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Amusement Parks Try To Get Back On Track

Orion, only the seventh giga coaster in the world, opened to a smaller crowd last summer with pandemic restrictions.
Courtesy of Kings Island
Orion, only the seventh giga coaster in the world, opened to a smaller crowd last summer with pandemic restrictions.

Kings Island will open its gates to the public May 15. For a second season, the pandemic is creating huge money losses for the amusement park industry.

Chris Baynum and his Newport roller coaster painting business were set to have a record year in 2020, doing projects all over the world. But then COVID hit.

"It seems like everybody just pulled the plug at the same time," he says. "So, we were trying to figure out what to do with our guys. On one big project we were literally two days from finishing it and that project stopped."

Baynum broke even last year but had to be creative, allowing parks to defer payment as his staff continued to do maintenance. He even sent a crew to France to paint idled cruise ships.

The U.S. amusement park industry was worth $25 billion in 2019. Now it's likely down to $15 billion, according to Cincinnati consultant Dennis Speigel. And that's not counting job and tax base loses.

"If you took 9/11, the recent recessions that we've experienced through the last 15-20 years, the oil crisis, COVID has had a larger impact on our industry than all of those combined," he says.

Speigel, who advises theme parks globally, doesn't think the industry will reach 2019 levels again until 2023.

Revenue for Kings Island's owner, Cedar Fair, was down 88% and the company which also owns a dozen other parks, lost $1.3 billion in 2020. It's now burning through $40 million a month. CFO Brian Witherow says revisiting anniversary celebrations and new rides that didn't open last year will be a big part of this year.

"We're going to rebirth those here in 21 with all the new rides and attractions that we had planned, you know, across the system at the other parks. So it's always important to continue to provide our guests with the new and exciting entertainment," says Witherow.

Cedar Fair looks to broader vaccine distribution, a strong season pass base and pent-up public demand as key drivers to its recovery.

Pent-up demand from fans like Luke Reynolds. The Virginia man can't wait to jump back on a ride. He's a member of the American Coaster Enthusiasts.

"I'm a mechanical engineer, so on that level roller coasters have always fascinated me. But also on the other level they're just fun to ride. It just puts a smile on your face. I don't know how else to describe it."

Reynolds is building models of roller coasters while waiting for the parks to open.

Re-openings are a patchwork across the country. While parks in Florida are already open, California still hasn't set a data and New York is allowing them in early April with strings attached.

John Hollenbeck is vice president of the global trade group IAAPA. He says a lot of his members were able to take advantage of federal relief programs. Some had their own funding plans and says IAAPA will continue to advocate for the attractions industry to be included in any additional federal COVID relief funding.

Copyright 2021 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.