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Surviving the transition to the fall season

At a challenging time of year for theme parks, how will COVID impact the usual seasonal changes?

Opinion
Disneyland-Halloween

By Lance HartScreamscape

The busy summer season is coming to an end in America and attractions are moving to fall operations. This has always been a time of struggle for many theme parks and attractions. Depending on the region, it becomes not only a question of operational changes due to changing weather but also is usually a major struggle in terms of operations and staffing.

Autumn-pumpkin

Many seasonal staff members will leave their jobs to return to school. Under normal circumstances, there would be enough staff remaining to keep most parks running, but at a more limited level. This usually results in the typical switch from daily operations to a weekends-only schedule.

However, due to various factors relating to the COVID pandemic in the US, including the rising spread of the Delta variant, the shift to fall operations may be more problematic this year.

The problem with fall

The majority of parks and attractions have been understaffed all summer. Several parks were planning to operate an extended schedule in the fall, by putting on special events like festivals, concerts and Halloween-themed haunt events. Yet with staffing expected to fall below ideal levels for the fall season, many could experience problems adding the extra staff they need for fall operations.

This may be especially problematic when it comes to the talent heavy needs that are required to operate a Halloween themed haunt event, with “scare-actors” as well as various support staff and security.

Jack-the-Clown-Halloween Horror Nights Universal fall operations
Halloween Horror Nights, Universal Orlando Resort

It is a little early to determine the fate of these special events just yet. However, we have seen a few parks in various regions start to make interesting operational changes from early August onwards. Not unlike the start of the season, some parks that were able to operate 7 days a week over the summer, though perhaps at reduced hours, had been forced to cut back their schedules in August to operate just 5 days a week.

Some Cedar Fair parks opted to try something different and operate a reduced weekday operational capacity in August. This included only keeping the parks open to guests for about 5 hours each day (12:00 noon to 5:00 pm).

In most cases, this has resulted in the majority of the major thrill rides and marquee attractions sitting closed. Instead, the parks have focused on operating most attractions in their Planet Snoopy-style lands focused on the smaller guests, with a small collection of medium-sized family rides elsewhere. This has not sat well with the thrill-seeking demographic, especially season passholders. Many expected a more full schedule this year, only to see operations continue to dwindle. 

Continued staffing issues could affect fall operations

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to these problems. Possible solutions that might work in one location may not apply at all in another. This itself has been a problem for the entire season. Some parks and attractions have become better staffed, while others have struggled to attract job-seekers in their local market all year long.

six flags employee bonus
Six Flags

One potential item that has been criticized as being a primary reason was a series of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation programs. These allowed individuals to collect an extra $300.00 per week for not working. For many working low-wage jobs, it suddenly became easier and more profitable to sit at home rather than to work.

This program and the payments came to an end on 4 September. So, the hope is that most will return to the workplace. For parks and attractions seeking employees, this could be a turning point in the right direction.

Watch this space   

As before, I suspect we will see different results happen with fall operations, based on the type of jobs available in each location. Much as it has been for the past several months, this will be a job-seekers market. Those companies hiring for the best sounding jobs, with the best benefits packages, and other perks will win out over those that aren’t. 

There will always be those seeking a job as a temporary gig. However, post-pandemic, we will also see many job-seekers looking to begin an entirely new career path. Angry and upset at being laid off or furloughed by previous employers, a good number of people will be attracted to new jobs if they appear to offer stable employment. Especially with growth opportunities where they think they can excel. 

Halloween-at-Disneyland fall operations
Disneyland

It does feel like we are on the cusp of an important turning point. The threat of COVID’s Delta variant looms large over everyone’s head as students return to school. We wait to see if the problems affecting the workplace market will start to solve themselves, or if things will continue to get worse. Will there continue to be a shortage of labour? How about the ongoing shortage issues affecting various supply lines? 

Honestly, I don’t have an answer. I’d like to hope that we are about to turn the bend towards becoming ‘normal’ again. But I can’t shake the feeling that what becomes the new normal, may start out as being something entirely new for a time. 

Top image: Disneyland

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Lance Hart

Lance Hart

Lance has been running Screamscape for nearly 20 years. Married and a father to three roller coaster loving kids, he worked for SeaWorld (San Diego and Orlando) in Operations and Entertainment for 19 years.

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