Attractions industry faces challenges, continues to entertain
spurs business of fun
to retrench, innovate
INTERNATIONAL — Although the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a severe blow to businesses and economies worldwide, and recovery, when it can reasonably begin, will be slow, some bright spots and forward thinking have emerged from the global attractions industry while operations are suspended.
To be certain, companies have been struggling to cope as the novel coronavirus — the heart-wrenching human toll of which appeared to be reaching a plateau in the U.S. in mid-April after paralyzing much of Asia and Europe — scuttled new ride debuts and park reopening dates and triggered massive layoffs.
The damage will be substantial. According to a report by the London-based World Tourism Forum Institute, the international tourism market’s average annual revenue of USD $1.7 trillion could suffer a worst-case estimated loss of $1.5 trillion in 2020. In California alone, travel-spending losses could hit $54.5 billion, according to the Sacramento-headquartered tourism bureau Visit California.
Such forecasts have only strengthened the attractions industry’s resolve.
“The human spirit and our ingenuity, creativity and compassion for others is alive and well,” said Hal McEvoy, president and CEO of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), in an early-April organization email. “We see this every day as IAAPA members around the world come together.”
McEvoy noted that IAAPA not only is advocating with governments to help preserve and protect the industry, it is collaborating with members regionally through webinars, e-learning courses and a COVID-19 resources page (visit iaapa.org) to discuss crisis management, operational changes, and keeping guests and employees safe. “We are planning. We are preparing,” he wrote.
The major theme park companies have been grappling with the uncertain and unprecedented situation. In mid-March, when The Walt Disney Co. and NBCUniversal announced the closure of their Southern California and Central Florida resort facilities, paving the way for others to do the same, they offered hopeful restart dates. Since then, with a national emergency declared in the U.S. and stay-at-home orders in effect in most states, operators have amended their statements to convey that parks will remain shuttered indefinitely.
“This is a unique and extraordinary period for our company, our industry and the world,” said Marc Swanson, the new interim CEO of Orlando-headquartered SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. “We [are] focused on managing this business through this difficult time… and welcoming our valued Ambassadors and guests back as soon as possible.”
“The safety and well-being of our guests and associates are always our top priorities,” said Richard Zimmerman, president and CEO of Sandusky, Ohio-based Cedar Fair Entertainment Co.
Like other theme park companies, Dollywood Parks and Resorts in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, signaled its commitment to directives and recommendations from local government officials, medical experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition to posting CDC guidelines in common areas, the company has already enhanced sanitation — installing 300 more hand-sanitizing stations throughout its resort properties, adjusting food and beverage service safety procedures, and increasing disinfection standards training.
The Disney park websites also highlighted increased sanitation and hygiene protocols. These included the addition of easy-access hand-sanitizing facilities and frequent cleaning and wash-down of outdoor locations.
The attractions industry’s pause created a bounty for food banks and charitable organizations.
Disney filled trucks with surplus food contributions at its parks stateside and in Europe. Walt Disney World Resort (WDW) shared its inventory of fresh salads, greens and cooked hot items with Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, while Disneyland Resort sent its surplus to the same organization’s Orange County chapter in Southern California.
“These donations would not be possible without the dedication of cast members behind the scenes who collect, sort and distribute every item to ensure it’s delivered with the highest level of freshness,” said Tajiana Ancora-Brown, WDW’s director of external affairs.
Elsewhere in Central Florida, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay delivered approximately 5,500 pounds of food to Feeding Tampa Bay, a food rescue and distribution organization. Six Flags Over Georgia in Austell provided 114 boxes of fruit, vegetables and dairy to The Center for Children & Young Adults, a private, nonprofit shelter based in nearby Marietta.
Six Flags expressed a commitment to serving the needs of its community. “We are grateful for the partnership with The Center and look forward to providing those living [there] with this nutritious food in a time of uncertainty,” said Dale Kaetzel, park president.
With patrons in the most populous areas of the U.S. ordered to stay home and practice social distancing, theme parks — mindful of brand maintenance — delivered fun and education via the web and social media.
Along with Kings Dominion in Doswell, Virginia, and Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, Idlewild & SoakZone in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, supplied downloadable coloring and activity pages. “We wanted to offer families a bit of a break from the craziness that is our new ‘normal,’” explained Jeff Croushore, Idlewild’s director of marketing, to Amusement Today.
The Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks provided free online educational resources dedicated to wild animals and nature, as did Orlando’s Gatorland through its Facebook Live program, “School of Croc,” which had racked up a million views by the second week of April. Disney’s Animal Kingdom posted photos of the Central Florida park’s latest animal babies, including a zebra and a porcupine.
On the human end of the park entertainment spectrum, Disney presented a first-of-its-kind online performance by the Dapper Dans, the iconic barbershop quartet from Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A., who sang one of their all-time favorite tunes, “When You Wish Upon A Star.”
Creative engagement was on tap, too, thanks to Disney’s “Imagineering in a Box,” a 32-part online program (see story, page 56). The Legoland Resort properties in Central Florida and Southern California challenged their social media followers with Lego-brick projects.
Suppliers vary pace, adapt
Despite the shutdown, many manufacturers and suppliers kept busy completing existing projects, filling parts orders or producing entirely new products targeting needs created by the pandemic.
Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters, Inc. had a train ready to ship to Six Flags Over Georgia as soon as it was permitted to resume work. Company president Tom Rebbie told AT: “We have others ready to assemble and get out to parks, too.”
Larson Intl. in Plainview, Texas, was conducting normal operations. According to Hunter Novotny, mechanical engineer, the company’s ride and parts department was stocked and ready for incoming orders. It was also following CDC workplace guidelines for its employees and the safe handling of materials and shipments.
“We’re doing our best to keep everyone healthy with cleaning stations for tools and hands throughout the shop,” said Novotny, adding that the company was also sanitizing incoming and outgoing boxes.
Client services continued at Baltimore-based Premier Rides, which was using new technologies to allow in-office employees to collaborate with remote workers. The company told AT that parts were available, noting that it recently made multiple shipments to parks in Asia.
“We have associates at ground zero in Wuhan [China], and they are back at work and feeling positive about the future,” said Jim Seay, president. “Parks are reopening in Japan and China, including the front areas of the Disney parks. There is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel!”
Ride Entertainment, with bases in Maryland and New York, was taking the situation “one day at a time,” said Adam Sandy, president of business development. The company’s installation and maintenance team, which was working in the Mid-Atlantic region as the crisis unfolded, was following coronavirus-related safety and isolation guidelines. In addition, it had a work-from-home policy for full-time employees.”
Like Sunkid of Austria, Vekoma Rides Mfg. of the Netherlands and other international suppliers, Ride Entertainment was still taking parts orders while utilizing the pause to develop new ideas and plan for the future. “Our partners — Gerstlauer, Funtime, Lagotronics Projects, etc. — are shipping parts as needed,” Sandy said. “With parks in South Korea and other countries starting to reopen, we’re seeing orders for Skycoaster parts come in.”
Ricardo Etges, Vekoma’s global business development manager, said the company’s Chinese production facility was restarting after a two-month closure and Vekoma’s customer service remained available via phone and video conferencing. “Our goal still is to meet urgent delivery times. Even during this difficult time, our clients are working on new projects and ideas with us for the next seasons.”
Len Soled of Somerville, New Jersey-based Rides 4 U, which represents S&S Worldwide, SBF/Visa Group and KMG, has been shipping spare parts and delivering new rides to customers, including Paul Maurer Shows of Huntington Beach, California, and Adventureland in Farmingdale, New York. He was optimistic about the industry. “Even during the Depression, people were spending money on amusement park rides,” he said. “They still need to bring entertainment to their life to bring balance.”
In the water park equipment sector, Vancouver-based WhiteWater reported that several of its construction projects in China have restarted. Workers at the Shanghai office were taking extra precautions to avoid coronavirus transmission, including checking the temperature of visitors.
Aquatic Development Group of Cohoes, New York, was shipping equipment and parts and continuing to work on contracted projects wherever possible. It was also offering a bit of therapeutic outreach to its customers with a meditation audio file of wave sounds posted on its website.
“During this stressful time, we wanted to focus on staying connected to our clients,” said Julie St. Louis, marketing and communications specialist. “The sound of waves crashing on a beach is peaceful and relaxing — something everyone can use right now.”
Several companies, such as Extreme Engineering in Athens, Texas (see story, page 52), and Daniels Wood Land, Inc., in Paso Robles, California, took their reputation for innovation to the next level — shifting to production of personal protective equipment (PPE) desperately needed by first responders and medical personnel in the front-line battle against COVID-19.
According to Ron Daniels, president of Daniels Wood Land, the company’s decision to use its 37,000-square-foot facility to create protective gowns instead of custom tree houses, shooting galleries and playgrounds was twofold: to keep employees working and help those placing themselves in harm’s way to save others. With an estimated capacity to make 120,000 of the specialized garments daily, the company also had samples of face masks and face shields it was exploring.
“We all have a stake in this game here,” Daniels said. “All of us could end up knowing someone who could pass away from this virus.”
Industry-specific insurance and finance companies were at the ready.
“We and our insurance partners are working on solutions to reflect the lack of business operations and exposure by our clients,” said Rick D’Aprile, vice president of Amusement Entertainment Risk Insurance Associates, which covers mobile and fixed-site facilities. “Renewal dates, locations and season are all issues to be looked at, as well as what coverages are still needed and which can be suspended or postponed. We realize we are all in this together and one solution will not fit all.”
“We see a lot of facilities and shows that are, sadly, having to shut their doors and will not open during this period of challenge,” said Drew Tewksbury, director of sales and marketing at McGowan Allied Specialty Insurance. “Our insurance partners are actively working through the issues and providing solutions to ease the economic burden on our clientele.”
Advised Dave Harman of AJG Risk Management Services: “Clients and brokers need to be proactive, get in front of the ball and let the underwriters know what’s happening with their business. If the clients, parks and carnivals are proactive, the underwriters will work with them to solve whatever problems that can be solved.”
Some brokers could see changes coming to the industry as a result of the pandemic, such as increased sanitation and reduced crowding.
“There’ll be some best practices from the standpoint of wiping things down, having more hand sanitizer and handwashing stations,” said ESY Financial’s Larry Yaffe, past chair and trustee of the Outdoor Amusement Business Assn. (OABA), noting that OABA was already at work on a CDC guidelines-driven list. “Although a lot of our businesses have done a really good job of that, I just don’t think it was advertised because its importance wasn’t at the forefront.”
Ryan Wilkerson, president and CEO of Haas & Wilkerson Insurance, echoed the need to bolster consumer confidence in parks and fairs: “More visibly doing things like disinfecting and cleaning will show our consumers that we’re taking their safety seriously not just from a ride safety standpoint, but from a health safety standpoint.”
Firestone Financial, a subsidiary of Berkshire Bank, a Massachusetts-based nationwide business lender serving the amusement and entertainment industry was offering a three-month deferral on existing loans for customers requesting pandemic-related assistance.
Rich Gockelman, carnival and amusement park commercial account executive for Firestone, explained to AT that a majority of the company’s clients operate seasonally and are on seasonal payment plans, and they have not and/or will not be able to build up capital before their payments are due. At the same time, many have already incurred expenses. “They’ve stepped up and stocked up for their opening events of the season, which are maybe the smaller ones, but they’re important ones,” he said. “These earlier spots and events kind of prime the pump and are a critical part of their finances.
“This year, many had all their employees and materials lined up, transported themselves to the spot and then had these abrupt shutdowns.”
Gockelman predicted fun-seekers will be cautious with their money when the crisis eases, perhaps reviving the “staycation” concept. “That means going out for maybe a couple-hour drive and spending a whole day with the family at a regional park, fair or carnival,” he said.
All in the family
For now, it is a waiting game for family-owned amusement parks as the impact of the coronavirus reverberates.
Two Pennsylvania operations — Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg and Waldameer & Water World in Erie — were among those rolling with it as best they could, adding hand sanitizer dispensers and stepping up cleaning routines as they awaited a green light to open.
Having already delayed its season start to a (hopeful) date in early May, Knoebels was focused on keeping in touch with employees and patrons. “We’ve been providing regular updates via our Team Knoebels Facebook group and relying on our managers to ensure those who don’t have Facebook are receiving our company communications,” said Brian Knoebel, resort co-owner.
With job fairs and in-person interviews not possible, he added that the company was considering options for conducting virtual rehire meetings and interviews via FaceTime, Skype and other video platforms.
While Waldameer’s amusement area was not slated to open to the general public until May, its year-round indoor event business lost four dates. The park has postponed its annual summer job fair and is accepting applications online instead.
“It’s up to the county to decide what we can do,” said Paul Nelson, Waldameer’s owner and CEO, noting that Erie County generates 7% of its gross annual income from various amusement operations. “They have to pay some attention to us.”
Advance sales at Quassy Amusement & Waterpark in Middlebury, Connecticut, also were affected. “We’re currently in our off-season, and the only impact internally has been on our sales team,” said Eric Anderson, park president. “We had to reduce their hours due to schools and businesses being closed.”
At the same time, Quassy increased its patron contact efforts — making the most of its electronic newsletters by distributing coloring and activity pages for families to enjoy at home.
Ken Taylor, vice president of Jenkinson’s Boardwalk & Aquarium in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, voluntarily closed his arcade and game operations before the state ordered nonessential businesses to do so. “We thought it was the right thing to do to try to flatten the curve [in viral infection rates],” he said.
Taylor envisioned gloved ride operators and other changes upon reopening. Hand-sanitizing stations, he said, “are going to be fixtures at every ticket booth, arcade counter, kiosk.”
Fun Spot America, with locations in Orlando and Kissimmee, Florida, as well as Atlanta, remained open through much of March after most attractions opted to close. The parks were closed March 23 under additional state and federal guidance.
According to CEO John Arie, Jr., the properties had been operating pretty much “as normal” and crowds were “good,” if lighter than usual for the spring break period. In response to the outbreak, hand sanitizer dispensers were installed throughout and employees frequently disinfected handrails and doorknobs.
Joyland Amusement Park in Lubbock, Texas, took similar steps to keep guests safe. But after launching its season March 7 with “a good start,” per owner David Dean, the city restrictions forced the park closed in the middle of the month. “We’ve had to cut spending on most everything,” he acknowledged. The part-time staff of 80 was laid off and full-time employees were reduced to 20-30 hours weekly.
Cliff’s Amusement Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the midst of seasonal hiring at the time of the shutdown. “We have reached out to all new hires and rehires explaining the current situation, and will stay in touch,” said Justin Hayes, general manager of Cliff’s. “We are exploring doing interviews via FaceTime.”
In Northern California, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk was enjoying a record start for the year before the crisis hit. “When California later issued a shelter-in-place order, staff that could were asked to continue working from home,” said Marq Lipton, vice president of marketing and sales. “A very small number of critical operational staff, including a Coronavirus Task Force, reported to the park. We called off part-time/seasonal employees.”
A fair season that isn’t
The cancellation or postponement of top regional and national events and fairs such as the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and, in Southern California, the San Diego County Fair and Coachella Music and Arts Festival have shattered traditions along with the plans of vendors and fans.
“We are an industry that lives the motto, ‘The show must go on,’” said Greg Chiecko, president and CEO of OABA. “Given the current state of affairs, the show is not going on, and it is completely out of our control.”
The situation, observed Alicia Shoults, marketing and public relations director of the Ohio State Fair in Columbus, has sparked a supportive rallying cry nonetheless. “The fair industry has always been one where people come together, share ideas and work as a team,” she said. “This crisis is another example of that.”
Fairs, like many parks, have found silver linings in making humanitarian gestures. Many have offered the use of their fairgrounds and facilities for a variety of COVID-19 responses, including field hospitals and drive-through testing stations.
The Miami-Dade Youth Fair in South Florida allowed a 250-bed medical facility with a mobile X-ray machine to be erected inside a tent on its grounds. Another temporary hospital with 250 beds was set up at the Oregon State Fair and Exposition Center in Salem.
The 83-acre York State Fair in southeastern Pennsylvania hosted eight lanes of drive-through coronavirus testing on its grounds. And the Tommy Thompson Youth Center at Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis became a donation facility for health care provider PPE of all kinds, such as N95 face masks.
Midway providers experienced their share of pain, as well.
“Transportation costs, refunds for those who purchased pre-sale tickets, obligations to employees, maintenance schedules for equipment, insurance inspections — those financial obligations must be met,” pointed out Chris Lopez, vice president of family owned-and-operated RCS, Inc., of Laveen, Arizona.
“All of our fairs are down until June,” said Ron Burback, Sr., co-owner of Portland, Oregon-based Funtastic Traveling Shows, which laid off the crew so they could apply for unemployment. “What happens after that date, we’ll have to play by ear.”
“We’re seeing the same challenges as any other business,” said Lynda Franc, corporate marketing director of Farmland, Indiana-headquartered North American Midway Entertainment. “The one difference is how fairs and events are all turning to each other to motivate one another, stay strong and just support each other.”
Providing fun anew
The family entertainment center (FEC) sector and its suppliers were looking after their employees and brainstorming ways to adapt their operations.
Ohio-based Scene75 elected to close all five of its venues a week before the mandated shutdown. “Doing so was required for us to fully adhere to one of Scene75’s core values of putting people first,” said founder Jonah Sandler. “While economically painful, [it] was in the best interest of our family of team members and guests. We agreed to pay all staff members in full for the following two weeks despite asking them to stay home.”
Other operators also sought ways to help staff maintain an income.
“We convened with leaders of brands who are currently seeing a surge in demand to help park employees find work,” said Michael Browning, CEO of Bedford, Texas-headquartered Urban Air Adventure Parks, which has more than 200 facilities open or under construction in the U.S. “We connected our nationwide staff of more than 12,000 with Amazon and RTC Recruitment for part-time employment.”
He added that qualified staff members were able to find employment in as little as seven days, with the option to return to Urban Air later. The company’s top executives chose to forgo their own salaries during the shutdown.
Suppliers were also pitching in to help keep their FEC clients stay solvent.
Creative Works of Mooresville, Indiana, which specializes in laser tag and VR arenas, among other attractions, was deferring payments for support and warranty plans. “We truly love this industry, and we appreciate everything our clients do to create memories for their communities,” said Armando Lanuti, president. “Hopefully, this can help ease the burden for operators.”
Staff members of global laser tag supplier Laserforce were working from home, where possible, “to continue providing the level of service required to support our operators,” said the company’s Jason Wallace.
While Scene75, Urban Air and other FEC operators were maximizing customer engagement through social media in this period of “pandemic parenting,” as Browning described it, another FEC supplier, Dallas-based business solutions company Embed, launched a series of educational blogs and videos for sharing with key partners.
Having recently debuted a mobile wallet cashless payment system that utilizes Apple Pay and Google Wallet, Embed is well positioned in a world now seeking to minimize contact with surfaces. “We are working on the next wave of technology innovation with our partners Apple and Google so that contactless payments become truly contactless across our entire solutions,” said Sara Paz, chief marketing officer.
Where contact cannot be avoided, some companies are exploring more reliable disinfection. Virtual reality entertainment company Hologate of Munich, for one, was working on an Ultraviolet C medical-grade cleaning solution lab-tested to kill 99.99% of bacteria, viruses and fungi.
Urban Air is using the shutdown to “go over everything with a fine-tooth comb,” said Browning of the company’s cleaning procedures. “It’s an extensive process that involves misting and fogging with antimicrobial and antibacterial products. It leaves a protective coating on all surfaces.”
Aside from using the best cleaning practices, Scene75’s Sandler was looking “to identify what operating measures we would need to implement if asked to limit capacity in our buildings upon reopening.”
Although no part of the attractions industry will be proceeding as usual, there was a vital, cross-sector undercurrent of confidence that it will recover and emerge stronger. In the meantime, there is the more important business of caring for one another.
“We need to focus on good health and praying for those who are affected,” said entertainer, philanthropist and theme park owner Dolly Parton, who has been promoting healing — and relieving weary parents — by reading bedtime stories for kids online each week. “We know brighter days are ahead.”
—Reported by the
Staff of Amusement Today