Theme parks turn to special events as reopening nears

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The Touch of Disney limited-capacity, ticketed experience begins this month at Disney's California Adventure.
The Touch of Disney limited-capacity, ticketed experience begins this month at Disney's California Adventure.

After being shuttered for nearly a year due to the pandemic, and with reopening tantalizingly close, California theme parks have gotten creative with special, limited-ticket events to draw in guests until they are able to again open their doors to the general public.

With events including in-park dining and shopping experiences, Renaissance-themed weekends and a drive-through car show, the parks are finding new ways to stay connected to their most loyal clientele and, perhaps, grow that base.

The new experiences were announced as the parks approached one full year of closure. Shortly after, California said parks could open as soon as April 1, with limited capacities.

As of press time, the larger parks had not announced reopening dates, but Disney CEO Bob Chapek did indicate in a stockholders meeting last week that Disneyland could reopen "by late April."

Reopening the parks

Parks in California have fought to reopen for months. By contrast, their counterparts in Florida have been open since last summer, albeit at limited capacities (around 35% recently). 

Last fall, Josh D'Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, Products and Experiences, said in a video message that the Disneyland Resort is a "critical part of the economy" and that nearly 80,000 jobs in the Anaheim area rely on its operations.

It was not until Friday, March 5, that California's theme parks received guidance about reopening.

"March 11 of last year is when the governor announced a ban on gatherings, and then the first park closures started on March 14, so we were right up against that one-year mark," said Erin Guerrero, executive director of the California Attractions and Parks Association (CAPA).

California governs what businesses can reopen at what levels using its Blueprint for a Safer Economy. Individual counties are assessed based on the number of Covid-19 cases they have and the positivity rate, and they are assigned tiers based on that. The most restrictive tier is purple, in which the virus is considered "widespread," followed by red, orange and yellow.

Prior to this month's changes, Guerrero said, theme parks could only be opened once the county they were located in reached the yellow tier. Currently, most of the state is still at the most restrictive tier. As a result, until the new guidelines were released, "we really had no framework for a reasonable opening timeline," she said.

Under the new guidance, beginning on April 1, if a theme park's home county reaches the red tier, it can open at 15% capacity. That capacity increases to 25% in the orange tier and 35% in the yellow tier. Attendance is limited to in-state visitors.

Guerrero said a confluence of things happened to change the state's guidance, including lower case and hospitalization numbers and the rollout of vaccines.

"There is still some work to be done on fleshing out the details, but overall it's a very positive improvement going from not being able to open at all until yellow to being able to open in a very limited way in red," she said.

A Taste of Universal will feature a number of food and beverage items new and old, including the famous Butterbeer of Harry Potter fame.
A Taste of Universal will feature a number of food and beverage items new and old, including the famous Butterbeer of Harry Potter fame.

Limited-time experiences

In the meantime, parks have gotten creative. While shopping and dining venues like Downtown Disney and Universal's CityWalk have been open for some time, Disney and Universal have announced special ticketed events surrounding dining and shopping within their parks starting this month: A Touch of Disney at Disney's California Adventure and Taste of Universal at Universal Studios Hollywood. Nearby, Knott's Berry Farm will host the Taste of Boysenberry Festival, a take on its popular springtime Boysenberry Festival.

Six Flags Magic Mountain in Santa Clarita scheduled a Cruis'n the Park Car Show last weekend, inviting guests to drive around the park in their own vehicles and see a variety of automobiles, from muscle cars to minitrucks. Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo is hosting Renaissance Days on weekends in March featuring crafts, food and entertainment.

The events are more than just revenue-generators, said Edward Marks, co-CEO of the Producers Group, which offers consulting and design services to theme parks and produces attractions around the world.

"It's getting back in the community," Marks said. "It's getting everyone back into the motions. Nobody has been doing anything for a year at any of these places, so you can't just turn everything back on and expect the whole thing to just function normally."

The events are more akin to a "soft opening" of the parks, Marks said, as the theme parks approach the possibility of opening with a very limited capacity.

Operating a park at 15% capacity would be an expensive undertaking, but special events like these could enable another source of revenue for the parks, Marks said. He pointed to Knott's Berry Farm, which has proven over the years with its Halloween festivities that limited-ticket events can be very profitable.

In addition to exploring how consumers react to ticket prices for special events, they also give the parks a chance to better understand the consumers who attend special events only.

"They're not showing up for anything else, so I'll be able to measure, in a vacuum, the real value in the market of [specific] events," Marks said.

One potential silver lining of the pandemic will be that parks have used the downtime to expand the utility of reservation systems before reopening. That, Marks said, will eventually enable parks to highly personalize a guest's visit and the activities they participate in, resulting in a better guest experience and more profitability for parks.

"Guests have no idea the value that these parks are gaining from that simple system," Marks said. 

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