Coaster101 Roundtable: Cedar Fair’s Winterfest Events – were they a success?

Three members of the Coaster101 team visited three different Winterfest events at different Cedar Fair parks: Eric went to California’s Great America, Andrew attended Carowinds, and Nick went to Kings Island. We had a quick discussion about things we liked, how Winterfest compares to other holiday events, and how it can be improved for next year.

What did you like about the Winterfest event at the Cedar Fair park you attended? What were the things that stood out to you?

Andrew: I was a big fan of how Winterfest transformed Carowinds. With the lights everywhere, it almost felt like a completely different park experience. Each area of the park having a distinct theme with different lights was unique, and something I really enjoyed.  The live entertainment options, specifically Jingle Jazz and Christmas Bluegrass, were both excellent, and there’s no way I can talk about my favorite things at Winterfest without mentioning the food. The Turkey Monte Cristo sandwich with Cheddar and Apple stuffing was outstanding, and something I wish Carowinds could find a way to keep on the menu year round.

Nick: I was impressed with how Kings Island transformed into a winter wonderland. Regular stores were completely swapped out for Christmas shops, the central fountain was turned into a giant skating rink, and the Eiffel Tower became the largest lighted tree I’ve ever seen. Speaking of which, do the other parks without an Eiffel Tower use another ride or attraction as a giant Christmas tree? (Andrew: Carowinds used Windseeker) Easily the best lights and centerpiece of the entire event is the 314 foot spectacle at Kings Island. I cannot put into words just how cool I thought the tree was. My favorite moment of our visit was when we were standing under that magical tree watching the outstanding Cool Yule Christmas show when it started “snowing” and my four year old son Henry was absolutely memorized and had so much fun trying to catch the “snowflakes.” You can see some of what I’m talking about in this montage I put together:

Eric: I will second (third?) the transformation and decoration. I appreciate that even things like shop names and signs were changed (and menus updated). I also really do appreciate the ubiquity of musical performances. It’s great that just as you’re walking through the park you’ll stumble on a group singing or performing. Definitely adds to the holiday spirit. The last thing I’d mention is seconding the transformation of the giant fountain in front of the Columbia Carousel into a skating rink. It’s such an obvious but also brilliant idea. Sadly we don’t have a giant Eiffel Tower to convert into a Christmas tree, though. That looks amazing.

What are your thoughts on most major coasters not operating during Winterfest? Did it hurt the experience?

Andrew: This may be blasphemous to say on, but I got my fill of Carowinds roller coasters during the regular season, so I wasn’t really bothered that a majority of the major coasters weren’t open. Carowinds did have three coasters — Flying Ace Aerial Chase, Ricochet and Afterburn — open during WinterFest, so if you needed to get your coaster fix, the opportunity was there. I also get there are manufacturer recommended minimum temperatures for many of the major coasters, and it was probably a lot easier for Carowinds to shut them down for the season than to have both park operations and park guests play a guessing game if coasters were going to be operating, especially with unpredictable North Carolina winters.

On my trip to Winterfest, I was at the park for around 5 hours, and rode exactly one ride, the Carolina Skytower. I thought the WinterFest experience stood well on its own, even without rides.

Nick: On our visit we were there probably less than four hours and only rode three rides: Boo Blasters, the train, and another kiddie ride. I would’ve loved to snag one last ride on Mystic Timbers but the line looked to be too long.

As far as the coasters being closed, I think it comes down to one of (or combination of) three reasons:

  1. They’re really pushing these as family events. This isn’t the time to drop the teens off so they can ride some coasters for a couple of hours. The point of the event is to share it together as a family. Looking at my 2017 Experience Guide I picked up at the park, the very last thing listed is the rides; lights and sights, activities, live entertainment, eats and treats, and shopping all come before any rides are mentioned.
  2. Being the first year back, it could just be a conservative estimate by management as to how popular the event would be and they didn’t want to over-staff in case no one showed up (and they’re lucky this bitter cold weather we’ve been having didn’t swoop in any sooner). We visited on Thursday, December 21st when the temperature was fifty degrees and the park was packed.
  3. Maybe there simply wouldn’t be enough time to perform all the necessary maintenance on all the coasters if they were open for the event.

Besides, if you were riding coasters throughout the entire event, you might miss the little details that make it so much fun, like this guy:

Eric: CGA actually does have its three most popular coasters running (Gold Striker, Flight Deck, and Patriot), along with Woodstock Express, so it’s hard to really say we were downsized. A bigger issue was most were only running one train when I went, maybe for maintenance reasons, or maybe because I went right at the beginning of WinterFest, but it meant lines for them were longer than I expected. But, as Nick pointed out, this is clearly an even designed more for families, so I think from that sense it’s OK. I do wonder what they’ll do with RailBlazer next year. Seems hard to keep their first new coaster in five years closed for the last month+ of operation.

I am surprised Mass Effect: New Earth isn’t one of the attractions kept open, as it’s both family friendly, falls within the area of WinterFest, and has a big capacity. I’m guessing for that it might be staffing requirements that keep it closed, but it’d be a nice addition.

The most popular CGA coasters were running at WinterFest, although only with one train.

How would you compare Winterfest to other holiday events at other parks or attractions?

Eric: Compared to the other big Bay Area amusement park, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, Winterfest at CGA I think focuses more on the special holiday events and theming. Holiday in the Park at SFDK is well decorated, and has a few special shows, but the focus is still on the rides and attractions. Winterfest really feels like it’s trying to shift the park focus from just the rides to things like the craft market, costumed characters, and holiday performances. It isn’t at the level of Disneyland or Knott’s, but that’s not really a fair comparison (although I’d love to see rides get holiday “overlays” like at Disneyland if they could).

Andrew: The only other Winter event I’ve been to at a park is Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party at Walt Disney World, and that was close to 20 years ago, so there’s no real comparison for me. I was planning to get up to Busch Gardens Williamsburg for Christmastown this year, but real life got in the way. So, WinterFest at Carowinds is definitely the best holiday event I’ve ever been to!

Nick:  The foremost winter events I can really compare to are the Wildlights at the Columbus Zoo and Smoky Mountain Christmas at Dollywood. Overall, as a holiday event I think I really have to give the nod to Kings Island here as my favorite. The Columbus Zoo has better lights, especially their multiple animated light shows, but not much beyond that outside of what you can see any other day. At Dollywood, generally all the rides are open and the park is open all day, not just for a limited number of hours, so that’s not really a fair comparison. However, Kings Island just does a much better job at transforming the park and making it a more special and different experience. There are a lot more new activities for families designed for the winter and because of that I think it’s the best holiday event I’ve ever been to.

Was there any aspect of the event that disappointed you? What could be improved upon for next year or at other parks where Winterfest will be expanded to?

Eric: I was sort of hoping more of the park might be open this year. This is less so for the rides, but more because the midways felt crowded. Obviously last year was the first WinterFest, so I had thought they might test expanding it in the second season.  The other thing that was a big issue and needed some work is food operation. Lines for restaurants were horrendous, and it meant I actually skipped eating in the park. I think if they did something more like the Taste of Orleans or Red, White, and Brews festivals, with cards/tokens and lots of small food booths, it’d be awesome (this would also be kind of like the holiday food festival at Disney’s California Adventure). Clearly the park has experience with that, and Cedar Fair has been pushing the food festivals at their parks, so it seems very doable.

Andrew: Nothing disappointed me at Carowinds. I went early in the WinterFest season and on a Sunday night, so crowds weren’t bad. If I had one operations suggestion, I’d want to open up the Carolina Crossroads section of the park where Dodgems, Yo-Yo, Southern Star, and Plants vs. Zombies are all located. It would add 4 more attractions, including one indoor attraction in PvZ, to the mix to alleviate any crowd issues. And I wouldn’t call this an improvement, but I wish the Turkey/Stuffing Sandwich was served at Harmony Hall instead of Wings, because I think it would pair very well with the Sidewinder Fries, but that’s a minor, minor, minor criticism.

NickIf you’re a local and a season pass holder neither of these are probably an issue, but as a one time visitor my two biggest complaints about Winterfest are the hours and the pricing. I was able to get discounted tickets for $20.50 a piece. But even then 2x admission + $20 parking + $27 mac-n-cheese bar for 2 (no drinks) equals nearly $90. Maybe I’m just delusional or out of touch but, despite enjoying the time we did have there, that just seems expensive for what felt like not getting to do a whole lot – no ice skating, no cookie making, no tubing, and no Mystic Timbers. By comparison, you could spend $40 to go to the zoo, go on just as many rides, and spend twice as much time there. I know it doesn’t get dark until 5:30 or so but Kings Island was only open for five hours, and with the crowds that especially means there just isn’t enough time to do everything, especially with young kids in tow. I guess it’s a good problem to have but there really is too much to do for just one visit!

Did you go to a Winterfest event at a Cedar Fair park this year? If so, what did you think? And if not, why didn’t you go? Do you agree with our thoughts? Continue the discussion with us in the comments below.

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1 Response

  1. Mark Grass says:

    Wish you would have visited Worlds of Fun. WOF winterfest was Awesome!! They did a great job!! WOF is a great park and needs more respect. Has lots of opportunity for growth.