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How theme parks are rising to meet coronavirus challenges

The road to recovery has been strewn with roadblocks and detours as US theme parks struggle to draw crowds even with reduced capacity amid a global pandemic.

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The pent-up demand that Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, Six Flags, Cedar Fair, Legoland and other theme park operators expected, after coronavirus threatened to cancel their summer seasons, hasn’t materialized. This is because surges in COVID-19 cases across the US have kept visitors at home.

By Brady MacDonald

The latest round of quarterly reports from the theme park titans paints a bleak picture of the theme park industry. Attendance was close to zero and revenues were down more than 90% during the recent three-month period. This is when most parks were closed by the global pandemic.

Since then, many US theme parks have reopened with extensive health and safety protocols and reduced capacity limits. However, they have also been faced with surges in coronavirus cases across the country. These have decreased visitor eagerness for a day of fun on carousels, coasters and dark rides.

Lower than anticipated attendance has forced regional theme parks and big players to rethink their operating plans after reopening.

theme parks coronavirus Universal Resort reopening masks
Image courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort

Hope has turned to despair for theme park operators who cautiously awaited reopening this summer. Now, they have found themselves cutting hours, reducing operating days and dropping reservation requirements. Not to mention dealing with attendance caps mandated by individual states.

Theme parks left reeling by coronavirus pandemic

Surges in coronavirus cases have brought a cruel new reality for theme parks. Many visitors may not be ready to return until a COVID-19 treatment or vaccine is widely available. Spikes in cases have caused visitors to stay away and left some still-closed theme parks anxiously waiting to reopen.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans feel uncomfortable going to a theme park right now

Nearly three-quarters of Americans feel uncomfortable going to a theme park right now. This is according to a new survey by the Morning Consult research company.

Only 8% of Americans currently feel comfortable going to a theme park, according to the survey. Almost 60% of Americans said it will take three months or more before they will be ready to return.

Disney theme parks and coronavirus

Disney theme parks in Florida, Shanghai, Japan and France have reopened. However, the company’s parks in California are still not open. Hong Kong Disneyland reopened in June only to reclose a month later. This followed a surge in COVID-19 cases in the region.

Visitors’ coronavirus health concerns and government-mandated capacity restrictions have resulted in lower than expected demand at Disney’s reopened theme parks. This is according to the company’s most recent quarterly report.

theme parks coronavirus guests wearing masks at Epcot Disney
Image courtesy of Walt Disney World Resort

Disney’s theme parks took a $3.7 billion loss from the COVID-19 pandemic in the latest quarter. Plus a $1 billion hit in the previous quarter. The company plans to cut $700 million from the budget earmarked for capital expenditures. This is money typically used for new rides and attractions.

Disney World revenue was lower than initially anticipated because of the recent spike in coronavirus cases in Florida and decreased travel to the state, according to Disney CFO Christine McCarthy:

“We expect demand will grow when the COVID situation in Florida improves,” McCarthy said on a call with analysts.

Fewer long-distance visitors

girl with mask at Walt Disney World
Image courtesy of Walt Disney World Resort

Disney’s Florida theme parks had “ample demand” when Disney World’s new reservation system debuted a month and a half before the Florida parks reopened, according to Disney CEO Bob Chapek.

“Then, unfortunately, COVID struck again and all the numbers started going up,” Chapek said on a call with analysts. “This gave some level of trepidation to travellers who are anxious about long-distance travel, jumping on a plane and flying to Walt Disney World.”

Disney World has seen a higher-than-anticipated rate of cancelled reservations as coronavirus cases rise and fall, according to Chapek. Disney World has replaced the drop off in long-distance travellers with annual passholders and locals, according to Chapek.

“Typically someone who travels and stays for five days to seven days is marginally more valuable to the business than someone who comes in on an annual pass and stays a day or two and consumes less merchandise and food and beverage,” Chapek said.

Disney World’s four theme parks will reduce operating hours starting in September. In addition, the spike in COVID-19 cases in Florida has forced Disney World to push back the scheduled reopening of three hotel resorts from August to the fall or later.

Disney has cancelled seasonal Halloween events on both coasts for 2020. It plans to bring them back in 2021.

Universal Studios and COVID-19

Universal Studios has reopened its theme parks in Florida following the initial coronavirus-related closures. Meanwhile, Universal Studios Hollywood in California remains closed until further notice.

Comcast announced that its Universal Studios theme park division saw a 94% decrease in second-quarter revenue due to COVID-19 closures. Revenue dropped from $1.5 billion in 2019 to $87 million this year. Two rounds of layoffs have also forced Universal Orlando to close several attractions. These are Fast & Furious: Supercharged, Fear Factor Live, Poseidon’s Fury, Storm Force Accelatron and Kang & Kudos Twirl ‘n’ Hurl.

theme parks coronavirus family at Universal Orlando in masks
Image courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort

Since reopening, Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida have cut back on operating hours through August.

Universal has also cancelled Halloween Horror Nights on both coasts for 2020. It plans to bring back these seasonal events in 2021.

SeaWorld theme parks and coronavirus

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment has reopened its parks in Florida, Texas and Virginia. However, its California park remains closed until further notice.

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment expects to see a 96% decline in second-quarter revenue while SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks were closed by the pandemic. This is according to a forecast released by the company. Revenue dropped from $406 million in 2019 to $18 million this year.

The company has been forced to cut operating days after less-than-expected crowds materialized at its parks.

SeaWorld Orlando is closed on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Busch Gardens Tampa is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The schedule reductions come during the peak of Florida’s summer. This is something that would be unimaginable during any other time in the theme park capital of the world.

Delayed coaster openings

Busch Gardens Williamsburg has rolled out the new Coasters and Craft Brews event. Maximum theme park capacity in Virginia is now 1,000 visitors per day during the coronavirus pandemic.

Four roller coasters that would have opened this summer have now been delayed until 2021 by the pandemic. Ice Breaker at SeaWorld Orlando, Iron Gwazi at Busch Gardens Tampa, Emperor at SeaWorld San Diego and Pantheon at Busch Gardens Williamsburg will all have their planned 2020 openings pushed back until 2021.

SeaWorld San Antonio opened the Texas Stingray wooden coaster and the Tonga Twister water slide at Aquatica San Antonio just before the coronavirus closures of the Texas theme parks.

Six Flags and the pandemic

Six Flags has reopened parks in Texas, New Jersey, Georgia, Missouri, Maryland and Oklahoma while other locations in the chain remain closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. California’s Six Flags Discovery Kingdom returned in July with the animals-only Marine World Experience.

Six Flags expects daily attendance at its reopened parks in surge states to remain around 25% to 30% of capacity. It also predicts higher attendance figures, between 45% and 50%, in non-surge states, according to company officials.

Guests using the Six Flags mobile ordering app theme parks coronavirus
Guests using the Six Flags mobile ordering app. Image courtesy of Six Flags

Six Flags CEO Michael Spanos said the company’s reopened parks initially saw “solid demand” due to pent-up desire to have fun in a safe, outdoor environment. “A recent spike in coronavirus cases in many of the states in which we operate has had a negative impact on the demand [for] these theme parks,” Spanos said on a call with analysts.

Attendance ebbs and flows

Six Flags has recently seen a drop in attendance at reopened parks in states with surges in COVID-19 cases and attendance reaching reduced capacity limits at parks in non-surge states. “All boats rise or drop depending on the surge,” Spanos said on the call.

He said that Six Flags Great Adventure (New Jersey), Six Flags America (Maryland) and Six Flags St. Louis (Missouri) have “hit max numbers” in recent weeks. Six Flags parks remain “very optimistic” that attendance will rebound when the health crisis subsides.


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“We’re surveying guests every week,” Spanos said on the call. “What they’re telling us is when they see a flattening of the curve, they want to get out. We also see a chunk of guests that are saying when they’re comfortable with the vaccine, they want to get out.”

Season pass holders

Loyal Six Flags members and season pass holders have helped keep money flowing into company coffers and reduce losses by the millions during the pandemic.

“I would like to thank our loyal season passholders and members for their commitment to our company during this difficult period,” Spanos said in the latest quarterly report from the company.

six flags frontier city health and safety
Image courtesy of Six Flags Frontier City

Admission revenue was up 5% in the second quarter when most Six Flags parks were not open. This is thanks to continued passholder payments. Six Flags pass holders and members make up 63% of attendance at the company’s parks.

Six Flags is developing a modified version of Fright Fest in hopes of capturing pent-up demand now that so many haunt events have been cancelled.

A revamped Fright Fest for 2020 could bring social distancing scare-actors, mazes without monsters and drive-through haunts. Each Six Flags park will decide whether to move forward with Fright Fest plans based on local health and safety conditions.

Cedar Fair theme parks and coronavirus

Cedar Fair saw an attendance drop of 8 million visitors and a 98% decline in revenues as the pandemic closed most of the company’s theme parks, according to the latest quarterly report.

The company has now reopened Ohio’s Cedar Point and Kings Island, Pennsylvania’s Dorney Park and Missouri’s Worlds of Fun.

Five Cedar Fair parks are in “deep hibernation” with no plans to reopen in 2020. These are Carowinds (North Carolina), Kings Dominion (Virginia), Valleyfair (Minnesota), California’s Great America and Michigan’s Adventure.

“Although we have done our due diligence in developing a comprehensive safety plan in accordance with industry and public health standards, the continued uncertainty in our region surrounding COVID-19 as well as the diminishing number of calendar days left in the 2020 operating season, has brought us to the difficult decision to keep the park closed for the rest of the year,” California’s Great America vice president Manny Gonzalez wrote on the park’s website.

In May, Cedar Fair warned that some or all of its theme parks could remain closed throughout 2020.

“We continue to monitor and evaluate conditions related to Canada’s Wonderland and Knott’s Berry Farm — our other major parks — that with a little luck could be opened yet this year,” Cedar Fair CEO Richard Zimmerman said on a call with analysts.

Knott’s has now reopened on a limited basis without rides for a separate-admission food event that runs through mid-September.

Public concern around COVID-19 spikes

There is growing public concern about recent spikes in coronavirus cases across the US. This likely contributed to lower than anticipated attendance at reopened Cedar Fair theme parks, according to the company’s latest quarterly report.

“Consumer confidence may not improve measurably until there is broad availability and distribution of a vaccine or treatments to reduce the spread or effects of the coronavirus,” Cedar Fair CFO Brian Witherow said on a call with analysts. “This may prove to be an attendance headwind for the foreseeable future.”

Attendance has remained in the 20% to 25% range at reopened Cedar Fair parks. Kings Island and Cedar Point have seen attendance in the 30% to 40% range on some days.

Witherow said the “disappointing” attendance numbers fell below reduced capacity limits mandated by local governments. “We are disappointed that trends are a little bit softer than we’d like. But we are encouraged by the fact that folks are still coming out to the parks once they reopen,” he said on the call.

Reservations scrapped

Cedar Fair has reduced operating day and dropped reservation requirements since reopening some parks due to smaller than anticipated crowds.

Cedar Point no longer requires reservations and plans to cut back its schedule to Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in mid-August. Dorney Park does not open on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Kings Island scrapped reservations and will move to a weekends-only schedule in mid-August. Even though the park debuted the $30 million Orion coaster this summer. Worlds of Fun got rid of reservations and closes its doors for three days a week.

Cedar Fair has cancelled Halloween events at several of its parks. This includes HalloWeekends at Cedar Point, Halloween Haunt at Kings Island and Knott’s Scary Farm.

Regional theme parks and coronavirus

Regional US theme parks have closed on slower weekdays. Many have also eliminated advance reservations as attendance has been lower than expected.

Tennessee’s Dollywood plans to close on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays starting in mid-August and scrapped reservation requirements.

hersheypark triple tower
Image courtesy of Hersheypark

Parks in Pennsylvania have been making changes on the fly since reopening. Since reopening, Hersheypark isn’t requiring reservations any more for season passholders and has reduced operating hours. Kennywood is not open on Mondays and Tuesdays through the rest of the summer (except Labor Day).

Idlewild returned with daily operations in July. However, it then slashed the schedule to five days a week a few days later and dropped to just Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays within two weeks.

A handful of smaller parks cancelled their summer seasons altogether for 2020. This includes Seabreeze (New York), Elitch Gardens (Colorado) and Conneaut Lake and Del Grosso’s (Pennsylvania).

Background image courtesy of Walt Disney World Resort

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Brady MacDonald

Brady MacDonald is a freelance writer based in California. He wrote the Funland theme park blog for the Los Angeles Times for a decade. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, New York Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Seattle Times, Orlando Sentinel and Orange County Register.

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