Should Theme Parks Delay Their New Attractions Until 2021?

May 14, 2020, 2:49 PM · As theme parks around the world prepare to reopen, what will be the next step for the industry?

Obviously, parks need to find ways to get through their reopenings safely, and we've detailed some of the ways that parks will be changing their operations to do that. Expect reduced capacities, advance reservation requirements, virtual queues, mobile payments, enhanced sanitation... and yes, mandatory use of masks by guests and employees alike. But what's the next step that parks will need to take in their long-term strategy to recover from this extended closure and loss of business?

Do parks just proceed with their development plans as if nothing had happened? Or will the Covid-19 pandemic force parks to change their strategy for the future?

Here's the immediate question - Do parks go ahead with their planned new attraction openings for this year? There's not much of a business case to be made for opening anything new in 2020, given that parks will be sharply reducing their capacities to accommodate social distancing requirements. And given the severe loss of income the parks face, both from being closed for months and serving smaller crowds once they reopen, it's highly unlikely that parks will have the money they expected to spend on new attractions in 2021, either.

Most chains have announced that they have canceled or deferred capital spending for the time being. Universal Orlando has put its new park, Epic Universe, on hold, while Disney is reevaluating its plans for a major refurbishment at Epcot. Six Flags, Cedar Fair and SeaWorld all have announced sharp cuts to capital spending. No one is going to make a commitment to new projects until they see economic recovery on the horizon. Until then, parks will have to make do with what they have.

So why not hold on to your new ride for 2020 and open it instead in 2021, when - one hopes - travel is coming back and parks can expand their capacities? Cedar Point already has made this call, announcing that it will postpone its 2020 lineup, including its 150th anniversary celebration, until 2021. I expect to see other parks make the same decision as they look toward their reopenings.

Granted, circumstances are different for seasonal parks such as Cedar Point than for year-round parks, such as those from Disney and Universal. Indeed, Cedar Fair's only year-round park, Knott's Berry Farm, has said that it will debut its Knott's Bear-Tales: Return to the Fair interactive ride when the park reopens, rather than delaying it. (Knott's is postponing its 100th anniversary celebration, however.) As parks look to promote social distancing by more evenly distributing crowds throughout the park, an extra attraction can help that cause.

Ultimately, the decision to go ahead with a new attraction for 2020 or put it off until 2021 might come down to how close the new attraction was to completion. It's easier to justify a delay if a park still needed to spend any significant amount of money or time getting ready to open. But if a new ride was ready to go, it's harder to just let it sit there... especially if crowds do not return, even to reduced capacity levels, and parks need something to boost attendance to their minimal, break-even levels.

So far, we know that Knott's Bear-y Tales remains a go for 2020, while Cedar Point's Snake River Expedition is waiting for 2021. But what about everything else?

Universal Studios Hollywood's The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash! was set to soft-open the very day that the park closed. So I suspect that Universal won't delay in getting that ride up once the Hollywood park returns. Same for The Lego Movie World at Legoland California, which had its debit set for March, as well.

Iron Gwazi also was just days from opening at Busch Gardens Tampa, having been testing at that park before the closure. But does Busch Gardens - part of a SeaWorld chain that's nowhere near as set financially as Universal is within the Comcast empire - really want to shoot its top bullet on the 2020 season, rather than hold it in reserve for what everyone prays is a more lucrative 2021?

Disneyland has delayed the planned opening of its Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure. Does it try to hustle that Marvel-themed land onto the 2020 calendar, or just wait for the summer of 2021? Does Universal Studios Japan go ahead with Super Nintendo World this year, when international travel is all but closed, or wait until 2021 like the Tokyo Olympics, to which Universal once tied Nintendo's opening?

If you were running a major theme park, what would you do? As a fan, what would you prefer to see? Do you want parks to go ahead with their new attractions for 2020, as scheduled, even while they change their operations and reduce their capacities? Or would you prefer that parks hold off on the new stuff until more fans can come to enjoy them?

Replies (15)

May 14, 2020 at 3:13 PM

Practically, I say yes, they should. Let them be bigger deals down the line. We all saw wildly varying reactions to Galaxy's Edge, Rise of Resistance. Now imagine that in the middle of this mess.

Yet I highly suspect some places will be doing openings just to get folks inside. That's bigger for Six Flags/Cedar Point type parks who have already lost almost half a season and need to get back cash fast. I'd say Disney and Universal hold off but still later in the year opening some stuff as a "welcome back gift."

May 14, 2020 at 3:22 PM

What better opportunity to ‘bed in’ a new attraction with reduced capacity? No pressure to run at full capacity for the whole year so the perfect chance to work out all those teething problems....

May 14, 2020 at 3:34 PM

@David Brown: Great point, this would be the best opportunity to test some attractions out.

May 14, 2020 at 4:13 PM

I agree with Mr. Brown. How many unhappy people have with the issues Universal had with Hagrid's Motorbike. With reduced capacity a new ride in this situation is going to be running at reduced capacity anyway so what better time to work thru new ride bugs. Now with a coaster from a reputable manufacture you wouldn't expect any issues so you could delay it, but if the new ride is using relatively new tech then this is the best time to break it in with minimal disruptions.

May 14, 2020 at 4:29 PM

I think I would put off new attractions for the seasonal parks and open as soon as possible for the year-round ones, especially if they can make it happen for what will be a reduced but still potentially lucrative holiday season. Cedar Fair (which has been run pretty well since Matt Ouimet took over for Dick Kinzel as CEO) seems to have the right take on this, as Robert noted. I expect Disney to get Ratatouille up at Epcot as soon as it is feasible, and it's notable that Universal has not paused construction on Velocicoaster even as it has halted Epic Universe.

I am just one local resident and my voice is small, but Iron Gwazi was going to see me invest in a SeaWorld/Busch Gardens annual pass for the first time since moving to Florida five years ago, and I will not do so until the ride has a firm opening date. I suspect the time of year does not matter for Busch Gardens' business nearly so much as to delay a ride that was testing until 2021.

May 14, 2020 at 9:28 PM

For me, it boils down to three the ride operational, how will it affect visitor numbers, and how much time is left in the season?

First, let's address the second point. With limited capacity, parks will need to be careful to encourage enough people to visit to stay in business without encouraging so many people to visit that reservations become a challenge to get and potential customers are turned away. If the park is operating at or near their capacity cap, it doesn't make sense to open a new ride that will draw more people to the park. However, if they find that guests aren't coming in the numbers they'd like to see, it could be a great way to provide a boost.

Now for the first it operational? If a ride was already testing before the closure, the remaining costs to get it running are going to be minimal when compared to the scope of the project, so it makes sense for the park to finish the project and open it rather than have a fancy lawn ornament that guests constantly ask about. However, if the ride is still clearly far from construction, it may be more beneficial to put a hold on things until the next off season both for financial reasons and to avoid having to subject guests to viewing an active construction site.

This leads to the third question. At a year-round park, it's largely a moot point as if the ride doesn't make a target it can simply be deferred to the next peak period. At a seasonal park, however, if the ride isn't going to be ready to roll with a majority of the season remaining, the park is losing out on marketing potential and may be better saving the ride to sell tickets and passes for the next season. For this reason, I think any park that can't open in the first half of July is definitely going to defer any attraction that isn't ready to open when the park is given the green light to do so.

TLDR version: If the ride is already in the testing phase or is at a year-round park, construction should proceed to open the attraction during the next peak period. However, if the ride is at a seasonal park and not at the testing phase, it probably should be postponed to next season (especially if the park itself can't open by mid-July). The only exception is if the park anticipates hitting their allowed capacity easily without the benefit of a new attraction.

May 15, 2020 at 4:31 AM

Snake River Expedition has an issue that most other major new attractions don't have- the human factor. It might very well be physically completed, but along with the actual ride operators it also has alive cast of interactive characters. It's theme is somehow interwoven with Forbidden Frontier on Adventure Island (which it circumnavigates) so you can't really open one without the other intelligently. They told the cast there would be no FFOAI before publicly announcing that all new attractions would be postponed until 2021. I don't know for sure- speculation is the most popular off-season experience at Cedar Point- but I'd be surprised if they have any live entertainment this year, assuming they open at all.

May 15, 2020 at 5:33 AM

I would say no. Slow down construction a bit if it makes financial sense, use the extra time to get ops perfect, but do not open until next season.

The point in a new drawcard is to draw in guests. At the moment, guests can’t or won’t come. Save that cannon for a better shot.

May 15, 2020 at 5:46 AM

Tough question...but I think I’d like to see those who are willing & able to visit the parks in 2020 get rewarded when possible.

I would also think the folks who see the new attraction as a reason to visit the park, will probably still see it that way in 2021, even if it opened the prior season.

Lastly, assuming 2021 is going to be a normal year may be a mistake as well. We really have no idea what next year holds...

May 15, 2020 at 8:35 AM

If nearing completion, open it. One more attraction will allow for more spacing in a theme park and increase its capacity even if its a percentage allowed by the government of that park's capacity.

If it is not near completion, it makes more sense for the company to shut down construction until the economy bounces back. That is what Universal has done with an entire park with its upcoming Epic Universe. Looks like opening will be delayed by at least a year to 2024 or beyond.

May 15, 2020 at 8:47 AM

My new favorite phrase is: "First, let's address the second point."

May 15, 2020 at 9:07 AM

I think every new addition around the country has to be treated individually, and fans need to understand that each one poses a different and unique set of parameters that may impact when a new attraction opens.

Obviously, attractions that were already in the testing phase and within weeks of their debut are probably completely under the park's control to determine whether or not they open. Individual parks may have different motivations for wanting to either open or delay that attraction. Some attractions may require a unique set of staff to load test and prepare it for opening that represent "sunk costs" that the park may not get back or have to be replicated if the opening is significantly delayed. Like any complex machine, most theme park attractions work best when they are operating on a routine basis, and abandoning the gradual ramp up of speeds, loads, and individual components may force the park to spend more money down the road just to get the attraction up and running a year from now. In other words, even if an attraction is a month away from opening with significant testing still needed, it may cost more for a park to stop or even "winterize" the attraction until 2021 than it would for them to open it on schedule.

The other variable is the park's "bang for their buck" that a new attraction brings. Given that parks are likely to operate under significant attendance restrictions for a big chunk of this summer. That means the typical bump parks would receive for a new attraction is unlikely to happen. However, will an attraction being SBNO represent a frustration to the fans/guests that see a new ride ready to go but not accessible until next year? It's a tough predicament, especially for the parks with big coasters that are fully assembled with entrances and queues that appear to have been completed. Guests don't want to come to the park to deal with all of the extra restrictions and then face a new, highly anticipated attraction shuttered until 2021 because a park wants to leverage its newness for maximum affect in 2021.

For attractions that are a little further away from opening or had erection/construction halted due to internal park decision or government restrictions, there could be a number of factors weighing on those decisions. Construction of new attractions usually involves subcontractors that often have incentives or terms written within those contracts to complete their work within a specific amount of time or by a certain date. Some contracts may allow for a "pause" of work meaning that if it's supposed to take 18 months to complete work and work is paused for 3 months, the contract would require completion within 21 months. Parks may have the ability to modify or cancel contracts, but each one is going to be handled on an individual basis. Most attractions involve multiple subcontractors where certain contracts may be delayed, modified, or cancelled, while other may not. For instance, iron workers typically work under very specific, time sensitive contracts to ensure those crews can mobilize around the country/world from job site to job site. If iron workers (typically coaster assembly crews) are contracted to work for 3 months on a coaster in California, there may be little a park can do to cancel or even delay that work beyond a few weeks allowable within the force majeure clauses in the contract. Ride system testers may fall under those same time sensitive contracts. However, a landscaping crew or plaster artists may have a lot more leeway in their contracts to delay or suspend that work. A park will have to weigh the cost/benefit to completing that contracted work and whether there are financial ramifications to cancelling or modifying those contracts.

Obviously, any attraction that not move into the actual construction phase is almost certainly on hold right now unless those costs were already committed and cannot be recovered. However, it's likely to come down to the individual specifics of each project and contract that may dictate whether a new attraction opens now or is delayed until 2021. Parks may have very little leeway in those contracts, and holding those additions back may represent increased costs. So as parks start re-opening and making decisions about planned new attractions, each project has its own set of parameters that will guide whether it makes sense for the park to open it now or later.

May 15, 2020 at 9:14 AM

Also, you have to consider what contractual obligations are at stake with manufacturers and construction crew timelines. Does a park wants to slow or halt development and construction and possibly face a financial penalty for doing that? Do you think that construction crews will just sit around waiting for a call to finish work already underway or nearing completion? Everything is scheduled out way ahead of time in the development process and costs are everything to the park, crews, and the manufacturer. Time=money

May 15, 2020 at 12:00 PM

You're absolutely right Robert L. It's really going to come down to the contract language and if there are any schedule incentives. Different trades have different standards for their contracts, so every attraction is going to be handled differently not only because of that contract language that varies across the industry, but because different trades are involved depending upon the type of attraction. There may even be aspects of projects where specific trades are willing to make price reductions to ensure their employees have work to do right now, which could accelerate some project timelines that were more long term.

May 15, 2020 at 7:31 PM

I don't see the point of having multi-million dollar unfinished buildings cooking in the sun. Finish the ride, then you have an attraction, not an outrageously expensive eyesore.

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