The ongoing COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic has closed nearly every amusement and theme park across the globe for the foreseeable future. When many of these parks will reopen remains unknown.
To learn what the future may hold for theme parks in a post- (or ongoing) coronavirus world, we spoke with Bill Coan, president and CEO of Orlando-based ITEC Entertainment, an industry-leading company with a global portfolio of more than 300 guest experiences spanning theme parks, cultural attractions, resorts, retail and beyond.
Images courtesy of ITEC Entertainment
“The three tenets of ITEC have been creative design planning, entertainment technologies and production management,” Bill explained.
After graduating from the University of Florida, Bill started his career as a landscape architect at Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center before climbing the ranks to become a Disney Imagineer. He worked at various Disney properties around the world before concluding his time with the company in Paris.
So let’s dive in — how will the novel coronavirus pandemic affect theme parks around the world?
Were parks prepared for a pandemic?
The idea of a pandemic virus sweeping across the globe is not far-fetched fiction (I highly recommend watching the 2011 film, Contagion). But did parks have a plan in place to prepare for a health crisis like COVID-19? Bill said it’s unlikely:
“Nobody had a plan for this. Nobody could imagine the scale of the impact of this pandemic. Who would have imagined in our lifetime that we’d see 100 percent of Disney and Universal parks close, all of Disney’s ships parked and none of their movies coming out?”
But now, parks are scrambling to develop plans to prepare for cancellations, refunds, reopenings and other changes stemming from the novel coronavirus. Bill said these plans are “living and breathing documents.”
“I’d be surprised if it was any better than day to day or week to week. The park operators are not in control of their destiny right now. They’re waiting for nations, states, jurisdictions to open up the marketplace, so they’re reacting to what they think is going to happen by the politics. It’s unusual for the big players to not be in control of their business.”
Those plans in development likely include both actions for the short and long terms.
“They’re trying to get (parks) open. How do they do that? Because you can’t just open the doors and turn the lights on and get these parks working. It’s too complicated to do that.”
“They’re also looking mid- and long-term on how do they recover their attendance, how do they get people to get people to come back to the parks and then even longer-term how do they recover the financial (hardship) that was created by this.”
How will parks operate when they reopen?
Parks will have to ensure guests that they are doing everything feasible to keep the park clean.
According to Bill, these efforts will help to “relieve the concerns of the guests of the cleanliness and safety of the park. And a lot of that is perception. I suspect that a lot of this will be proactive measures in the beginning.”
“What do you proactively do to make sure that the health security is up to snuff, and the big guys (Disney, Universal, etc.) are going to do a lot of that, making sure surfaces are clean and maybe taking temperatures at the front door and a number of other proactive things.”
But those measures might not be as long-lasting as expected. Bill said those concerns “will be mitigated by marketing and maybe standard operating procedures that will eventually roll back to closer to what we’re used to. I don’t think these short-term measures will endure.”
Bill believes parks will reopen in phases, much like cities and states are doing.
“I suspect what they will do is open the parks in phases whether by park or by rides so that the distribution of people through the park at least for the first few months is going to be pretty sparse anyway. Guests will perceive that they’re not in a crazy packed-in theme park.”
But can we expect extreme health and safety measures in the short term?
Will parks take extreme measures like closing every other row on attractions to increase the spacing between guests? Bill says that’s unlikely:
“Separating people by every other seat on a roller coaster seems a little extreme when they’ve just stood in a queue line where they were back-to-back.”
But “guest distancing” measures might not be necessary if attendance is down.
“They will do some of those things at least for appearances. But my sense is that the capacity of the park is going to be down anyway. it’s not like Disney is going to have to figure out how to not have 50,000 people in the Magic Kingdom in a day because the demand won’t be there.”
However, we could see seating changes elsewhere in the parks, such as at theaters and restaurants:
“The proactive steps they may take in theaters would be to separate guests by seats. But again, I suspect that the demand is just not going to be there in the first few months. It may take a while for the big parks to get the demand back. And I mean ‘a while’ meaning a year or more. Because a lot of the attendance to the major attractions is planned vacations, and (the guests) may have missed the window on some of those.”
There are stark differences between the regional Six Flags and Cedar Fair parks and the giants like Disney and Universal.
“There’s such a dramatic difference in between that first tier and the second and third test of these attractions,” Bill said.
“The operating sophistication is so radically different that I suspect the second-tier (parks) — the Cedar Fairs and the Six Flags — are going to open their doors and try to get as much capacity as possible, because they’ve got a lot of commercial recovery to do that Disney and Universal can extend over years. T hey will do what they would consider overt mitigation of people’s concerns — masks and temperature-taking.”
While there are indeed differences, parks of all sizes will work to get as many guests through the gates for the remainder of the year or season.
Will some parks remain closed until 2021?
As some cities and states extend their stay-at-home orders into June or introduce phased reopenings — with large public gatherings being banned until the final phases — some wonder if parks will reopen at all in 2020. For instance, the brand new Legoland New York theme park and resort (an ITEC client) has already pushed its grand opening to 2021.
Bill expects many parks will reopen as soon as possible — many this year. But the damage may have already been done.
“There’s probably going to be real fallout because of these closed seasons and potentially closures for a little bit longer,” Bill said.
“The real stress on these companies — again, not the big ones, they’ll find other ways to manage themselves — but the second- and third-tier (parks), this is really going to be stressful on those guys to have not only a year that is manageable but maybe even going into the future.”
And we may not see the true effects for years:
“This is going to be one of those events that probably we’re going to look back on in 10 years down the stream and say it really had an effect, and the weak players fell by the wayside and only the strong survived. There’s going to be some of that shakeout in the industry I’m sure.”
Will coronavirus have an impact on the types or size of attractions parks build?
As parks continually develop their long-term capital investment plans, will the current (and potentially lasting) social distancing measures have an impact on the number or types of attractions we see built years from now? With social distancing measures in place and potentially lasting for quite some time, could parks reduce the maximum capacity on attractions once they reopen?
Bill doesn’t believe so:
“The life of a park really depends on the throughput of these attractions. A lot of these parks are just going to be in survival mode and probably not in the capital-spending mode. And the delay in opening these things will cost them money just to get the projects back up and running. You’ll have to spend quite a significant amount of money getting the rides inspected, make sure everything’s working and then get their operating teams back in place.”
While the types of attractions that parks build might not change, they could be delayed:
“But I’m quite sure that a lot of these guys will postpone major capital projects, even minor projects for a while.”
Will admission prices increase or decrease?
With parks losing weeks or even months in revenue at this point, what effect will guests see in admission prices once they reopen?
Bill says that all parks will have to be aggressive in their promotions, but those strategies will differ based on the size of the park:
“That it depends on the property. But you look at the big players that can offer package deals where you get three parks for the price of one, or three parks plus a hotel room…or those kinds of packages where they can build around how they can get people back in the parks.”
Regional parks will likely follow a different strategy:
“The secondary market is going to have a much more difficult time because they just don’t have the assets to offer those kinds of opportunities. So they’ll cut the rates in their admissions, and their annual passes will probably be (reduced) because they really need their local and regional people to get back to the parks.”
Promotions at those regional parks will need to be creative:
“There will be all kinds of promotions and cross-promotions with different focus groups. They’re all going to have to get in the promotions business and in the pricing business in large part to recover their attendance, which is going to be very challenging, at least throughout this year. They’re going to have to do it to get some revenue in the parks so that they can hopefully have a 2021 (season).”
“It will probably be that way for the next couple of years at least in our industry. I don’t think the industry that we were looking at in January (2020) we’re going to see for quite some time.”
Will overseas parks that are reopening serve as a model for the US?
With some theme parks overseas already preparing to reopen, will those act as models for the US parks?
“The cultural differences between a park in Hong Kong or Shanghai and Orlando, Florida, are pretty dramatic. The way the Japanese use their parks there are quite different than they are here. From a crowd control standpoint, from security protocols, there will be something learned across the platforms.”
“But I think that even the guest profiles at parks that are on Walt Disney’s properties, from the Magic Kingdom to Epcot Center to Animal Kingdom, they’re all a little bit different. So the larger crowd control issues, yes, they’ll learn from any park that they can put 20,000-30,000 people in. But I suspect how they manage the crowds in Shanghai will be a little different from Orlando, Florida.”
What will parks learn from the coronavirus pandemic?
What “lessons learned” can the theme park industry take away from this pandemic?
“Not many can survive a shock like this to their business. But they can be a little bit better prepared and have systems in place so that if they have to furlough people, they’ve at least looked out ahead and understand how to restart a park from scratch in the middle of the season. Those lessons will be critical.”
ITEC had already been making preparations for a disrupting event in the industry, not specifically for a pandemic.
“As consultants, designers and producers, we had started several years back adjusting our portfolio so that we weren’t so dependent on theme park work. And it wasn’t because we saw a ‘COVID’ crisis coming.We have lived through enough of the cycles in our industry that we just got uncomfortable that we might have seen a slowdown coming.”
“We just try to look at other ways to apply our creative and technical talents in areas that weren’t specifically in the entertainment business. So I suspect that the supporting industry to the theme park business will have to be a little bit smarter — a lot smarter.”
But the search for new revenue opportunities extend to parks as well:
“The theme parks themselves will have to start looking at potential revenue opportunities that will allow them to survive these kinds of issues with a little bit more health. Because this is going to stress a lot of companies right up to the brink of failure, and hopefully this will teach the lessons to those guys who operate the businesses to be a little bit more prepared.”
We’d like to thank Bill for taking the time to share with us his insights. Learn more about ITEC Entertainment and the company’s work, visit their website.
How do you think coronavirus will change the theme park industry? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.