cool venues

A few years later, with about a dozen Monster Mini Golf franchises sold, the Vitaglianos had begun taking a harder look at Las Vegas. “We started coming here for all the trade shows,” Christina said. “If you’re an entrepreneur at heart, this is the most intriguing place for business. And it’s the cool place for people who are weird.”

They considered locations on the city’s outskirts for another Monster Mini Golf of their own, but then decided those would be better for franchises. Vitagliano, eyeing a location across from the Hard Rock Hotel, knew they needed to come up with something special for a Monster Mini Golf closer to the Strip. And knowing her husband was a lifelong fan of the 1973-born rock group Kiss, she proposed that they create a Kiss-themed mini golf.

Through a business connection, she obtained a phone number for a lawyer representing the band. A year and a “bazillion dollars” later, they had a licensing agreement. Kiss by Monster Mini Golf opened in 2012.

“It was a huge risk, completely crazy,” said Vitagliano, who wound up befriending and handling marketing projects for Kiss co-founder / frontman Gene Simmons — and even writing an authorized parody book about him.

The risk paid additional dividends when casino resort operator Caesars Entertainment invited Monster Mini Golf to relocate the Kiss course to its Rio hotel property to the west of the Strip. Not long after that, Caesars offered a 10,000-square-foot space for another Monster Mini Golf venue — this one Twilight Zone-themed and licensed through CBS Consumer Products — at its Bally’s property.

“Even when we first started, I knew I was taking something that’s been around for a hundred years and giving it a 21st century twist,” said Vitagliano, whose business philosophy is simple: all ages and abilities must be able to play. “A lot of activities today are not multigenerational, but miniature golf is.”

This article appears in the APRIL 2019 issue of Amusement Today.
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