Family-owned parks display hope, work to protect parks and guests
AT: Ron Gustafson
Special to Amusement Today
NORTH AMERICA —It’s a waiting game for many family-owned amusement parks across the nation as the coronavirus continues to have dramatic impact throughout the industry and the daily lives of Americans.
Amusement Today reached out to a number of park owners and executives for their comments related to the crisis and how they are dealing with it at their properties.
Was an exception
to the rule
Fun Spot America, which has operations in Orlando and Kissimmee, Florida, as well as Atlanta, remained operational while most attractions — especially in the Orlando area — were closed due to the pandemic.
However, the parks did announce Sunday, March 22, on their website the following: "In cooperation with state and federal guidance, we continue to focus on the safety, health and wellbeing of our guests, employees, and community. We are temporarily closing until further notice all Fun Spot America Theme Park locations effective March 23.”
According to John Arie, Jr., CEO Fun Spot America, the properties had been operating pretty much “as normal” until the closing announcement was made.
He said the two Florida properties had been running daily and Atlanta only on weekends in an effort to cover bills and pay employees.
Arie noted that crowds had been “good,” yet down quite a bit due to the closure of major theme parks in the Orlando area during the traditional bustling spring break.
There had been “tremendous change” in operational procedures at the Fun Spot properties since the outbreak hit home.
Arie said hand sanitizer dispensers were located throughout the parks and personnel frequently wiped down handrails, doorknobs — just about anything a person touches.
Open and shut
For Joyland Amusement Park in Lubbock, Texas, the scenario was quite different.
“We began our 2020 season on March 7 with a good start,” owner David Dean told AT. Weather forced the park to stay closed the following day, but Joyland was able to continue operations the following Saturday, March 14.
“We were blessed with a great day,” Dean said of the March 14 response. “We took lots of extra steps to keep guests safe.”
Staff was trained to properly clean using disinfectants and hand sanitizer was placed throughout the park for guests.
According to Dean, as the virus started to spread nationally, Lubbock city government issued more restrictive measures.
“We were planning on reopening on Wednesday, March 17, but after several conversations with the city manager, we decided to close,” he said of the outcome.
The part-time staff of 80 was laid off and full time employees were cut to 20-30 hours per week.
“We’ve had to cut spending on most everything,” Dean continued. “We’re hoping Texas declares Lubbock County a disaster area, allowing us to qualify for SBA (Small Business Administration) disaster relief.”
Without a disaster declaration, Dean said the rest of the park staff will be laid off.
Yet, Joyland is using its social media in attempts to keep a positive spin on things, including the sale of the park’s “enjoyment cards.”
Once open again, the business owner said he is considering adding more morning openings through the summer schedule to accommodate guests.
Ken Taylor, vice president of Jenkinson's Boardwalk & Aquarium, Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, said the arcade and game operations at the seaside resort were closed down before it was mandated by the state.
“We voluntarily closed down because we thought it was the right thing to do to try to flatten the curve. The ride park was scheduled to open April 4 and unfortunately we have had to lay off employees in retail, food services, games and arcades,” he said of the situation.
Taylor believes the virus will change all of our lives individually and the way we operate our businesses.
“Purell stations are going to be fixtures at every ticket booth, arcade counter, POS station, kiosk — everywhere,” the park executive emphasized. “We’ve always prided ourselves in keeping our property clean, but we are going to take this to a new level. We also have to add precautions with our employees and their dealings with the public.”
He predicts gloved ride operators, arcade attendants and cashiers will become the norm and that it will be a while before people will want to venture out into crowded areas.
Jenkinson’s marketing department continues to post updates as they become available, especially for its educational aquarium.
“We are trying to send positive thoughts out there to our customers,” Taylor added. “I really think that after this is all over, people will have a new appreciation for simple everyday things that we have - sadly, things we have taken for granted.”
“Where we stand now is proceeding forward with caution, but optimism, that the 2020 season will occur,” stressed Christopher Maier, owner of Land of Make Believe, Hope, New Jersey.
Also closed by the New Jersey. mandate, Maier continued, saying: “My pilot training emphasized always to plan for the worst-case scenario. We have financially operated our amusement park with that priority.”
The crisis is much more stringent in California, where residents have been ordered to stay home until at least April 19.
“Our immediate concern has been to protect our employees and their families,” said Marq Lipton, vice president of marketing and sales at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Santa Cruz, California. “Initially we gave our year-round employees 40 hours of paid time off to accommodate those in high risk groups, those who didn’t feel comfortable coming in, and those that needed to attend to their families. We called-off part-time/seasonal employees.”
“When California later issued a ‘shelter in place’ order, staff that could, were asked to continue working from home,” Lipton stated. “A very small number of critical operational staff, including a Coronavirus Task Force, reported to the park. We made the decision to pay our year-round employees for the week our state’s ‘shelter in place’ order started, regardless of whether they were able to work from home or not.”
The Boardwalk was having a record start to the year and gearing up for spring break when the crisis hit the West Coast. Hiring is also at a standstill at the property.
Like other parks, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk will follow recommendations and direction from state and local health officials once the order is lifted.
Lipton said, “We expect to continue increased cleaning and sanitation efforts.”
As for reaching out to customers, “We are focusing on social media efforts with virtual rides, light and reassuring content as well as some fun history. We want to stay connected with our guests, and bring the Boardwalk to them while keeping everyone safe during this difficult time.”
April is lost
Some other parks with scheduled April debuts have had to delay their openings as well.
“We were in the midst of hiring when the situation escalated into a shutdown,” said Justin Hays, general manager of Cliff’s Amusement Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “We have reached out to all new and re-hires explaining the current situations and will stay in touch. We are exploring doing interviews via FaceTime.”
The state of affairs was mirrored at Connecticut’s Quassy Amusement & Waterpark, where personal interviews for seasonal positions have shifted to online components.
“We are currently in our off season, and the only impact internally has been on our sales team,” Quassy President Eric Anderson asserted. “We had to reduce their hours due to schools and businesses being closed.”
Both Cliff’s and Quassy were gearing up for late April openings, but the parks will remain idle.
“We have accepted the fact that April probably is lost,” Hays noted. “We are pivoting to May as our opening.”
Amusement parks and other attractions in Connecticut — under a state mandate handed down the week of March 17 ­­— were ordered closed until April 30.
“We are monitoring what our state and local agencies are recommending at this point,” Anderson said of the directive. “It’s wait-and-see for us. Hopefully we’ll be able to open sometime in May.”
He added that Quassy will be stepping up disinfectant and public space cleaning procedures once operational.
Both parks said they will keep guests informed via social media regarding projected opening dates.
Quassy took things a step further via its electronic newsletters by distributing a coloring book, crossword puzzle and a trivia contest for families to participate in while at home.
The response, Anderson said, has been “tremendous.” Some regional news outlets picked up on Quassy’s initiative and shared the projects as did the Connecticut Recreation and Parks Association (CRPA).
The impact of the crisis was felt immediately at Waldameer Park & Water World in Erie, Pennsylvania. Though the amusement area of the property wasn’t slated to open to the general public until May, Waldameer has a year-round business in its Rainbow Gardens Ballroom.
“We lost four ballroom events,” Paul Nelson, Waldameer’s owner and CEO, told AT after the state ordered the closure of all non-life-sustaining businesses.
That included the park’s office, so summer job applications are now being accepted online.
The state order also put the annual job fair held in the ballroom on the back burner.
Nelson went on to say, “We usually get 400 (applicants) in there.”
As for full-time personnel, Nelson noted, “We have 24 full-time employees and most of them have been with us a long time. We don’t want to lose them — it will cost us — but that’s the way it goes.”
The park has an annual “preview” weekend in late April for season pass holders, with selected rides and attractions in operation.
“It’s up to the county to decide what we can do,” Nelson said of the uncertainty at this point. “We’re booking picnics like before and have a few new dates for the ballroom, but don’t know — for certain — when we can open.”
He further explained that Erie County generates 7% of its gross income from the amusement industry, which includes bowling alleys, amusement parks and other attractions.
“They have to pay some attention to us,” Nelson said in reference to the negative business impacts and how they will trickle down.
Like other parks, Waldameer is taking steps to install hand sanitizers at picnic shelters, kiosks and concession stands. More soap dispensers will also be available in washrooms.
park delays opening
Knoebels Amusement Park in Elysburg, Pennsylvania, slated to start its season April 25, has pushed back its scheduled opening to May 9, according to the resort’s co-owner Brian Knoebel.
“We remain hopeful we’ll be able to open at that time,” Knoebel told AT.
He noted that Knoebel Lumber was operating with regular hours to serve the community while the family’s Nickle Plate Bar & Grill was offering take-out orders only.
The resorts’ Three Ponds Golf Course is closed until further notice.
“We’ve been providing regular updates via our Team Knoebels Facebook group, and relying on our managers to ensure those who don’t have Facebook are receiving our company communications,” he said of communicating with employees. “We’re currently exploring options for virtual rehire meetings. Since we’ve canceled our job fairs and in-person interviews, we’ve launched virtual interviews.”
Interested applicants can apply online at www.knoebels.com/job and will receive a call to schedule a virtual interview, interview via FaceTime, Skype or Google Duo.
Knoebel went on to say, “We’re analyzing our existing thorough cleaning routines and enhancing where necessary. This includes our currently open facilities, where we are regularly sanitizing all high-touch points, and providing hand sanitizer for guests wishing to use it during their visits.”
“We’re making an effort to ensure our social media posts provide a mixture of information and purely bright spots in our fans’ newsfeeds, such as Knoebels coloring sheets and user-generated content,” he concluded.
Paul Borchardt, president of Wonderland Amusement Park, Amarillo, Texas, said the scheduled April 4 opening of the property is questionable.
“We’re in the maintenance mode — getting ready for our annual inspections,” he told AT. “If we don’t make that date (April 4), it will — hopefully — be the Saturday before Easter.”
He noted that with schools closed - many until the end of April - student outings are in jeopardy and it is also affecting hiring.
“Everybody is scared,” he said of the situation. “We’re interviewing (for jobs) but can’t get into the schools and people are hunkered down and can’t leave their homes to come here.”
What’s really taking its toll now is the fact that there is no money coming in, he added.
“It costs a lot of money just to open and people don’t realize that,” Borchardt continued. “We’re doing everything we possibly can to stay in touch with customers. It’s like the old saying: ‘stay tuned for the next chapter.’”
As for losing operational days to the crisis, he pointed out, “There’s never a make-up in this business.”
In his closing comment, David Dean stated the following: “We encourage everyone to pray for our country and world and try to remain positive.”