It's time to face a hard truth about the theme park industry right now. This truth might be bad news or good news, depending upon your point of view. But it's useless to deny this truth, since the evidence is obvious to anyone who has visited or followed top theme parks lately.
The theme park industry is far from recovered. Months after reopening, fewer people are visiting the industry-leading Disney and Universal theme parks than did in the same period before the pandemic.
Hugo Martin showed the receipts in a recent Los Angeles Times article, Wait times at Disneyland and Universal Studios are way down. Here's why.
The article is not as definitive as that headline suggests. Martin allows his sources to offer a variety of opinions as to why wait times are down. And he includes Disney's assertion that consumer demand for its parks remains strong.
Which it does. Thousands of people are visiting the parks each day. Long-term trends might be encouraging. Guest satisfaction might be high, especially with all those short wait times. But none of that denies the fact that fewer people are inside the parks these days when compared with the same period two years ago, before the pandemic.
Yes, Disney is limiting overall park attendance via its new reservation systems. But if you look at the availability calendars for Disneyland and Walt Disney World, you will find plenty of available dates to visit. Attendance is not down just because Disney is capping it. It's down because fewer people are trying to visit on most days, too.
Universal is not capping its attendance with reservation requirements, and wait times are down at Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Orlando, too. Nor does increased attraction capacity in the parks account for shorter wait times. In fact, overall attraction capacity remains below its pre-pandemic peak, thanks to the continued closure of several attractions and shows, especially at Disney, where people-eaters such as the Hyperion show, World of Color, and Fantasmic! remain closed.
Neither high prices nor long lines are keeping people away, either. Disney has been offering aggressive resident discounts. So has Universal. And, as we started - and anyone who's been to the parks or monitored wait times on their apps has seen - waits have remained far below traditional averages on most days in recent weeks.
We all know the reason - the pandemic continues. The Delta variant obliterated whatever confidence people were feeling about the pandemic's end in the late spring and early summer. The percentage of the public that feels comfortable visiting a theme park has declined from its July 4 peak. Cast and team members have told me privately of rampant cancellations at Disney and Universal in Florida, as tourists look to avoid the state that has had the worst hospitalization record during the Delta outbreak.
Even ticket deals and short wait times have not been enough to entice more people to ignore the pandemic and fill the nation's top theme parks.
I am fully vaccinated, and like many other fully vaccinated people, I understand both math and how vaccines work. They greatly reduce your personal risk of contracting, spreading and suffering from a disease, but they cannot completely eliminate it... unless enough other people also get vaccinated so that the disease dies out in a community. With so many still-unvaccinated people out and about, spreading Covid, fully vaccinated people cannot act like Covid is no longer a risk, as many of us thought we might at the beginning of summer.
That's why you see me masked up in my recent theme park videos. And that's why many people - including parents of children not yet eligible for the vaccine - are choosing to avoid travel or crowed locations such as theme parks.
So what's the path out of this mess? Doing nothing more than the industry and the nation are doing now means enduring the continued, unnecessary deaths of thousands of Americans each day while risking the evolution of even more dangerous variants, potentially leading a growing percentage of the public to rule out visits to attractions such as theme parks indefinitely.
Or, we find a way to get more people vaccinated - enough to finally end deadly Covid cases in America. No education or PR campaigns are going to drive increased vaccination rates now. Nor will any more contests or giveaways. As I wrote in my newspaper column a couple weeks back, the time for the carrot has passed. Only the stick works now. It's time either to mandate vaccination or at least a return to lockdown for those who choose not to be vaccinated.
I understand that many of you come to Theme Park Insider to read about theme parks and perhaps thereby avoid distressing news about topics such as the pandemic, and I also know that some other sites covering the industry have decided to stop writing about Covid. But the pandemic is the biggest story in the theme park industry right now, as it has been since March 2020. As much as I would love to ignore it and bring you happier news about the state of the industry, that would not be honest reporting about the state of the industry at the moment. And the first thing that I promised myself when I started this website is that I would always try my best to be honest with you.
Theme parks are doing better than they were at this point last year. But they're not all the way back yet. Many theme park fans remain on the sidelines, not committing to or even thinking about a vacation yet. Shorter wait times and discounted tickets won't win them back. Only an end to this pandemic will.
So what are we going to do - as a society - to make that happen?
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Yeah, experience has taught me that I can't open comments on anything having to do with the pandemic without risking anti-vax Covid deniers trying to shout down everyone else. So the comments will remain closed here, too. If you want to say something about this, please include that as you share this post on social media. And if you just what to support what I am doing here on Theme Park Insider, please sign up for our newsletter. Thanks.