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If you visited Orlando's theme parks this past holiday season, you might have thought the recession had been postponed. All the major parks packed in healthy but not record-breaking crowds, with Disney's Magic Kingdom temporarily turning away guests on New Year's Eve. But when 2008 departed, so did the throngs.

The usually reliable TouringPlans.com estimates Disney's current attendance at approximately 50 percent capacity, but my first-person, foot-powered survey confirms crowds are seasonably steady for now. In the meantime, the bean-counters at the park are keeping watchful eyes on hotel bookings (President's Day will be a crucial test) and enacting pre-emptive belt-tightening. Let's count some of the ways.

The major operation expenses for an attraction are power and labor, so all the parks are trying to trim line items without making customers feel shortchanged — like running only half of the Simpsons simulators or one train on each of Dueling Dragons' tracks at Universal. Another option is to disable certain expensive special effects; to that end Poseidon's Fury at Islands of Adventure has lost its signature "water vortex," whose high-pressure jets consume considerable energy. While show quality may suffer and waits might be longer than normal for low season, at least the ride is open, and the cuts can be undone when the turnstiles get busy again.

If the profits don't improve, the next step is to shutter rides and shows, though some upcoming closures are just for preventative maintenance or updates. Many water rides (from Popeye to Splash Mountain) are headed for dry dock this year, and the Hall of Presidents, currently closed, will return by the Fourth of July with an overhauled show and an animatronic Obamabot. Space Mountain will be closed for most of 2009, starting in April, for replacement of its aging track and an upgrade to the 1970s vintage effects; hopefully the in-car soundtrack and mind-bending light show from Disneyland's Space Mountain will migrate here.

Be on the lookout for "refurbs" that are really slow-motion ex-tinctions. At Disney Hollywood Studios, the Drew Carey snoozefest called Sounds Dangerous is "seasonally" dark, and the Backlot Studio Tour is likely losing its live narrator. In an extended downturn, expect less-popular spots (where smart visitors hide from the crowds) to face the firing squad. I particularly fear for the corny classic Carousel of Progress.

While money-saving tactics can cause aggravation for patrons who are paying full price, they generally won't drive visitors away. Some cutbacks, however, cut to the heart of who you are as a company. That's how we classify the Feb. 1 move by the new owners at Anheuser-Busch to cut off the free beer at SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa. Apparently I'm not alone in sobbing over the suds. A Sentinel article sparked more than 75 web comments, many from annual pass—holders promising to protest by not renewing. I wouldn't expect any backlash to be immediately evident, as anyone who pays to get into a park just for the free beer has bigger problems.

But theme parks rely on nostalgia to keep families coming back, and building a brand identity is a big part of that bond. Disney is associated with childhood magic and Universal with edgy thrills; SeaWorld revolves around animals and Americana, and blue-collar bonuses like free beer are important elements of the experience.

Ironically, the amount of beer they gave away is probably less than what a brewery spills in a day. This isn't really about expense, but about preparing the parks for sale. From the beginning of the InBev buyout, analysts assumed that the Belgian brewer would divest the non-core components. By shutting down the taps, the company leaves a potential buyer less things to have to renovate. But is it best to alienate your longtime local customers, who are your lifeblood in lean times, when you're trying to attract suitors?

I asked Tom Schroeder, director of Universal Orlando PR, why, after years of providing free evening parking, it started the new year quietly collecting $3 for entering their garage between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. He skillfully sidestepped my speculative questions on profit projections, offering instead that "CityWalk's success is due to the strength of the experience offered to the guests" and "We are bringing our policies in line with other venues in the market."

For 10 years free parking gave CityWalk a boost in building clientele. Now that Disney has ceded the nightlife battle and downtown parking rates are sky-high, Universal's fee feels opportunistic. And can $3 per car cover adequate staffing to avoid gridlock at the often-overwhelmed tollbooths?

I was ready to write a screed on the self-destructiveness of the move, until I spoke to sources at the CityWalk cineplex. Movie theaters only make pennies off ticket sales, and I feared the parking cost could cripple popcorn sales (and thus revenue). Instead, I hear that so far the middle-aged, middle-class clientele has been undiminished, while teenage riffraff has largely vanished (and I don't mean the Rocky Horror fans). I don't know if it's a clever plot or an unintended consequence, but I'm for anything that makes movies safe for adults again.

skubersky@orlandoweekly.com

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