Why do regional amusement parks just build so many roller coasters?
Written by Robert Niles
Did you catch that interesting revelation in our post earlier this week about Knott's Berry Farm and its influential Log Ride? Knott's is taking the ride down for five months for a major refurbishment, including the addition of new animatronic figures and scenes to support the ride's story.Tweet
But that wasn't the news that treally got my attention. Instead, it was this, from the park's press release: "The Knott's Timber Mountain Log Ride remains the most popular ride in the park, surpassing all of Knott’s other attractions in ridership."
Wow. With all the money that Knott's (and its current owner, Cedar Fair) have invested in multi-million-dollar roller coasters over the years, it's still the Log Ride that's putting more people through day-in and day-out, more than forty years after its debut.
I suppose that makes sense, if you know about ride capacities. One awful secret of the amusement business is that most roller coasters have terrible ride capacity. You might think that coasters have such long lines because they're popular. Popularity brings people into the lines, sure, but low capacity is what really drives wait times. The fewer people a ride can put through in an average hour, the longer everyone who wants to ride will have to wait.
Log flumes, with an ever-flowing supply of "logs" to fill, typically put through more riders per hour than roller coasters, which have a limited number of trains that must be kept far apart from one another on the track. Flume-based dark rides often stand as their parks' capacity kings -- Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean and It's a Small World are crowd eaters, capable of putting through more than 2,000 riders per hour apiece.
But all the capacity in the world won't make an attraction a park's top dog for ridership if people don't want to go on it. That Knott's Log Ride is leading the park in ridership speaks not just to its capacity, but its enduring appeal to visitors, as well.
Which raises the question: If rides like the Log Ride are so popular, and so efficient in handling crowds, why don't parks build more of them? Why do regional amusement park chains such as Cedar Fair and Six Flags continue to spend millions a year to build roller coasters that put through hundreds of visitors per hour instead of investing in dark rides and log flumes that could serve thousands per hour?
When was the last time you saw a park debut a log flume ride? Or an indoor boat ride? The last I remember is Universal's Madagascar ride in Singapore, which remains the only indoor boat ride Universal's ever ordered. And that was the first new one in years. Outside of a few Sally Corp. shooters (and the defunct Hard Rock Park), I can't recall any new tracked dark rides at regional theme parks over the past decade.
Good log flumes and dark rides aren't cheap. Show scenes, lighting, climate control and water flow all cost money -- expenses you typically can avoid operating a roller coaster. But how much new market share does adding yet another roller coaster actually bring to a park? How many more new visitors could a park win by adding a new flume, non-soaking boat ride or indoor dark ride, instead? Let's not forget that there is one theme park company that's shown you can make a pretty strong return on investment by emphasizing boat and track rides over roller coasters.
Disney's not the far-and-away market leader in theme parks just because of its cartoon characters, movie- and TV-tie-ins and entertainment line-ups. The Disney theme parks offer a ride line-up substantially unlike most other theme park chains -- one that's heavy on dark rides, boat rides and, yes, even a very popular log flume. (Which, by all accounts, it totally ripped off from Knott's Berry Farm.)
I would love, love, love to see Knott's multi-million-dollar investment in its Log Flume represent a change in attitude at Cedar Fair (now run by ex-Disneyland President Matt Ouimet, by the way). We love roller coasters. But we love log flumes, boat rides and dark rides, too. Why not invest in building some new ones? Why make your customers wait hours in line for yet another coaster, when so many more visitors and would-be visitors could be enjoying one of these other popular types of rides instead?
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