Should more theme parks move to year-round operation?

October 22, 2018, 5:13 PM · 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.

Stroopwafel at Winter Efteling
Theme Park Insider's Natalie enjoys a freshly baked stroopwafel in front of a fire pit at Winter Efteling last year

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.

Cross country skiing at Winter Efteling

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?

Replies (18)

October 22, 2018 at 1:36 PM

It’s always been my understanding that the vast majority of seasonal parks only open in the week, May/June thru end of August, because most of the staff are college students, and they just don’t have the personnel to keep the park open.

I would guess the average age of staff at any of the Orlando parks is a lot higher than at the seasonal parks ??

Admittedly I don’t think I’d be too keen to ride Fury325 if the temps were in the low to mid 40’s, but as long as the sun was shining I would certainly consider visiting Carowinds mid-week from September to May. When I’m planning my vacations it’s always frustrating to know I can’t visit some of the parks, during mid-week, until late May/early June.

October 22, 2018 at 2:06 PM

I don't think there's any community of significant size in the United States lacking enough unemployed or underemployed people to staff a theme park's expanded calendar. It would be a problem at more remotely-located theme parks, ones that rely on transient employees to come out t the hinterlands for the summer to staff the park. (Cedar Point and Holiday World would be the best examples of this, and they have two of the shorter seasons in the industry.)

But Williamsburg is a college town, for goodness' sake. SFGrAm, near Chicago, could staff up easily. As could Carowinds, located in the growing Charlotte metro area. No, not every popular regional park could pull off 52-week operation. But labor should not be the issue keeping some parks from making that move.

October 22, 2018 at 2:12 PM

I've enjoyed some parks' Holiday themed events here in the Northeast. But I cant see why anyone would go during Jan - March, especially when large steel coasters can't operate. I think it would require too much investment to add rides and attractions that can operate year round just to attract the few people willing to go out to a park in winter.

Most parks in this part of the country trace their history back over 100 years, before the term "theme park" existed. They're not designed for winter operations and don't invest in dark rides. This is what makes Legoland NY so interesting- a modern complex with a year-round hotel and a company willing to invest in dark rides and unique attractions. It may be the first to really push the boundaries that Robert is hoping will be pushed.

October 22, 2018 at 2:17 PM

Unemployment is nearing all-time lows across the country, so the job market is highly competitive, causing labor costs to soar around the country. I do think it's hard for theme park that have not traditionally staffed year-round to commit to hiring personnel that work full-time throughout the year. For a lot of parks, it would be a significantly increased labor cost, not just to cover the additional days on the calendar, but to recruit a completely different type of employee that costs more to onboard and more to retain.

Makerider makes a salient point. While a park like BGW is in a college town, which has an ample supply of college-aged workers, they still hire lots of international help that is only available seasonally. There's also something to be said for the transient nature of the seasonal theme park worker, and making the shift to a year-round calendar (FWIW, BGW operates from mid-March to New Year's Day now) that necessitates far more full-time, career employees that demand benefits beyond health insurance (401K, vacation, long term disability, etc...). Unless a park is able to make the transition to full-time, year-round staffing, expanding to the current dark periods of the calendar is not as cheap as you might think.

October 22, 2018 at 2:48 PM

Carowinds is what I know best-- so a few comments:
1. I understand the costs of building "dark rides." But with extended season economics, maybe the costs can be justified?
2. It would seem to me it would cost very little to "weatherize" a few more attractions. Why not build a tent dome over the scrambler (and other flat rides)? It would provide air conditioning during the summer and heat during the winter and provide a rain proof attraction year round? Throw in some flashing lights and you have a "new" attraction.
3. I'm surprised there is not more "flex space." Why not build actual buildings that could house rotating attractions that could house food festivals, corporate events, halloween indoor maze or a huge christmas miniature train display (Lionel model trains HQ is near Charlotte and could be a sponsorship opportunity).
4. More flex spaces could be an ICE exhibit (think Gaylord Hotels) or even indoor snow tubing.
5. There are temperature restrictions against the big roller coasters. Word is, the upcoming "Copperhead Strike" coaster was designed so that it can operate in cooler temperatures (think Winterfest 2019).
6. Charlotte is in the south, and it does seem that we will have wonderful mild weather on weekdays and cold and rainy weekends, so if they could just somehow hedge bets against the cold and rain, then a 10-month season is very doable.
7. Carowinds is building a Springhill Suites hotel on property. It's believed that a sports complex will follow. As a father with high school kids, I can attest to the need for facilities to host large competitions (Cross Country races, cheerleading, volleyball, swimming, baseball and even marching band compeitions). Bring in all those kids and families and the longer season really starts to make economic sense.

October 22, 2018 at 3:48 PM

Just tricky as hard to see folks in Chicago area eager to go to Great America in the middle of winter when coasters can't operate as those are the main draws. Sure, some can do better than others but for Six Flags and Cedar Point, closing the rides that are the main reason to go there but keep the parks open doesn't make as much sense.

October 22, 2018 at 3:49 PM

Honestly, I don't think it's very feasible for most parks to go for full year-round operation. Spring break (or perhaps slightly before) to the end of winter break, with daily operation during the summer and extended holiday periods, is probably about the most that can be justified in many places. Destination resorts can get away with it because guests are traveling year-round specifically to visit the resort, as can parks in places that are used as a winter weather escape (which gives the Texas parks the best shot at going year-round), but parks that cater to day guests will have a very hard time making a profit unless they're in the middle of a year-round tourist destination. Weather alone is not the issue...competition with winter activities and the school calendar is. It's quite possible an expanded operating schedule would actually result in increased revenue but decreased profits for many parks (particularly if those extra days are filled primarily by local passholders), so there isn't much incentive to operate for more days each year.

I'm actually surprised some of the So Cal parks don't run a more limited off-season calendar. Disneyland and Universal get the crowds daily, but I've been to both Knott's and SFMM on days that I'm confident the visitor count was under 2,000 (and I know SFMM had days with three-digit visitor counts). I guess the parks are making enough to justify it, but if somewhere with a population of 15+ million within 50 miles is only pulling those numbers I can't imagine most other places will do better.

October 22, 2018 at 4:34 PM

Efteling is a full-service theme park destination resort with hotel space available to fill year round as well as a full compliment of year round dark rides. Seasonal, regional theme parks such as most of the Six Flags and Cedar Fair venues are simply selling a very different product and require an entirely different infrastructure to make their off-seasons lucrative. Apples and Oranges...

October 22, 2018 at 6:55 PM

I must say I'm impressed with Efteling's growth, I never thought it would work.
Remember parents are by law not allowed to take their children out of school for a vacation (this one is for the whole of Europe).
Also wages in The Netherlands, even for the lowest payed jobs, are still much higher than in the US.
The thing is you should have a park that has a significant amount of indoor rides (so not a coaster park) and be willing to invest to offer something extra to compensate the cold weather.

October 22, 2018 at 7:54 PM

The parks that have expanded into Nov/Dec have done so specifically because they can sell a Christmas theme. What do January & February have? Valentine's Day?

Besides the theme, the weather in January-March is also much worse at seasonal parks than it is in Nov/Dec. It's literally the dead of Winter. One year in the mid-2000s BGW tried to push opening day to earlier in March, to tie their then-new Ireland village in with St. Patrick's Day. It snowed that opening day, and they've since kept the opening to its traditional late-March weekend. Even places like SFOT get harsh winters that would make January/February operation difficult.

There's also something special about opening weekend at a seasonal park. The parks have spent the winter rehabbing or replacing the rides, shops, and shows.

To make 12-month operation viable, currently-seasonal parks would have to invest heavily in both on-site resorts and in-park winter-only attractions so they could sell the park as a vacation destination without the big front-porch coaster. That's a lot of investment just to eliminate what's for many parks now a 10-week off-season.

October 22, 2018 at 10:32 PM

I think you are wrong about the labor force Robert not being a factor. Russell and Makorider are right on point.

October 23, 2018 at 1:09 AM

I do believe some more Six Flags parks will eventually add year-round weekend operations, particularly southern parks like Texas, Georgia. Hours of operation may be limited though, closing at 6pm, much like the November in-between Fright Fest and Holiday event weekends.

The big thing in SF right now are memberships and it is much easier to sell a membership (which requires a monthly payment year round) without an extended off season. So even if a park has a three-digit attendance on a given day, the fact that the park actually has fewer blank spaces on the calendar can drive membership sales by way of perceived value. An individual day that loses money can actually help the bottom line in the long run.

Here in Atlanta, I have suggested in the surveys our SF park should think about being open in late January up to and including the first weekend in February next year to accommodate all the tourists in town for Super Bowl LIII. With Mercedes-Benz Stadium visible from the top of Goliath, I am confident the park could make a go of it as there will be millions of visitors a only a dozen miles away.

October 23, 2018 at 5:37 AM

I find it so bizarre that European and American parks are seasonal. Our big 3 parks in Australia have run 364 days a year forever. At quiet times you get some creative staffing, like one operator alternating between rides, and less food and Bev options, but those are the best times in the parks!! Although to be fair, we only get a week and half of winter, and even then most of you wouldn't call it winter.

October 23, 2018 at 6:15 AM

@Dan the difference with Australia is that Victorians will come up to the Gold Coast in the middle of winter and think it’s quite warm, the off peak there isn’t as off peak as at other places.

I believe early in it’s operation Wonderland Sydney was not 7 days a week in the off season. Towards the end visiting during the week outside of school holidays would result in a walk on in pretty much every attraction... stopping some midday operation wouldn’t have saved the park (let’s face it, Sunway was only interested in the land) but it might have improved the financials

October 23, 2018 at 8:34 AM

5 years ago yes I definitely would say parks should expand their operating season as they are leaving money on the table. It never made any sense to me that parks like SFOG, SFDK, Carowinds etc would close after October when the weather was relatively mild in November/December, seems like an easy opportunity to cash in on a holiday event.

I think most parks have it right now: stay open on weekends for a holiday event but still close for a couple months after that. There is really no benefit to staying open in Jan, Feb, and March for many parks in the north as it would just be freezing cold and the parks would be dead. Even Disneyland in Paris during those months on weekdays there is really no point in opening as the place is just freezing cold and empty (it can get busy on weekends though).

I am really looking forward to seeing SFGAm's Holiday in the Park this year as Chicago is easily the worst climate of any of the parks doing this event (New Jersey obviously gets cold, but not as bad as Chicago). I think it will be a success but we are going to see a lot of coasters have to be closed because of the weather. Remember last year SFGADV had to cancel several days of their operating season because of a blizzard.

October 23, 2018 at 10:15 AM

Hersheypark has certainly extended its season by opening limited ride operations for "Christmas Candylane". It's a nice family event but in the evenings when the temps hit mid 20s and the wind is blowing, swinging on The Claw or flying around the curves of Great Bear aren't something I aspire to do. Yet it's insanely popular and there are plenty of folks who WILL do it and they are fun to watch. But Pennsylvania winters can be brutal and Jan- Mar, it can be treacherous just to drive to work let alone get to a park. However, Chocolate World next door IS open year round and 2 years ago, we went in January and had almost the entire complex to ourselves. The singing cows in the darkride were happy we came to see them!

October 23, 2018 at 11:03 AM

Tokyo Disneyland and Paris are open year round. Tokyo and Paris are cold with light snow. I guess it depends on how cold and how much snow.

October 27, 2018 at 1:26 PM

If a park is going to be open in sub-optimal temperatures in winter, I'd point to a roller coaster like Rockin Roller Coaster at Hollywood Studios or even Revenge of the Mummy at Universal. For my money, the Aerosmith ride is still a fantastic attraction, and though it doesn't snow in Orlando, it sure does get hot, and it often rains.

Thrill seekers shouldn't be left out in the cold.

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