While the entire travel industry has suffered as a result of the global pandemic, amusement parks in particular have felt the sting sharply as social distancing requirements have stopped their rides, shut their gates and left their future uncertain.
It is a problem that has hit the biggest of the big names in the game, like Disney, incredibly hard. All in, the company took a $1 billion hit to operating income due to the sales lost from the closures of all its theme parks worldwide.
“The impact of COVID-19 and measures to prevent its spread are affecting our segments in a number of ways, most significantly at parks, experiences and products, where we have closed our theme parks and retail stores, suspended cruise ship sailings and guided tours and experienced supply chain disruptions,” the company said in a statement earlier this month.
And while Disney’s losses have been pretty spectacular — and even queued up some speculation that an acquisition by Apple could be in its future — the pain has been felt all through the theme park niche as a delayed season and uncertain future has created challenges in 2020 that almost no one was thinking about at the onset of the year.
“Because this is a seasonal business predominantly, we want to spend our money right as we’re about to start making it,” Coney Island Amusement and Water Park Vice President of Operations Steve Edwards explained to PYMNTS in a recent conversation. “So, generally speaking, now we would be hiring, training and beginning to get the park ready with our general maintenance and capital improvements.”
Not to be mistaken with a similarly named location in Brooklyn, Coney Island Amusement is located in the greater Cincinnati, Ohio, area and is known mostly as a water park. Until 2019, Edwards noted, the park also had some rides and other more amusement-like attractions, but the economics of the increasingly competitive market in the area led the business to focus entirely on the part of the park that was growing.
The decision to remove the rides, he noted, ended up being a boon to the company’s 2020 preparations, as it has simplified them greatly.
Small beneficial coincidences aside, however, the pandemic has created no small amount of difficulties and headaches for the company. It had to halt its hiring process and furlough some staff mostly because it just doesn’t quite know when it is going to open.
Once the park gets the green light on reopening, he noted, it can start the hiring process, improvements and aesthetic upgrades that constitute its annual opening process, but that means a more delayed opening and a shorter season.
It will still need two or three weeks before it is operational for guests, which means something different in 2020 than it ever has before. The park is going to have to find ways to enforce social distancing among people standing in lines and reduce some of its seating for guests to make sure there is adequate space between people. And, he noted, it is going to have to hire additional staff just to make sure that new guidelines are gently but firmly enforced. Most guests, he said he believes, will actually be pretty good about policing themselves and cooperating with the rules for their own good and everyone else's. Most guests, but not all.
“We are going to have individuals that obviously still believe this is not a big deal who won’t want to do what they are told, and we understand that we're just going to have to handle those individuals very quickly and directly,” Edwards said. “We have always taken the premise that if you're very consistent day one, you can create clear guidelines people will follow.”
And, he noted, he believes smaller parks and venues like Coney Island Amusement have a bit of a built-in advantage when it comes to recovery and bringing consumers in. They can manage crowds because their crowds aren’t massive in the way some of their larger counterparts are. Moreover, the phone calls he’s been getting lately seem to indicate “there’s a desire to get out and do things” among consumers. That desire is still fragile, but it is there.
Local places not quite as known for their epic crowds or budget-busting prices might have a certain appeal to parents this summer, he said. Cabin fever will leave them looking for things they feel safe going out and doing. Economic and health concerns, however, might change their outlook on what is and isn’t safe.
“Parents want to do something, but what that is going to be I think is still up in the air for a lot of individuals for a lot of reasons,” he said. “I think there is something local that you can do. There is going to be a desire for that. But ultimately, the consumer is going to be your true test in the first couple of weeks where we are open. That is where people are going to decide that this is OK and they feel safe, or that they don’t, and they are going home and not coming back.”
And, he said, the reality that he and other amusement park operators have made peace with at this point is that 2020 will probably be a light year no matter what happens. The season is going to be shorter, and in a place like Ohio, the season is also entirely determined by the weather. Once summer is over, so too is the water park season.
There are customers, Edwards noted, who just aren’t going to feel safe at someplace like a water park or an amusement park this year. It is why Coney Island Amusement has extended the 2020 season passes to 2021, hoping that by next summer, those who don’t feel safe attending this year will be in a different frame of mind.
It is going to be a difficult season by all accounts, he said, but one that he believes his park will ultimately be able to weather. After many years in the industry, among the many things he’s learned is that it’s always been the sort of place that requires an ability to stand ebbs and flows — and a certain fondness for dealing with unexpected excitement.
“I think in order to do the amusement park world, you have to thrive off of the adrenaline of the opening and the feeling of putting all your work into getting ready in a really short period of time under pressure,” he said. “And you kind of somehow in a weird way enjoy that.”