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Small Amusement Parks Doing Big Business During Recession

Audio

Aired 4/15/10

Summer’s coming up and many people might be planning a trip to an amusement park. But that trip could get expensive with tickets for places like SeaWorld and Disneyland hovering around $70 just to get in the door. But smaller admission free amusement parks are seeing their crowds and revenues go up as families look for cheaper alternatives.

— Summer is coming up and many people might be planning a trip to an amusement park. That trip could get expensive, however, with tickets for places like SeaWorld and Disneyland hovering around $70 just to get in the door. Smaller admission-free amusement parks are seeing their crowds and revenues go up as families look for cheaper alternatives.

The Giant Dipper roller coaster is the most popular ride at Belmont Park in Mission Beach. The boardwalk amusement park has seen an increase in visitors and revenue during the recession.
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Above: The Giant Dipper roller coaster is the most popular ride at Belmont Park in Mission Beach. The boardwalk amusement park has seen an increase in visitors and revenue during the recession.

An amusement park presents many potential metaphors for the country’s economy. There’s the roller coaster, which could symbolize the stock market’s ups and downs, or just people’s emotions. There’s a carousel, going around and around but never getting anywhere. And, at Belmont Park in Mission Beach, there’s a ride that seems to be appropriately called Chaos.

As Wendy Crain stands in front of the brightly colored ride, spinning and twisting behind her, she’s not talking about how the park has struggled through the recession. She’s talking about how it’s thrived.

“Our last couple years we’ve actually had our best years ever,” she said.

Crain is general manager of the San Diego Coaster Company which runs the rides at Belmont Park, including the famous Giant Dipper roller coaster. Crain says the park draws about 900,000 people annually. She says revenues have been up 7 percent in each of the past two years. Crain thinks there’s one word that explains the increase in business: free.

“Free beach, free parking, free admission to the park,” she said. “You don’t have to pay the large price for a gated attraction. The stay time’s a lot shorter. You’re not committed for a full day.”

She says guests can also choose what they want to spend by only buying enough tickets for one ride, or getting an all-you-can-ride wrist band. At Belmont Park, about 65 percent of the visitors come from around San Diego. Susanne Turner is one of them. She brought her parents and her three sons down to the beachside park to enjoy some sun and some rides.

“It’s the boys first day of spring break and we decided we couldn’t go out of town this year, obviously with the economy being as it is,” she said. “But we wanted to do something fun and different and we actually live pretty close to here but we’d never been here before. So we decided to come down.”

Affordability was definitely a draw for Clairemont dad Jim Malwitz. He says finances are his first consideration when deciding where to take his kids for fun.

“Bottom line was money,” he said. “We looked at the price of SeaWorld, the Wild Animal Park, the zoo, which we’ve all been to before. We’ve also been here, too. But for bang for your buck, you’ve got a couple of kids, a couple hundred of dollars goes a lot longer down here than it does at the zoo or the Wild Animal Park or SeaWorld.”

Belmont’s experience isn’t unusual. Elsewhere in California, beachside amusement parks in Santa Monica and Santa Cruz are also doing well in the recession.

Dennis Speigel is president of International Theme Park Services Incorporated, an amusement park consulting company. He says the trend of smaller parks thriving in the recession applies to other parts of the country as well.

“The boardwalk parks over on the east coast have done very well the last two years for two reasons. They’re capturing some of the tourism that’s still coming into those areas, but they’re also becoming the local stay-cation visitation spot,” he said. “And, certainly, having that free gate during this recession in 2009 has helped them a lot.”

Bigger parks are still drawing millions of people. Disneyland drew nearly 15 million visitors in 2008, while SeaWorld drew about four million. Still, Speigel says attendance at larger parks stayed relatively flat in 2008 and didn’t improve much in 2009.

He says high gas prices and the recession kept people away, and he says smaller parks have been able to capture some of those people. Small park operators are hoping consumers will keep coming back well into the future, trading the chaos of daily life for a little chaos at a beach amusement park instead.

Comments

Avatar for user 'Katie Orr'

Katie Orr | April 15, 2010 at 10:17 a.m. ― 4 years, 8 months ago

Are you planning to visit an amusement park this summer? If so, which one?

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Avatar for user 'Keshav Dahiya'

Keshav Dahiya | April 15, 2010 at 10:40 a.m. ― 4 years, 8 months ago

I think they sold a few thousands tics on Groupon.com....last weekend!

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