Man’s outdoor maze empire begins in Breckenridge
Mountain pine beetles bore tiny tunnels like labyrinths just beneath the barky surface of trees.
The tiny creatures create untold numbers of micro mazes inside the dying pines on which they feed.
But now the beetle-kill trees are getting a second life. The pines, which look like they’re filled with their own mazes, are being used to build human-sized mazes.
“The exterior of the entire Winter Park maze is made from beetle-kill pine,” said Greg Gallavan, owner of Amaze’n Mazes.
“It’s so pretty,” he said of the blue streaks running through the wood panels surrounding the 5,000-square-foot fence maze in a parking lot at the Village at Winter Park.
Another maze he built recently, in Pennsylvania, also is made from blue-stain pine produced in Winter Park.
The pine beetle larvae survive brutal winters beneath the bark of pines by metabolizing a type of alcohol called glycerol. The glycerol acts as an antifreeze. During this process the bugs transmit blue-stain fungus to the tree. The fungus, along with the burrowing beetle, hastens the death of the tree. But it also creates a blue-gray appearance in beetle-affected sapwood.
“It’s a beautiful color,” Gallavan said. “It’s scary how many trees are dead. But there is a lot of it that is being used.”
The addition of the beetle-kill wood is the latest update to the Winter Park maze, which he built back in 1988. A couple years later, in 1990, he built his second maze, in Breckenridge. It still stands at the base of Peak 8. At the time it was 10,000 square feet and one of the largest mazes in the world.
Little did he know that a personal fascination with mazes would lead him to form a company that would soon lead the world in constructing giant fence mazes.
Tracing a path
Gallavan, 63, is originally from Denver. He moved to Winter Park 35 years ago as a “ski bum.”
While Gallavan likes to make people lost, he’s certainly not lost as a business manager.
“I started out as a line cook at a restaurant on the mountain,” he said. “I eventually got promoted to be the manager of the restaurant, and then I went on to manage all the restaurants in the ski area.”
He did that for more than 25 years. During his time there he expanded resort food options from five to 19 dining areas. And despite his success as a restaurant manager, it was a random magazine article that changed his life’s path.
In 1988, Time ran a piece on the Wooz maze. Human mazes had just become popular in Japan, and a Japanese firm called Sun Creative Systems U.S.A. planned to launch a chain of human-sized mazes across the United States, starting with one near San Jose, California.
“I had always been fascinated by mazes, so I went to see it,” Gallavan said. “I get up there and I see as many ticket windows as I would at a ski area. I start thinking, ‘Hmmm, this looks like a pretty good idea.’”
But Wooz wasn’t running on the best business model.
“They were trying to franchise, and it was a $45,000 franchise fee and then about a $1 million build-out,” Gallavan said. “I’m a carpenter and a home builder. I knew I could build an entire maze myself for under $45,000.
“So that same year I got a partner and we built a place in Winter Park that sold burgers and had mini golf, an arcade and a 3,500-square-foot maze indoors.”
About two years later they decided to get out of food business entirely and opened Amaze’n Breckenridge. It was Gallavan’s first outdoor maze, and it experienced some initial difficulties. First, summer tourism to Breckenridge then wasn’t nearly as strong as it is now.
“It took two years to get through the town’s planning department,” Gallavan said. “It was also difficult to find a location.”
They finally built it on top of a pair of tennis courts near where the Breckenridge Mountain Lodge is now, right next to where the horse stables were located.
“We ran the first year, and it did pretty good,” Gallavan said. “And Breck only reported about 100,000 summer visitors back then. We thought if summer was that good, we could heat the floor and run it in the winter too. We pulled the entire maze out. Ripped up the ground and installed a bunch of boilers.
“It was probably the biggest error we ever made. Skiers are toast after skiing. Nobody wanted to do the maze during the winter. We did it for two years and only in one month did we earn enough to pay for the heat.”
But the popularity of the maze in the summer ensured its survival. Vail Resorts convinced Gallavan to move the maze to the base of Peak 8 and eventually bought the maze.
The second outdoor maze he built was back in Winter Park. And it wouldn’t be long before he started building mazes for sites all over the region, the nation and the world.
Technology in the modern world does a lot to prevent one from being lost. Almost every new vehicle comes equipped with global positioning systems and digital maps. The smart phone has virtually disabled the ability to be alone or lost when something with a million ways to communicate or research the unknown fits into your pocket.
As terrifying as being alone and lost is, it’s also always captured the human imagination. It’s common to refer to doing something you really enjoy as getting lost in it. People get lost in book or movies or television shows. When in love they get lost in other people. And a draw to many people is the call of getting lost in the wilderness — at least temporarily.
People can’t discover something new until they first get lost. The desire to get lost has pushed humankind into every corner of the globe, and pushed the boundaries of research into the great unknowns of outer space and murky ocean depths.
“Mazes have been around since ancient times,” Gallavan said. “You can get lost on a piece of paper or like in our mazes people get lost in a parking lot. People enjoy it so much. It’s so funny to listen to and watch parents and kids try to find their way out.”
The earliest known human-sized maze dates back 4,000 years to the ancient Egyptians. The Greek writer and traveler Herodotus described the labyrinth he saw there as being greater than the pyramids. Later, the Minotaur and his maze, from Greek mythology, became the most popular labyrinthine legend.
But mazes survived and their roles changed through history. Many Christian cathedrals built in France an Italy from the first through the 13th centuries had labyrinths. Later, mazes made from hedgerows became popular in England.
“The mazes in England were built for people to go into and relax and contemplate,” Gallavan said. “But the Japanese and the Wooz get the credit because they were the ones who created checkpoints and made it more of a game.”
While the Christian mazes of the Middle Ages represented spiritual journeys and the English mazes fostered meditation, the mazes of Wooz and Gallavan are about getting lost and problem solving. People in the maze must reach a certain number of checkpoints and find the finish in a certain amount of time. Those posting better times are awarded better prizes.
“People are naturally competitive, and kids who play video games are a natural at solving these mazes,” Gallavan said.
Lost in the world
It was almost by chance that Amaze’n Mazes gained an international presence.
The company has built them all over the region, including Winter Park, Breckenridge, Steamboat Springs, Glenwood Springs and Golden. Gallavan has also designed and built mazes in places ranging from Korea to Hungary and Mexico to Australia and South America.
But how did building mazes at a couple of ski resorts in the High Rockies transform into running a company with a global presence?
“A lot of it was word of mouth,” Gallavan said.
The first overseas maze Gallavan designed was in Spain.
“A kid was here for the summer to spend time at a dude ranch and ended up going to Peak 8 in Breckenridge during his stay,” Gallavan said. “He did the maze and kept a brochure. He never even said anything to his father about it, but his dad saw the brochure as he was unpacking. The next year the father visited the Breckenridge maze himself, and he wanted to buy plans to build his own. I sold him designs for two mazes he built on islands in the Mediterranean Sea.
“I never even thought about exporting. I always hoped it would grow, but I never realistically thought it would become as big as it has. We are the only company in the United States and probably the world that builds fence mazes like we do.”
His mazes are made up of fence panels. They have hidden dead ends and create blind corners to vary the level of difficulty. They can also easily be moved around to create whole new labyrinths.
They can also incorporate themes, such as water in the maze located in Bessemer, Alabama, and Indiana Jones at a maze in Houston.
There are approximately 110 fence mazes in the United States and about 40 of those were built by Gallavan’s company.
“I have a couple guys who work with me who are really good at getting people lost,” he said.
Surviving the game
Unfortunately for the Japanese investors, the Wooz chain never caught on in the United States. The original Wooz that Gallavan visited in the late 1980s had shut down by the mid-1990s. Not long after it closed, someone burned the fence maze made from redwood trees to the ground, leaving only ash and memories of its existence. Meanwhile, Gallavan’s Amaze’n Mazes has grown into the most prolific builder of human-sized fence mazes in the world.
Instead of using real people as clerks at the window to run the maze, Wooz automated the entire process. Tickets were purchased from a keypad. And a recording on a monitor is the only face that greeted visitors.
“There was no live person — just a video,” Gallavan said. “There was nobody there to say hi and bye. One of our trademarks is we’ve never gone to video. It animates it. It’s part of the business.”
While he’s enjoyed the financial success of building mazes, his father recently pointed out another benefit of the business.
“My dad is 89 years old,” he said. “He recently wrote a note in a book for me that said, ‘It’s pretty cool that you can make people smile all over the world.’ And I never really thought about it that way, but it is pretty cool.
“I’m just the maze guy. I’ve been doing it for so long now, and I don’t think I’ll ever change.”
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