You'd think that America's amusement parks would be in a prime position for capitalizing on the floppy economy. Families may not be willing to fly to Rome or Rio right now, but a Six Flags or a Knott's Berry Farm is closer to home and ultimately cheaper to accomplish. In fact, this summer, Disney Parks reported a profit in the hundreds of millions despite flagging attendance, and right after, the company shamelessly hiked admission prices yet again. In early August, Six Flags, too, America's McDisney, reported a slight profit following a round of admission price cuts.
That cushion is not expected to last. Dwindling airline seats and high gas prices are cutting into the parks' ability to draw crowds as big as they once were, even as shareholders demand more profit each year. Even once you pass through the gates, there's less bang for the buck. Once upon a time, you could buy your ticket and get a full day of entertainment, including shows, rides, parades, and fireworks. Less so now.
Some of the country's most major parks, even ones we thought were doing well, are wasting no time in hoarding their pixie dust. Your amusement park dollar just doesn't get you as much as it did a few months ago. Among the casualties:
- September 27, the last day of Disney Parks' fiscal year, is shaping up to be Black Saturday at Florida's Walt Disney World resort, which, for starters, shutters Pleasure Island, its major nightlife district, for good. Six nightclubs will go and so far, no replacement has been announced for the six-acre area, although it's expected that Disney will rent the space to outside companies to cut back on expenses.
- Also around Sept. 27 (It's an "entertainment massacre," opines one commenter at the Orlando Sentinel's blog.), Disney World is axing a spate of shows that have been fixtures in its parks, including Magic Kingdom's Woody's Cowboy Camp performance and the Main Street Family Fun Day parade, Hollywood Studios' 4 for a Dollar, and Animal Kingdom's long-running Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends show, which runs in a dedicated theater. These added-value diversions used to fill out a day at the park, but now they're kaput.
- Even the fireworks aren't immune. Starting in January, Hollywood Studios' pyrotechnic spectacular Fantasmic!, which plays at capacity at nearly every performance nearly every evening, will be cut back to just two nights a week.
Many Six Flags parks have cut admission rates, but they bleed patrons once they're inside by forcing them to use lockers for even the smallest purse or camera -- at around $1 a pop for each big ride. Myrtle Beach's Hard Rock Park opened in May and already its investors have written off millions of dollars, likely spelling doom for the fledgling music-themed amusement park. And on Sunday, New York City's ghetto-tastic Astroland is finally going to make good on its long-threatened closure, to make way for development.
Not all parks can even afford to cut back. Disneyland's California Adventure has underperformed ever since its 2001 opening, so its current $1.1 billion makeover (new rides, new concepts) is crucial for its very survival. The parks are finding other places to trim though. In August, costumed Disneyland employees protested contract cutbacks resulting in some very ugly press. Sample headline: Tinker Bell arrested at Disneyland.