Theme Park Insider

Do Regional Theme Parks Really Have to be Seasonal Parks?

July 23, 2015, 10:56 AM · My question to you, fellow theme park lovers, is what does a park have to offer to get you to visit during undesirable seasons? So many regional parks are now showcasing holiday events to capitalize on extra gates. One could imagine that if the parks deemed it profitable they'd stay open all year, regardless of climate. My opinion is that while many of our favorite local theme parks have started to recognize being open for just one season and a half is a missed opportunity, they still don't offer enough indoor attractions and theming to make it worth the long car trips, whether it's a special holiday event or year-round operation.

On a recent trip to Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey I noticed a "Holiday in the Park" advertisement on my walk towards the main gate. I've been to Great Adventure many times before, it's a great summer thrill park, so I decided to keep a tally in my head of pros and cons of a winter visit as I walked through.

Haunted Mansion Holiday
Disneyland's Haunted Mansion Holiday gives theme park fans another reason to visit in the fall and winter.

I will start with the cons, as it's my personality to get the issues out of the way first. While the Six Flags franchise is well known for its top-class thrill rides, that doesn't translate to an enjoyable experience in the cold. I've been to the park on Halloween and while it is a blast, it's also freezing. Try going on El Toro in late October at night. It's what many consider the best roller coaster in the world. Late October nights, it's painful. Sure you can get lucky on a nicer day in fall but it's more likely you won't. Now imagine it two months deeper into the cold season. Ouch! People could get sick from that.

So leaving the thrill rides out of a nighttime visit, I found at this particular park a total of three indoor rides: the abysmal Dark Knight coaster, the mildly enjoyable Skull Mountain coaster, and the surprisingly enjoyable Houdini's Great Escape, which is an interesting but somewhat jarring take on the pirate ship. I suppose you can add things like the outdoor carousel and pirate ship to the list because they don't move fast or go too high in the air to make the elements unbearable. Still, that's hardly a catalogue that would get me to pay big money to visit in the winter. Other regional parks like Hersheypark, Kings Dominion, and Six Flags New England all have around the same numbers, if not less. To me, that's just not enough.

Around dinner time, a thunderstorm that wasn't in the forecast struck and lasted for a few hours. After going on two of the three lackluster indoor rides we left the park to go find a restaurant, something this park needed. When we went back to the park, we had to stand around in a gift shop for a half hour waiting for the rain to subside to find one of its main attractions, Kingda Ka, had to be closed for the rest of the day due to weather.

Now, we all know Orlando can have some brutal hot days, as well as severe thunderstorms. If you were to poll 100 people about being in sweltering heat or blistering cold, chances are it'd be close to a split. So what makes patrons flock in droves to Disney World and Universal regardless of any weather conditions? In my opinion, better theming and way more climate-controlled attractions.

To continue with Six Flags as an example, to waste an amazing intellectual property such as DC Comics is just that — a waste. Slapping the Batman title on a roller coaster won't get me to the park when it's nasty out. Put Batman in a dark ride similar to Universal's The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman and I'd be there. This slipshod use of IPs hurts their parks year round, I believe. The Dark Knight Coaster, while indoors and sometimes found as a way to escape the rain or heat, is just a huge strikeout in my opinion. It starts with some fun queue theming from one of the best comic films ever, and then throws any element of immersion right in the garbage. This would have been a ride worth visiting anytime of year had it been given some thought and a proper budget. With its new Justice League dark ride, it seems that Six Flags has perhaps realized the error of the Dark Knight Coaster, and I'm hopeful they continue in that direction.

Justice League: Battle for Metropolis
Six Flags' new Universal-style dark ride, Justice League: Battle for Metropolis, at Six Flags Over Texas

Specifically regarding holiday events, Disney has Mickey Mouse and amazing light shows. Universal has the Grinch and some really interesting tree and light set ups. Six Flags has Looney Tunes and should utilize it better. They own theme park rights to many beloved characters, why not emphasize it? People love to go to Disney and Universal to get lost in a world of fantasy, all parks should try and create something at least competitive with their properties if they're going to try and justify being open more often. The parks would love our money year round — they are businesses after all — if they worked a little harder they'd probably get it!

Elsa and the Disney World castle
You can call this "money." But parks have to build stuff that people want to see to make it.

The pros to a winter visit are not as convincing, but are still present. The one that's most compelling to me is that it's something to do! In the Northeast, or anywhere where winter is long and cold, it can be mind-numbingly boring. We can't all take weeklong vacations to Disney every month, sometimes just a reason to get out for a day and do something in the winter breaks up the monotony. Many of the local parks now offer the holiday season light shows which are always fun to take in. A cup of hot chocolate and a ride on a carousel and a few other attractions certainly sounds more enjoyable than sitting indoors every day. The Six Flags park I was observing also has an empty simulator show building that's not being used. (It once housed a Spongebob ride.) Anyone who's been on Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem knows these rides can be quite effective and fun if done right. Quality indoor family attractions are something thrill parks should always be offering more of if they really want to up their attendance, no matter what time of year it is. More indoor rides mean more attendance even on rainy days, something summers are full of.

As it stands now, I didn't believe this particular park had enough to get me to spend theme park money for a day in the cold, where most attractions are either off or wouldn't be fun to ride. However, that doesn't mean it couldn't in the future. It seems like some regional parks are starting to wake up and build rides to combat the seasonal and forecast dependent slant of their parks. Hersheypark just opened Laff Trakk — an indoor spinning coaster and another draw for any seasons visit. In the Midwest, Six Flags opened the Justice League: Battle for Metropolis dark ride that has been very favorably reviewed and should make its way to their other parks, hopefully. Heck, even closing the Dark Knight Coaster for a season and spending some money on proper theming would make it a much better ride.

The interactive shooting dark rides are becoming so much more popular now, and the technology is not new, which leads to some cheaper costs. The same can be said for simulators. Look at the lines for Soarin', which is in my opinion not even close to Disney's best ride. These kinds of indoor rides would be beneficial to any parks in any season, for someone looking to beat the heat or cold. On my last trip, I left the park because of rain. They didn't give me enough of a reason to stay. If there were 5-6 decent ride attractions at this park, along with the light spectacular and possibly a few walk-through attractions or shows, I would say I'd make the trip, regardless of cold.

What about you? What's the bar you set that would make it worth taking a theme park trip during the holidays, or even just on a winter's day?

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Replies (29)

July 23, 2015 at 11:07 AM · It's an intriguing concept and might work at certain parks. In St. Louis (where Justice League just opened), it would take a massive overhaul to extend it beyond October and before April. Even those months are a stretch on certain days. Beyond Justice League, there's really nothing indoors that would work besides some so-so shows. I wish they'd focus more on indoor rides. We were in St. Louis on an 80-degree day, and it still felt brutal.
July 23, 2015 at 11:16 AM · The Great Adventure simulator once had a jet fighter show and dinosaur show. Did you say that GA is not using it at all?
July 23, 2015 at 11:25 AM · Back in the Synder days, Great Adventure closed the 3d theater to be converted into a dark ride (that sounded like the kind of ride Toy Story Mania/Wonder Mountian Guardian/Iron Reef/Justice League became). It never materialized, but SFoT did turn a similar building into Justice Leauge.

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The point about Hersheypark is interesting. The park also has Chocolate World, open year-round with a dark ride/3d show/shops/food court. That helps them out a lot with Candylane, although it started out small (the carousel and a few kiddie rides) and has grown into 1/3rd of the park. It's also a plus for their hotels and outlet center in the same town. All-in-all, it's a good event for weekenders and locals. Curious to see what Six Flags will do in NJ, since that park has removed a lot of flats over the years.

July 23, 2015 at 11:25 AM · I was in Orlando last year around April/May and it rained the whole week. I adjusted my plans to morning/afternoon visit when it wasn't raining. I stayed at the hotels in the evenings. Not a good use of my vacation. Funny thing was it cleared up on my last day and the forecast was all clear on the following week. Next time, I will book on May/June instead.
July 23, 2015 at 11:40 AM · Busch Gardens in Williamsburg started doing Christmas Town a few years ago. I always thought it was dumb because they couldn't run any of the coaster because they're sensitive to temperature. Oh well, I never went to the Christmas Town at Busch Gardens
July 23, 2015 at 11:43 AM · I think you're still missing the whole point about climate. There are dozens of popular Disney and Universal attractions that are outside that would not be nearly as enjoyable if it were 30 degrees and snowing (Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, Everest, Kali, parades, fireworks, etc...). Do you really think Disney could fill DHS's Fantasmic! theater in the cold winter of Chicago?

Unless you're going to put a dome over the entire park (like Circus Circus or West Edmonton Mall), parks in northern climates are going to have to deal with cold and winter precipitation. It simply does not make financial sense to build a year-round park around this concept unless you create two separate seasons ticketed two different ways. The way most northern climate parks are executing Christmas events is to make them more like walk throughs than theme parks with only a few select rides open and guests paying a lower admission to reflect the fewer rides. While this is successful because of the lure of the Christmas lights and decorations, it won't work to build a park around this model when the Christmas season can only be extended so far.

Six Flags knows what its core audience (teenagers) wants, and it's seasonal schedule gives them the maximum opportunity to reach that audience. Those extra weekends (no current seasonal park could support weekday operations in the low season) from November to March do not offer a lot of bang for the buck even if the guests don't have to step foot outside in the cold. The extension into Christmas is an attempt by Six Flags to tap a new audience, and it will be interesting to see if that group shows up to support the expanded calendar. It works at places like Busch Gardens and Hersheypark because they have a more diverse audience/customer base plus other tourist lures to draw from more than just the local population (guests within 1-2 hours of the park). We'll have to see how it's received in the Six Flags parks trying this out this winter, but I don't think adding a bunch of indoor rides is going to necessarily allow seasonal parks to extend their park schedules.

Should more parks add dark rides and indoor attractions? Yes, but the goal of those installations should be to diversify their existing attractions and increase their attendance, not in an attempt to extend their operating calendar.

July 23, 2015 at 12:41 PM · I think in order for regional parks to go year-round (where possible), they have several issues they need to conquer, not just climate, attractions and seasonal theming. If you look at most of them, they cater heavily to teens. Not picking on Six Flags, but this is where their bread and butter is, and they know it. They build attractions for this market and advertise for it. So, with that in mind, even if the climate wasn't an issue, you still have to find a way to get people in the park at a time when school is on. Weekends might work a little, and most of the parks operate into late summer/early fall as long as they can, but then you have the issue of staffing as well, where the majority are school age kids manning the attractions, booths and stores.

So, really, the regional parks would have to adjust their whole way of doing things to first build a variety of attractions that would appeal to young and old and have a good balance of inside/outside. They would also need to hire older (permanent) employees that could work throughout the year. Then, finally, they would probably need to do something during the off-season to attract the various demographics, like Disney does with Flower & Garden, Food & Wine and Star Wars weekends. Then there's the theming for Halloween & Christmas with specific decorations and shows.

July 23, 2015 at 1:11 PM · If six flags only caters to teens that's fairly short sighted on their end.... Families are always gonna have more to spend. Growing up in South Florida, I've been to Disney on many days where weather conditions were terrible, which includes cold. Last time I went in January I had to wear a jacket the entire time, it was high 40s in the day, low 30s at night. Sure I didn't go on splash mountain or Jurassic park but I still had a blast. Those parks have diversity that suits whatever the weather dictates, so you still pay your admission and visit their park. It's a pipe dream, sure, but it's fun to get the idea out there
July 23, 2015 at 1:14 PM · I love the holiday experiences at some of the regional theme parks especially christmas. I have recently attended Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Dollywood and have experienced ride shut downs for safety reasons especially the big coasters. I was told that it harder to stop them in the cold. I will say that reduced prices do compensate for the lost rides and added entertainment helps also.
July 23, 2015 at 1:22 PM · Oh and yes that flight simulator building became the sponge bob ride, and was an Elvira attraction during Halloween. Now it just looks unused. The bundling is still there. They have a ton of open land where the batman and robin coaster and free fall once operated
July 23, 2015 at 2:01 PM · "If six flags only caters to teens that's fairly short sighted on their end.... Families are always gonna have more to spend."

But that's the market they've chosen, and it would take a HUGE investment for them to change, and may cause backlash among their current fans. Whether you like them or not, Six Flags is pretty successful at what they do, and their parks fill a void. They are making attempts to widen their appeal with attractions like Justice League and expanding into the Christmas business, but seismic shifts like what you are suggesting take serious time and money.

If you've been to Disney in January and other times when it's been cold, you see how it affects the attendance. Aside from the holiday weekends, Orlando is a relative ghost town between New Year's and Spring Break, and the guests who do show up are loyal locals or smart tourists traveling in the off-season who are able to get their kids out of school. From an operations standpoint, Orlando parks can close an attraction here or there if it's too cold, but in northern climates, the weather can be so extreme that many attractions need to be winterized.

Also, a regional park operating in a northern climate, even if everything were inside, would have difficulty operating during these months because they just don't have enough people to draw from. Simply put, the parks near the major northern metropolitan areas (SFGA, SFGAdv, Dorney Park, Cedar Point, SFNE, etc...) don't have enough tourists in town in the winter months to support operations. Who travels to Boston on vacation in February (I have, but I'm one of those "smart tourists" who frequently travel in the off-season to avoid crowds)? That leaves the parks to draw only from the locals that you need to convince to come to the park in snow and cold. It's idealistic to think "if you build it they will come", but in reality if it's cold and snowing outside, people will probably stay home or go skiing. If you had a season pass to Six Flags and were as close as 30 minute to one of their parks, would you really bother visiting in the middle of January when it's cold (even if everything were inside) or April/May when it gets warm? Certainly theme park fans like many who read and post here would, but Joe the plumber down the street is probably in front of the fire. Perhaps it's more of a societal shift you're seeking since people don't typically associate theme parks with cold weather. However, until that shift occurs, there just isn't the payoff on the necessary investment and upheaval in their staffing model for regional parks to operate during the cold weather months aside from the current holiday events. A theme park is not going to invest in a market that doesn't exist. Perhaps if we wait another 20 years when Global Warming really kicks in, those northern regional parks will be attractive in the "winter" when it's 90-degrees and humid in Orlando or WDW is part of the Gulf of Mexico.

July 23, 2015 at 1:55 PM · I was last in Great Adventure in 2000, so missed all the newer stuff. (Still can't say Six Flags) I can see extending the park days into Christmas but the snow and cold January to March is brutal. If you live in NJ (I did) then on real nice winter days, you go to the Shore boardwalks for the day, not a paid admission park.
July 23, 2015 at 1:59 PM · I do agree that the looney tunes could be better utilized. They are, arguably, "near" the popularity (in a general sense) of Disney's fab 5.

July 23, 2015 at 2:01 PM · It was packed when I went in January. Don't get me wrong I see where you're coming from with a lot of what you're saying and I'm sure that's how they look at it. With them opening those extra weekends in December now though, I think there might be a slow tide turning, albeit at a snails pace. They want money as often as they can get it otherwise they wouldn't be bothered. And let's think about a park like islands of adventure. Attendance skyrocketed once they brought in Harry Potter, something that attracts people of all ages. If they made an intensely detailed Gotham city around a proper set of Batman attractions, my own personal opinion is that would bring people and a lot of them. Do a Christmas in Gotham set up, it would be a huge hit. Just my opinion
July 23, 2015 at 2:07 PM · 2 out of the 3 Harry Potter rides at universal Orlando are indoors. If all seasonal parks had rides like those, I'd happily go in the so called off seasons. Also, you're right. Great adventure needs a sit down restaurant!
July 23, 2015 at 2:10 PM · They're opening because of Christmas. The holiday market (including Halloween and Easter - in some places) is a huge growth area for all theme parks. Six Flags is just taking advantage of a known quantity. That gets the park through November and December (with limited operations), but still leaves 3-4 months with nothing to draw guests to the park aside from things they can do when it's warm. Cities have tried desperately to get people out to events and attractions in the winter for years, and there's been very little traction. Aside from indoor sporting events and concerts, people stay home. Museum and zoo hours shrink, buoyed only by off-season tourists, and cities become vacant during winter weekends. Building a bunch of indoor attractions and attempting to make a wider appeal is not going to change people's mentality to stay home in the winter, or take a vacation to a warm destination.
July 23, 2015 at 2:17 PM · "I do agree that the looney tunes could be better utilized. They are, arguably, "near" the popularity (in a general sense) of Disney's fab 5."

Maybe with people over 30, but the core Six Flags guest probably has only tangential familiarity with the Looney Toons characters. When's the last time you saw a Looney Toons cartoon on TV? Aside from Space Jam (and the rumored sequel with LeBron James), they don't air anymore, not even on Boomerang. Disney's Fab 5 are on every single day. The Muppets probably have more recognition these days than the Looney Toons characters.

July 23, 2015 at 2:30 PM · You could be right. All I know is I live in a cold place in the winter and I get stir crazy and want to do something, even just for a Saturday.. I also believe other people think this way too because let's look at the amount of indoor water parks springing up around the country. Something to do, on a winters day. I've tried to get a room at one in February before and it was sold out. Perhaps an inclusion of something like that to the park would help as well. The fact that the parks open more for events when they were previously closed is a good thing. My article is just the question of is it possibility to be open all year. Like I said in the article I wouldn't go now, myself. But if they gave me a reason to I would
July 23, 2015 at 2:38 PM · Also space jam 2 could be a mega hit if it happens with someone like lebron, and bam looney tunes characters are in everyone's orbit just like that. Those characters will always be well known, and if the parks did a better job of pushing them, even more so. Iconic attractions have become movies and vice versa, why would any business limit themselves to one market? They've already got the teens, like you said, sounds like a good time to expand to me
July 23, 2015 at 2:52 PM · I think a lot of you are missing one very important element in this conversation. Not only are Teens a key demographic of who visits regional/seasonal theme parks, they are also primarily the group who staffs the parks as well. You are not going to be able to operate the park when the largest group who staff the park are stuck in school.
July 23, 2015 at 3:04 PM · I love talking about this in case you can't tell.... I actually did think about that but it didn't make the cut for the article. My thought was if a park like this actually did the turn around and expanded to try and compete for year round business, I would imagine it would be regulated to weekends only at the beginning at least. Similar to how they are in spring time. Friday's Saturday's sundays, when the majority of kids are off from school
July 23, 2015 at 3:20 PM · While they are year-round, just from my off-season experience at my local Six Flags and Cedar Fair parks (Magic Mountain and Knott's Berry Farm, respectively) I think it would be a bad idea to make most regional parks a year-round operation. Knott's Berry Farm is open daily, and while winter weekends do have a bit of a crowd there are sometimes more employees than guests on weekdays. SFMM is only open on weekends, but even with the temperate weather of Southern California crowds are generally pretty small. In addition, both parks have staffing issues that leave some attractions closed during the off-season, cold weather can make it unsafe to operate larger attractions, and rides periodically operate at reduced capacity (or close completely) due to routine maintenance procedures. I sometimes question whether these places should remain year-round parks or just switch to a March to December seasonal schedule.

Now, opening for a limited time due to a seasonal event is not a bad idea. A seasonal event generally offers attractions and experiences that are not available during the regular season. However, for most parks to operate year-round they would need to offer a reduced off-season rate and make sure guests know that many attractions will not be available. I find it hard to imagine that a bigger park would benefit more from year-round operation with limited availability during the winter than closing for a couple months and using that time to perform all their required maintenance and upkeep projects.

July 23, 2015 at 3:28 PM · "If you've been to Disney in January and other times when it's been cold, you see how it affects the attendance."

This would be Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris. The parks are actually open year round in the cold climate. I've been to Japan in January and it seems like their winters are not at all like the winters in the mid-states or the east coast. There is light snow and light rain. It doesn't seem cold with temperatures hovering around 40s F. They can keep the park open with exception for rides going rehab. Certainly, they made their rides indoor and their Main Street has the canopy.

Paris winters are also mild with the lowest ranging temperature from 30s to 40s in January.

July 23, 2015 at 3:54 PM · "Maybe with people over 30, but the core Six Flags guest probably has only tangential familiarity with the Looney Toons characters. When's the last time you saw a Looney Toons cartoon on TV?"

Cartoon network had a popular (original) Looney Tunes series that ended it's run at the end of 2014.(Jeff Bergman, Kristin Wiig, & Fred Arminson). This series aired from 2011 -2014.

And a brand new series, Wabbit, is slated to premiere at the end of this year (2015). And there's the rumored Space Jam 2.

The old classic shorts may not be airing, but WB is still producing new content with the characters.

July 23, 2015 at 7:26 PM · I find the presumption that we teens do not know about Looney Toons pretty insulting. Some of my fondest moments from my younger days were spent watching entire VHS tapes of a coyote hatching elaborate yet failed schemes to catch a roadrunner. And some of my classmates can recite the rabbit season-duck season debate between Bugs and Daffy almost flawlessly.
July 23, 2015 at 7:31 PM · Orlando's attendance has changed. There's really no slow times except for a couple of weeks in September, first week in December and maybe a week or two in January. School calendars have changed significantly, and the huge influx of foreign visitors has spread out the crowds. Example: Universal is going to be so crowded in October (HHN) that all of their on site hotels are nearly sold out already. Disney rooms are on the scarce side also for October. But, I can't see the regional parks being able to duplicate that. They can do the Halloween and Christmas stuff to a small degree, but that's about it. Weather is too much of a negative factor, even if they had Disney/Universal type attractions.
July 23, 2015 at 8:55 PM · Yes, I'm afraid weather is too powerful a factor to allow parks outside of Florida and California to be open 12 months. Even San Antonio's Fiesta Texas is only open 9 or 10 months out of the year.

I'd love to see a test case of Beijing's Universal Studios being indoors, or at least mostly indoors. Not only are Beijing's winters terribly cold, but the air quality is notoriously bad as well. However, I believe the most recent thing I read was that this park will not be indoors.

A park that has primarily indoor attractions could work in a colder climate, so long as they're creative with how to move guests around the park. Perhaps similar in style to The Venetian in Las Vegas and Macau, where the ceiling is painted like a sky, and you're meant to feel like you're outdoors, complete with stone walkways and trees...and a lot of storefronts. There would need to be skylights, and I'd recommend high quality synthetic grass - not the type they installed at Magic Kingdom, which is meant for people to walk and sit on.

Imagine a park with a ride lineup featuring rides similar to Rockin Roller Coaster, Justice League, Spider-Man, Transformers, Mystic Manor, Ratatouille, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Men in Black Alien Attack.

It could be done, but it'd be a massive undertaking. For me, it would need to be done to feel as much like being outside as possible, and that's where I think most parks would miss the mark.

July 24, 2015 at 12:13 PM · There would be little inducement for someone such as myself who visits theme parks primarily to experience aggressive thrill rides to make a trip during the winter. Even the wine festival at Great Adventure last year was not enough to lure me b/c it took place in November. As to Six Flags' target audience being teens, their actual demographic is much broader and certain policies are very much in line with family orientation. For instance, Six Flags will not hire anyone with visible tattoos.

As an aside, I am one of only two people I know who actually like The Dark Knight. Skull Mountain is too jarring for my taste and Houdini's Great Escape made me nauseated.

July 24, 2015 at 1:35 PM · I wouldn't want to go to a Six Flags or Cedar Fair park in the winter. There is a reason why Universal and Disney is so much more popular.

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