Where Festive Fun Is a Perfect Fit
Festivals at Theme Parks

By Chad Emerson

In the last Large Park Report, we featured many of the exciting new rides coming to the large park industry in 2019.  While new roller coasters and dark rides often get the most attention each season, entertainment offerings at large parks continue to get more sophisticated and more popular year after year.  In this issue, we focus on several of the most anticipated new and expanded festivals for the large park industry in 2019.

Using Festivals to Grow Slower Seasons
Once upon time, parks that stayed open year-round ended up having slow times during the fall and spring while schools were in session.  Disney tackled this challenge head-on by developing special festivals during those times including a spring flower and garden festival and a fall food and wine festival.  The huge success of these annual festivals is evidenced by the fact that the Epcot-centered food and wine shindig is now open four months of the year, opening in August and wrapping up in November.  Similarly, the spring flower and garden festival has grown to fill most of the gap between the Spring Break and summer seasons.

In 2019, SeaWorld Orlando is following a similar blueprint with expanded versions of its popular seasonal festivals including the spring-time Seven Seas Food and Wine Festival and the SeaWorld Craft Beer Festival which is expanding to four weekends next year.  SeaWorld is also introducing new special events during the slower mid-winter season and mid-spring seasons in a clear effort to “fill the gaps” between peak seasons.  By our count, SeaWorld appears to have a special event or festival scheduled for nearly every weekend in 2019.  Clearly, the park is using an expanded festival roster to hopefully increase attendance during traditionally slower times of the year.

Meanwhile, across the country in Disneyland, the original House of Mouse theme park is celebrating 90 years of Mickey and Minnie with an elaborate “Get Your Ears On – A Mickey and Minnie Celebration” that begins this month.  Disney has long used anniversaries of theme parks, rides, and characters as the basis for creating temporary, themed celebrations.  This strategy allows the theme park mega-operator to create new content through parades, ride overlays, seasonal shows and special merchandise without the typically more expensive investment that permanent new rides and shows cost to develop, construct, and maintain.  

Festivals Take Center Stage for Park Marketing 
The popularity of in-park festivals is evidenced in a big way at Silver Dollar City which has declared 2019 to be its “Year of Shows and Festivals.”  The Branson-based park has centered its 2019 promotional focus almost entirely on the new and expanded shows and festivals that it will offer during the year.  While most parks emphasize their headliner new rides, Silver Dollar City has grouped its expansive non-ride offerings into spring, summer, fall and Christmas categories with much hype given to its all new “mega-summer production show” Rueben’s Swashbuckling Adventure.

Meanwhile, Knott’s Berry Farm is also introducing a festival-centric promotion in 2019 with its “Seasons of Fun” campaign.  The year-long emphasis on in-park festivals will include expanded versions of the already-popular Peanuts-themed special events on weekends from late January until March.  That will be followed by a super-sized version of the park’s Boysenberry Festival which expands to an entire month next year.  

Not surprisingly, many of the expanded festivals occur outside the non-peak summer season.  This is a strong indication that temporary festivals and special celebrations are a solid strategy for increasing attendance during slower times of the year, especially for amusement facilities that are open year-round.

The Importance of Fresh Content 
Not all festivals continue to grow though.  In fact, even some of the most noteworthy aren’t immune to the pressures to keep content fresh for new and returning guests.  For instance, Universal Orlando recently announced that it would not host its annual “A Celebration of Harry Potter” in 2019 despite doing so since 2014.  The event served as a mini-Potter convention each January with offerings including interactive lessons, special shows and tours plus appearances the films’ cast.   

Apparently, though, even the Boy Wizard and his magical friends aren’t an exception to one key festival concept:  fresh content is a prerequisite for even the most popularly-themed festivals. 

Indeed, this appears to be holding true for another popular Universal Orlando festival:  Rock the Universe.  One of the country’s largest Christian music festivals, Rock the Universe had been a September staple in Central Florida for two decades.  Despite this long-standing date, Universal officials are rescheduling the event to February in 2019.  While moving an event from a time frame that so many people have attended could create some uncertainty, it further shows that, if your facility hosts (or is looking to host) an in-park festival, even the most successful festivals and special events need to be open to evolving and changing.

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