Holidays are merry moneymakers for theme parks

December 22, 2014

Christmas decorations at the Full Throttle section of Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, Calif., on Dec. 7, 2014. For the first time, Six Flags Magic Mountain is converting the park for the holidays, a recognition of the revenue available during the season.

LOS ANGELES ó While children waited in line to snap photos with Santa Claus, the aroma of freshly steamed tamales and hot cocoa lingered in the warm fall air.

"Yay, itís snowing," a teenage girl screamed at the tiny bubbles that masqueraded as the white stuff sprayed from electric blowers hidden in nearby trees. Christmas tunes blared from outdoor speakers, the music mixing with the rumble of a roller coaster speeding along steel tracks.

The holidays have arrived in a big way for the first time at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, known more for stomach-churning rides than for heartwarming nostalgia. Similar scenes have played out in theme parks across the country in a push to boost year-round attendance, increase food and souvenir sales and make the winter holidays a merry moneymaking season.

Summer remains the top revenue-generating time for theme parks, followed by Halloween and spring break. But theme park executives are investing heavily to persuade park-goers to make a theme park visit a holiday tradition.

"This is a way for them to goose revenue," said Martin Lewison, a theme park expert and business management professor at Farmingdale State College in New York. "For a relatively small investment, they can get a few more operating days to draw visitors."

Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, north of Los Angeles, is the latest park to jump in, this year adding light shows, live music, carolers and new food items as part of a "Holiday in the Park" promotion that began on select days in late November and stretches to early January. The park has extended its hours to 8 p.m., instead of the usual 6 p.m. closing time.

"This is a significant investment for us," park President Bonnie Rabjohn said. "People are really responding to the product."

Pablo Crocitto of Los Angeles brought his 4-year-old daughter, Valentina, to Six Flags for the holiday festivities, saying she is too young for most of the high-thrill roller coasters. Instead, she met Santa Claus and colored pictures of Christmas scenes.

"Itís pretty cool for both of us," he said.

Southern Californiaís Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood and Knottís Berry Farm, among other parks, have offered holiday celebrations for decades. But nearly all have upgraded in the last few years.

Knottís Berry Farm extended its holiday event by six days this year and produced a new ice show. Legoland in Carlsbad added nine days to its holiday gala this year and installed a new ice skating rink, plus extra snow for tubing rides.

Disneyland last year internationalized its annual Christmas celebration with a Latino-themed element dubbed "Viva Navidad," which includes folkloric and samba dancers and giant dancing mojiganga puppets. The Jungle Cruise ride was converted to a holiday-themed attraction called "Jingle Cruise." Both holiday additions returned this year.

After the holidays, Disneyland will launch a "Frozen Fun" festival to capitalize on the popularity of the animated movie "Frozen."

Universal Studios Hollywood has amped up its annual "Grinchmas" celebration with cookie decorating, a storytelling time, a book drive and a new musical performance featuring a boy band.

"Our successful program appeals to a broad demographic," said Larry Kurzweil, president of Universal Studios Hollywood.

Most U.S. theme parks have reported steady attendance growth over the last three years. The holiday push is an effort to reinvest profits to keep attendance and revenue rising, theme park experts say.

"The parks are seeing success and they are looking for ways to expand the seasons at appropriate times," said Dennis Speigel, a theme park consultant who helped launch "Holiday in the Park" at Six Flags Over Texas 30 years ago.

The holiday makeover isnít limited to Southern California.

This year, Six Flags Over Georgia launched its first "Holiday in the Park" event, including a 130-foot Christmas tree, a stained-glass nativity scene and roasted símores.

Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., this year added a $1 million light parade to its annual "An Old Time Christmas" event.

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif., added a Hanukkah celebration this year to its annual "Holiday in the Park" event. The Hanukkah activities include menorah lighting, live music, card making and dreidel cookie decorating, plus Jewish-style food.

The holiday events also give parks the chance to entice visitors to spend on new foods, drinks and souvenirs.

Sales of food, beverages and merchandise generate nearly 30 percent of theme park revenue, with admissions generating about 53 percent of the take, according to a study by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, an industry trade group.

At Knottís Berry Farm, the menu now includes pumpkin-spiced churros ($5.99) and símores ($2.49).

"The park is always looking for ways to improve," Knottís spokeswoman Leidy Arevalo said.

Six Flags Magic Mountain this year added tamales ($9.99), peppermint funnel cake ($13.99) and cinnamon spice latte ($3.99), among other offerings.

Another source of revenue is the $2 that Six Flags charges for each pair of 3-D glasses. The spectacles let park visitors see sparkling Christmas images when they watch the five-minute light shows that begin every 10 minutes.

Lured by churros and light shows, Leanna Brassell, 15, and her friends also cited other, more practical reasons for visiting Six Flags during "Holiday in the Park": The lines to the roller coasters are shorter than they are during the busy summer months.

"All the lines have been less than 30 minutes long," she said, munching on a churro. "I like it a lot."

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