- With most of the country's theme parks set to reopen in some capacity this summer, the industry could regain 2019 attendance and spending levels as soon as next year, experts say.
- As jurisdictions loosen health and safety restrictions for public spaces, theme park operators look to maintain their gold standard as largely transmission-free venues.
- Travel advisors caution prospective parkgoers to book early, make sure to reserve spots if required and to temper expectations — at least in the short term.
The Covid pandemic made the past 14 months a literal roller coaster of a ride for both theme parks and their fans.
Parks shut down or didn't open at all last spring, and although some did reopen by summer, it was with strict capacity limits and stringent health and safety measures that put off some customers and definitely dented the fun factor for others.
Here's a look at how things are shaping up in 2021 for this part of the travel and tourism sector, and how prospective visitors can make the most out a theme park vacation as the pandemic winds down.
Pre-pandemic, things had been going well for the sector. The top 20 North American theme parks drew 159,108,000 visitors in 2019, 1% more than the year before, according to the 2019 TEA/AECOM Theme Index and Museum Index.
To draw even more visitors, park operators were rolling profits back into much-hyped, big-budget new attractions like the Jurassic World Velocicoaster at Universal Orlando Resort's Islands of Adventure in Florida and the Marvel-themed Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim.
People haven't forgotten those debuts were in the pipeline.
"A lot of families are opting into going to theme parks this year," said Trish Smith, a Kansas City, Missouri-based travel advisor affiliated with the InteleTravel network of home-based agents. "I've actually had more bookings at this point this year than I did in 2019.
"There are so many new attractions coming that a lot of people are like, 'Yeah, I don't want to miss out on that, and I want to be the first,'" she added.
Demand is especially pent-up in California, where parks didn't reopen until this April.
In fact, Michael Erstad, senior analyst, consumer for research firm M Science, said theme parks could see a return to former attendance levels as soon as next year. "I certainly think it's a possibility," he said. "It will all depend how things go with the virus for the rest of the year.
"I wouldn't count [a rebound] out."
Consumer data insights firm Cardify has found, unsurprisingly, that theme parks saw a big drop in consumer spending last year but "were able to recover a bit" by last summer by reopening with capacity restrictions. Now that cities and states are relaxing pandemic restrictions, parks are seeing what Cardify terms the "silver lining" for park operators — a new "sharp increase" in spending.
Cardify also found in a survey of 1,044 consumers that 72% are excited to return to amusement parks after the pandemic, more so than movie theaters (68%) or bars and clubs (67%). Only in-person concerts (79%) and sporting events (74%) are more eagerly awaited.
Theme parks "are in a much better spot" relative to cinemas, cruises, air travel, hotels and other entertainment options, said Erstad at M Science.
As at ski resorts, at theme parks "a lot of the experience is outdoors," he said, and therefore less risky in terms of exposure. "You do queue up for rides, but over the last year they've made enhancements to improve the purchasing decisions for food and beverage so you do a lot of things electronically."
So, where are thrill-seekers headed?
There are essentially two theme park markets in the U.S., although there is some crossover between them. Large destination parks — such as Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Orlando, clustered together in central Florida — draw both domestic and international visitors for longer vacations, while regional parks, sometimes smaller and less heavily themed, attract more of a drive-in, day tripper demographic from nearby areas.
Examples of the latter type of park would include the 27 theme and water park properties operated in North America by Grand Prairie, Texas-based Six Flags Entertainment Corp. Some smaller yet highly themed parks, such as Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, straddle the line between the two categories.
(Interestingly, Disneyland boasts a global destination park profile but effectively operates as a regional park, drawing most visitors from its local southern California market. That said, the park — currently restricted to Californians — reopens to all visitors in full on June 15.)
Consumer spending at Orlando parks has been recovering from last year's crash for months, with out-of-state visitors opening their wallets more than Florida residents, Erstad explained.
"I think it is a healthy sign for Disney and the destination-focused operators, as well as overall consumer appeal for theme parks in general this summer, [and] indicative of consumers seeking out this type of [mostly outdoor] entertainment," he said.
Florida's been among the least restrictive states when it comes to pandemic-related regulation, and Orlando area Disney, Universal and SeaWorld parks have all been open since last July. Temporary interstate travel restrictions and quarantine requirements tamped down on long-distance demand for a few months but were eventually eased by year-end.
While interest in Disney's Orlando parks is strong, "road trips close to home will be very popular this summer for regional theme parks like [Cedar Fair's] Kings Dominion [and] Cedar Point, Six Flags, Sesame Place, Busch Gardens and Dollywood," said Carolyn Moody, an InteleTravel advisor in Durham, North Carolina.
The jury's actually still out on how regional parks will fare, with a lack of real data for climate-related and corporate reasons at some venues, Erstad said.
Cedar Fair Entertainment Co., for example, took four of its 11 theme parks in the U.S. and Canada completely offline for most of 2020, even in jurisdictions that allowed limited opening with restricted capacity, and cut the operating season short in the rest. It had just 487 total operating days in 2020, compared to 2,224 in 2019.
"Cedar Fair has taken more of a conservative approach to things; they were the first to announce they'd honor 2020 pass holders into 20201 and took a cognizant decision to take a more cautious approach," Erstad said. "It's a little too early to look at some of your colder weather parks, although we've been seeing pretty healthy demand at the parks that are open."
This year, Sandusky, Ohio-based Cedar Fair plans on opening all its U.S. parks — such as Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Point, California, and Carowinds in Charlotte, North Carolina — by Memorial Day, although Canada's Wonderland, outside Toronto, Ontario, will remain closed. The company plans to debut attractions originally planned for 2020 and to spend an additional $100 million on new upgrades this year, said president and CEO Richard A. Zimmerman, in a May 5 statement, in anticipation of "strong pent-up consumer demand for closer-to-home, outdoor entertainment, particularly in the year's second half."
"We are pleased with the early leading indicators we have seen thus far, and our 2021 operating strategy is focused on maximizing performance during our seasonally weighted second half of the year," he added. "With our park openings right around the corner, we are once again seeing a lift in season pass sales."
Erstad, meanwhile, pointed to Six Flags Great Adventure & Safari in Jackson, New Jersey, as a regional park that opened early in the pandemic and did "extremely well last summer."
"That was just attributable to the fact they have the safari attraction, where you can be in your car with your family and socially distant from others," he noted.
The park, near New York City and Philadelphia, reopened its safari last May 30 to drivers with reservations, and then reopened its theme park portion at 25% capacity on July 3. The good response points to a lot of "pent-up demand," Erstad said.
Parks like those of Cedar Fair's that weren't open at all last year may see an initial spurt of visits but "I don't know that they're going to see a surge in demand the way Disney and some of the other larger parks have experienced," said Summer Hull, director of travel content at website The Points Guy.
"But I think that for some of the people who typically enjoy going to those spots, this may be the summer they do get back to them," she added.
Theme park tips and pivots
So, if you've decided to visit a theme park, what tips do travel advisors have?
Moody, a Disney specialist, said families considering theme parks this year should consult a travel advisor, "who can update clients on the latest CDC regulations, answer any questions, find the best deals, book everything from start to finish. and be a single point of contact throughout your trip."
She also recommends booking travel as early as possible, visiting parks early or late in the day to avoid crowds, buying tickets and remembering to make any required entry reservations, too.
Smith also stressed that last point. While Universal Orlando never required reservations and Six Flags scrapped them at its parks nationwide this month, visitors to Walt Disney World parks still need them — as does anyone visiting any of the newly reopened theme parks in California.
"Even if you buy the ticket, you're not guaranteed to get into the park that you want to go to, because that park may be booked up with reservations," she said.
Once in the park, follow any rules on masking and social distancing still in place — the situation is fluid and can change rapidly — but don't worry too much. There have not been any reports of Orlando-area parks becoming Covid hotspots since reopening.
"The theme parks have done a great job of keeping people safe," said Smith. "Even with more people being vaccinated, they're still taking safety into account …so I don't think there's going to be a big uptick in cases or anything."
The Points Guy's Hull has been to Walt Disney World three times since it reopened and said "it's been a blast."
"It's largely outdoors and they've done a great job of making it feel fun and at the same time safe in your own little 'Disney bubble,'" she said.
Also be open to change. "That's the biggest thing," Smith said. "Don't have any plans set in concrete; you've got to be a little flexible right now."
Hull agreed and said theme park guests who do their homework will have a great time this summer. "But those who assume it's just business as usual are going to have a few surprises awaiting them," she said, noting that many parts of larger destination parks — from hotels to restaurants to rides — are still not online or operating at normal capacities.
"You've got to line some stuff up in a way you might not have before and still go in with tempered expectations for things around dining, housekeeping and other elements that are still sort of pandemic-era and haven't gotten back to normal yet."
(Disclosure: CNBC and Universal Parks & Resorts are both subsidiaries of NBCUniversal, owned by parent Comcast.)