A Season for Fun More of the Year
Staving Off Shutdowns at Large Parks

By Chad Emerson

There was once a time when amusement park seasons were primarily summer-centric.  Except for warmer climates like California and Florida, many of the parks operated from late Spring to around Labor Day.  Basically tracking school calendars, these parks would often go into shutdown mode for a large chunk of the year.

In recent years, that trend is changing though as more and more parks (even in cold climates) stay open for longer seasons in the hopes of capturing more revenue.  For this issue, The Large Park Report polled several large park theme park vets for their opinion on operational and maintenance issues that result from extending your season beyond the traditional summer months.  Among a variety of responses, we found three that were commonly mentioned as careful considerations to evaluate when expanding into the non-traditional operating months.

Christmas lights at Dollywood. Even in cooler climates, large parks are increasingly extending their seasons.

The Climate

When you think of wintertime in places like Hershey, Pa., or Gatlinburg, Tenn., the idea of queuing up for an outdoor theme park ride probably seems like a chilly idea.  In fact, parks like Dollywood and Hersheypark haven’t typically been winter vacation destinations over the years.  That’s changed though as parks like these in colder climates extend their operations into the later months to capture holiday traffic at Halloween, Thanksgiving and especially Christmas.  Doing so can be a great way to generate revenue in an otherwise non-revenue season through the use of holiday-themed shows, ride overlays, and festive food and beverage.  

A note of caution, though, if you think it’s as simple as adding some jack-o-lanterns and snowflake lights to your park: operating in colder months can mean a brand new set of climate factors.  Two of the biggest of these are cold temperatures and snow.  

In a place like Pennsylvania where holiday season snow is certainly possible, operating during these months likely means purchasing or leasing snow management equipment.  After all, while everyone enjoys a White Christmas, keeping pathways and parking lots safe and accessible in winter weather is much different than the summertime.  This means that new revenues from holiday operations need to be balanced with the reality that you’ll likely incur new expenses for managing winter weather events—a cost that would be almost non-existent if your park was closed for the season and operating on a skeleton crew.

In addition to snow management, cold weather can also affect the operations of outdoor rides.  While temperatures during the summer rarely get cold much less freezing, parks in colder climates need to carefully study how lower temperatures affect their coasters, spinners, and other open-air attractions.  This can typically be done by consulting with the ride manufacturer.

Be prepared, though, to see that manufacturers may recommend different protocols for cold weather operation and maintenance.  This can lead to unexpected new costs in terms of equipment, tools, training, and other maintenance materials.  Building this into the expense side of the ledger is an absolute necessity while also contemplating new revenues from the extended season.

The Lights 

Just like cold weather and snow can cause extra operational and maintenance costs, so too can the early sunsets during winter months.  While almost all parks have decorative and safety lighting systems in place, the amount and type of lighting during early sunset seasons can trigger multiple considerations.

For starters, your electricity bill will inevitably increase when the lights come on closer to 3 p.m. than much later during the lighter summer months.  While the increase in your winter heating bill may be largely offset by a reduction in summer air-conditioning costs, the costs of safely lighting your park for longer hours during the day will likely have a measurably increased cost.  

The Parade of Many Colors is a holiday tradition at Dollywood.

The increased costs won’t likely stop, though, with using your operational lights more often during the winter.  Indeed, the very reason that many parks stay open during non-traditional months is to capture the potentially lucrative Halloween and Christmas seasons.  To effectively do this, parks must add whole new sets of customized lights and decorations specific to those holiday seasons.  This is not typically the case during the summer months since very few holiday-specific supplemental lighting and decorations are needed (with the potential exception of the 4th of July).

Just a small amount of research will reveal that “off the shelf” Christmas lights and decorations can themselves be quite expensive.  And that cost can increase many times over if you’re ordering customized decorations unique to your park.  For a relatively short use time, custom Halloween and Christmas lights and decorations will be a significant investment that can quickly eat into the new revenues that they help generate by creating a festively-lit holiday experience for your guests.

The Staff 

Over the years, one rite of passage at many theme parks has been hiring of college students home for summer to operate many of the attractions and perform in a variety of shows.  This seasonal employment set-up is a win-win because the college calendars often track well with the busiest summer season leaving an expansive pool of potential employees for those months.

That’s not nearly the case during the winter months.  While many colleges have extended Christmas holiday breaks, those are not nearly as long as summer breaks—nevermind the fact that seasonal employees might not be as ready to work during the busy Christmas holiday season than they are the slower paced summer months. 

This situation is even more challenging if your park invests in a Halloween season since there are very few, if any, fall breaks that extend throughout October.   These realities mean that the availability of labor during fall and winter seasons is likely to be lower which, in turn, means the cost of labor will likely be increased (the old supply versus demand challenge).

It’s also important to note that this challenge applies not just to front-line employees like ride operators, merchandise sellers and food and beverage workers.  These are critical employees but often easier to find and train for short-time employments than specialized employees like show performers and musicians.  This is important because a major appeal to winter season operations are holiday-specific shows themed to Halloween and especially Christmas.  While there may be a decent pool of summer-time actors, actresses, and band members, finding this same level of talent for abbreviated Halloween and Christmas seasons can be much more challenging and costly.

While the idea of generating new revenues by opening during the fall and winter holidays can be a enticing for even those parks in colder climates, these lessons learned from large park operators can help you uncover potentially unanticipated costs that may not make those revenue projections sparkle as much as they did at first glance for the holiday seasons. 

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