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?Tweet
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