Updated: As October comes to a close, many theme parks across the United States and Europe are preparing to close for the season. Most of those parks stopped opening on weekdays late in the summer, as local schools returned to classes. But Halloween events have extended weekend operating hours into the fall, and a few parks will even use the Christmas season as an excuse to run a few days a week through the end of December.
But why should theme parks close for part of the year? With a capital investment of hundreds of millions of dollars (or more), it seems foolish to let a park sit idle when it could be making money as a return on that investment.
The obvious answer is weather. Parks that are built to take maximum of advantage of good summer weather cannot transition easily to winter operation in markets where the differences between summer and winter weather are severe. But just because something isn't easy does not make it impossible. If program and operational changes costing a few million dollars can make attractions worth hundreds of millions more profitable, parks would be wise to make those changes and expand their seasons.
The trick is finding the right mix of changes that make a park attractive — and profitable — in the winter. The Netherlands' Efteling provides one of the industry's better models for how an established park can make the switch to year-round operation. The park this year is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its "Winter Efteling" program, which made it the first park in Holland and one of the first in Europe to switch to 12-month operation.
To make the switch, Efteling had to weather-proof its buildings for winter operation and install more lighting throughout the park as well as adding decorations and attractions themed to the winter months. Efteling did start with some advantages, of course, with an attraction line-up that emphasized dark rides and outdoor attractions that could continue to operate in colder and inclement weather. Throw in some winter-specific activities such as ice skating and cross-country skiing, and the park was good to go.
You might have noticed in that promotional photo the second advantage that Efteling had over many seasonal parks in the United States. "Cold" in the winter in Kaatsheuvel, Netherlands isn't all that cold when compared with many communities in the upper Midwest on the east coast of the United States. The average monthly low temperature at Efteling never drops below 32F. That's why there's no real snow in Efteling's cross country skiing attraction.
Yet the winter daily high temperatures linger in the 40s, so it's nowhere near prime weather for riding high-speed outdoor roller coasters or clothes-soaking flume rides. Six Flags Magic Mountain this year switched to full year-round operation, after previously opening only on weekends during the school year. But a coaster-driven ride line-up remains attractive to fans in places with year-round warm weather, such as Southern California. Magic Mountain's northern rivals, such as Cedar Point, could not profitably switch to the same operating calendar without making some substantial changes to their mix of attractions.
But might that day be coming? Six Flags, Cedar Fair, and SeaWorld are publicly traded companies, under pressure from shareholders to keep their profits growing. If a park can extend its operating calendar, that can make it easier for a park to justify building more on-site hotels, which elicit higher guest spending and allow parks to transition into far more profitable resorts. With its wind-swept location jutting into Lake Erie, Ohio's Cedar Point likely won't even switch to 365-day operation. Nor should it abandon its identity as a coaster-driven park. But parks such as Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Carowinds, and Hersheypark have the potential to extend their calendars like Efteling did.
At some point — and we might already be there — parks across the country are going to begin feeling pressure to consider a proposed new ride's ability to extend the park's operating season along with its potential to drive attendance during existing operating days. Parks have introduced a slew of new products as they seek higher profits, including front-of-line passes, dining plans, and never-ending membership programs. I think it is inevitable that, eventually, expanded calendars are going to become the "hot new thing" that the industry turns to as its next step in its pursuit of making more money.
So which regional parks would do best to follow Efteling's lead?Tweet
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