Looking ahead to 2021: COVID-19 and the long road to recovery

Six Flags

Following the disastrous 2020 season, we take a look at the decisions that operators might make as a result of COVID-19, to prepare for 2021 and the start of the long road to recovery.

By Lance HartScreamscape

One thing is clear – there is a long road ahead of us all. Many of those attractions that did manage to open have now opted to close early for the rest of the year. But it’s not a matter of attractions just going into hibernation as a result of COVID-19 and awaking to a normal world again in 2021.

As I feared earlier this year, the pandemic has changed the world. Furthermore, the threat is not over. It seems clear that much planning will need to take place between now and Spring 2021, when most seasonal parks and attractions will hope to reopen again.

Candymonium Riders masks Attractions 2021 COVID

Candymonium at Hersheypark

Of course, the situation will vary from country to country around the world, depending on how things were handled in 2020, as well as what new developments take place over the next six months. While there is the possibility of a vaccine being released, the fact remains that trying to vaccinate a global population of 7.8 billion people is going to be a long and drawn-out process.

A post-COVID-world – how will attractions fare in 2021

Based on events of this year, everyone needs to prepare for 2021 to be a bit of a struggle too. I do believe we will find a way to open most, if not all major attractions again next year. But attendance is still going to be a bit of an uphill battle.

Downtown Disney COVID-19 solutions Attractions 2021 COVID

(Derek Lee/Disneyland Resort)

Currently, I would predict that most locations will be spending the year trying to build up attendance levels. However, I have doubts anyone will reach their regular pre-COVID attendance levels until some point in 2022 at the earliest.

A published forecast from Deutsche Bank, released earlier this month, warned it could take even longer. This predicted that, for Disney theme parks, 2021 would be another “lost year”. According to the report, it could be 2023 before Disney’s theme parks return to pre-COVID performance levels.

COVID guidelines for 2021

Much of this may depend on what kind of COVID-19 guidelines that attractions will be allowed to operate under in 2021.

Will face mask-wearing still be encouraged in much of the world? Will social distancing still be required or will people be allowed in close-quarters once again? Depending on where you are, what kind of travel restrictions could possibly still be in effect? And what effect will this have on both domestic and international travel in your area?

Not every attraction is going to be able to survive on pause for another six months.

Over the winter months, we may also see some business shakeups. I fear that not every attraction is going to be able to survive on pause for another six months.

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment already stated that the company was keeping an eye open for possible future acquisitions in the months to come, from properties that are unable to ‘weather the storm”. Prior to the global pandemic, Six Flags had already begun the process of expanding its chain in 2019. As a result, it has brought several smaller parks and waterparks into the fold.

Adapting to survive

As we move into the end of 2020, I think we will see all parks, and chains of parks, begin the process of determining just what they have to do to survive.

As I previously mentioned, hoping to sleep over the long winter to reopen in the Spring is simply not going to cut it. During 2021, attractions will need to determine if they have what it will take to survive the next few years, operating at reduced profit levels as a result of COVID-19.

They will also need to determine what they might have to sacrifice now to ensure their long term survival. For the bigger chains, this could mean the closure or sale of underperforming properties. For those with the means, it also may bring about some fantastic opportunities for growth that normally would never happen.

six flags great adventure safari Attractions 2021 COVID

Six Flags Great Adventure

Attractions must be nimble, innovative, able to adapt and open to change. Those that are will likely find themselves in a favourable position in 2021.

Based on what I’ve seen so far in 2020, a group that surprised me was Six Flags. Using some out of the box thinking, we saw Six Flags able to open two of their properties as animal only attractions in New Jersey and California. This was done by taking advantage of loop-holes that allowed zoos to reopen but not theme parks.

Looking ahead

Many other parks have been able to keep their properties alive in unique ways. For instance, by reopening as a series of limited capacity food, beer and wine festival events, such as at Knott’s Berry Farm or Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

Stranger Things Drive Through halloween covid 19

Elsewhere, some properties have been able to transform their parking lots into temporary drive-in movie theatres. Or create outdoor performance venues for comic and music concerts. In Brazil, Hopi Hari has transformed its entire property into a massive drive-through haunted Halloween experience.

Following COVID-19, this kind of innovation and creative vision to quickly execute new ideas and concepts will serve attractions well in 2021 and the years to come. I look forward to seeing what happens next, especially as we move towards the Christmas holiday season.