City, state and project leaders broke ground in Vinita on Three Ponies RV Park and Campground, a luxury outdoor destination featuring 300 cabins and 750 RV sites, on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. From left: Vinita Mayor Josh Lee; Gene McComb, American Heartland director of acquisitions; Steve Hedrick, American Heartland executive producer of project development; Kristy Adams, American Heartland senior executive vice president of marketing and sales; Gene Bicknell, American Heartland founder; Larry Wilhite, American Heartland president; Shelley Zumwalt, executive director of the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department; Sen. Micheal Bergstrom (R-Adair); and state Rep. Rusty Cornwell (R-Vinita). (Provided)

VINITA — Mud caused by weekend rains and cold temperatures may have cut short ceremonial remarks, but it didn’t hinder the enthusiasm of more than 100 people who showed up to Monday’s groundbreaking event for a recreational vehicle park and campground billed to become the largest of its kind in the region when it opens next year.

Backers of the project and local officials said the Three Ponies RV Park and Campground will stimulate the local economy and draw travelers to northeast Oklahoma, helping out the state’s tourism industry and local employment opportunities in Craig County.

The Three Ponies campground is described as a luxury outdoor resort destination featuring 300 cabins and 750 RV sites. A handful of RVs were parked on the 320-acre site Monday to help illustrate the scope of the campground.

The campground marks the first phase of American Heartland Theme Park and Resort, a more than $2 billion entertainment destination development that has raised eyebrows, expectations and questions since its announcement this summer. Developed by Mansion Entertainment Group, both the campground and theme park sites sit off U.S. Highway 60 about 10 miles west of Grand Lake. Earlier this month, the Vinita City Council annexed the sites along with several square miles of land east of the city.

Planned by North America-wide urban designers Nadi Group, the Three Ponies RV Park and Campground was designed by Oklahoma architects ADG Blatt. Crossland Construction Co. is the contractor.

Park to promote America’s values ‘that somehow we’ve lost’

American Heartland founder Gene Bicknell, right, and Steve Hedrick, executive producer of project development, talk to media during the groundbreaking for Three Ponies RV Park and Camground in Vinita, Oklahoma, on Monday, Oct. 30, 3023. (Michael McNutt)

Larry Wilhite, American Heartland president, said the Three Ponies RV Park and Campground will cost more than $100 million. It is projected to create more than 300 jobs and draw more than 315,000 people per year.

“We anticipate Three Ponies will attract local residents and visitors from across the country to northeast Oklahoma,” he said. “With top-notch amenities, guests can enjoy and explore the great outdoors and create long-lasting family memories.”

Gene Bicknell, American Heartland’s founder, said he is developing the campground and theme park so visitors can discover America’s values “that somehow we’ve lost.”

“Our hope is that we’re not going to be preaching to anybody, but we’re certainly going to expose the fact that we’re people of faith, and our future depends on what happens from this point forward and we hope that we’re the start of a revelation,” he said. “We welcome everybody to join us in trying to produce new hope and faith for our country that needs somebody to step up right now. I think we all realize that there’s so many challenges and so much desertion of friendship and trust in others. We’ve got people with different values and that’s OK — this is America. But we stand on the Constitution, we stand on the values that we were founded under. We appreciate our forefathers and the wisdom they had and the guidance they’ve given us through the years.”

Bicknell was born just south of the Kansas border in Picher, a community now deserted owing to the Tar Creek Superfund Site with its enormous and hazardous chat piles. He said his family includes members of the Cherokee and Osage nations and that his great-grandmother, when she was 2 years old, traveled the Trail of Tears.

“I’m back now, from birth to the end and right here in Vinita, Oklahoma,” he said.

After earning a business degree from Pittsburg State University in southeast Kansas, Bicknell joined the Pizza Hut franchise network in 1962, four years after the first location opened in Wichita. After PepsiCo bought Pizza Hut, Bicknell took his company public under the name National Pizza Co., later known as NPC International Inc. With Bicknell in charge, the company operated more than 800 Pizza Hut locations worldwide. He sold the company for $615 million in 2006, and the state of Kansas attempted to collect $42.5 million in taxes. Bicknell argued that he resided in Florida and filed his Kansas tax returns only as a nonresident, ultimately winning a Kansas Supreme Court case and recovering $63 million.

Bicknell’s primary partner in the Vinita theme park endeavor is Wilhite, who is also the CEO of Mansion Entertainment Group, a company most known for its recently rebranded Mansion Theatre for Performing Arts in Branson, Missouri.

In recent years, Bicknell and Wilhite have been composing music and making art with Rick Silanskas, the executive producer of the Mansion Theatre. Although Silanskas was a guiding force behind two previously failed proposals for large theme parks in Texas and Alabama, Mansion officials say he has no role in the American Heartland project.

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Three Ponies RV Park planned as a luxury outdoor resort

Three Ponies RV Park and Campground will feature a clubhouse with a snack bar and a general store as shown in this rendering. (Provided)

Steve Hedrick, American Heartland’s executive producer of project development, said Three Ponies will offer lots of amenities for those staying at the campground and RV park. They include a clubhouse with snack bar, a general store, swimming pools, multipurpose trails and a dog park.

The clubhouse will include a cafe and snack bar with indoor and outdoor dining service as well as pick-up and swim-up service options from the pool, according to plans. The recreation building will house a restaurant serving lunch and dinner, a fitness room, arcade, and a game room with pool and foosball. The general store will offer camping provisions, and visitors will have access to a dog park and dog-friendly hiking trails.

“And then just next door across the road here we’re going to open that theme park in 2026,” Hedrick said. “We’re ready. We’re pushing dirt today, and we hope to push dirt over there soon.”

Hedrick spent half of his 40-year career in the theme-park industry working with the Walt Disney Company. He said he will be leading a design team that features more than 20 former Disney parks builders and engineers.

“People from all over the country, all over the world, I think, will want to come to this park right on Route 66,” he said.

Bicknell, 92, said he is confident Hedrick will develop a great theme park.

“Steve has the knowledge, the ability and the know-how to make this one of the most beautiful parks in the world,” he said.

Bicknell and Hedrick said both the campground and theme park projects are on schedule. Hedrick said the opening of the theme park is scheduled for October 2026.

Mayor: Projects get ‘positive reaction’ from the state

Vinita Mayor Josh Lee attended the Three Ponies RV Park and Campground groundbreaking on Monday, Oct. 30, 3023. He said he is excited about the theme park and RV campground projects planned for his city. (Michael McNutt)

Vinita Mayor Josh Lee said the American Heartland projects offer “a future filled with promise and potential.”

But to support the RV park and theme park developments, Lee said the city will need upgrades in its water and sewage facilities and roadways will have to be improved. The city is still tallying what kind of financial assistance it will seek from the Oklahoma Legislature. Preliminary estimates on water and wastewater facilities are about $60 million, he said.


Vinita annexation, American Heartland Theme ParkTheme park update: Vinita annexes land, RV camp groundbreaking set by Michael McNutt

“There have been all kinds of communications with the state,” he said. “And we’re looking at our own ways to raise the revenue to get the projects done.”

Lee said he has talked with legislative leaders and with different state agencies and has gotten “a very positive” reception.

The mayor said he has been contacted by many investors wanting to develop projects, such as hotels and restaurants, in Vinita since American Heartland announced the theme park and campground projects in July.

“We’ve had a tremendous amount of interest,” Lee said. “A lot of investors will sit back and wait (…) I suspect after today our phones will be ringing off the hook.”

Brent Kisling, who served as executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce from 2019 until he resigned from the post in June, said Mansion Entertainment approached the state about two years ago. Kisling now works as a consultant, and his clients include Mansion Entertainment.

“This is the most organized group that I’ve worked with,” he said. “They know what they’re doing.”

Kisling said Mansion Entertainment first looked at sites in Missouri “and then chose to come over here to Oklahoma.”

Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department executive director Shelley Zumwalt said the Three Ponies RV Park and Campground will be a welcome addition to the state’s tourism industry, which is the Oklahoma’s third-largest generator of jobs.

“Anytime that we can have an out-of-state company come in and say Oklahoma is a place where we want to invest our money and we want to bring in millions of dollars of development and hundreds of jobs, that is a good thing for Oklahoma,” she said.