Adventureland Amusement Park celebrated its 50th anniversary throughout 2012. As a part of the celebration, the Farmingdale, New York, park held weekly talent contests. It also already raffled off a Volkswagen Beetle to celebrate the milestone anniversary. And every Friday evening at the park, 12 people rolled special anniversary dice—emblazoned with the face of the park’s superhero mascot, Alfie—for a chance to win $50,000.
At Conneaut Lake Park, which celebrated its 120th year, officials didn’t plan any events to specifically celebrate the occasion. Just opening the local park in Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania, for yet another season, with many of its original rides still operating, is celebration enough, say the volunteer board members who run it.
These two approaches illustrate the differences in how amusement parks and attractions celebrate their anniversaries. Some offer promotions, special events, and anniversary-themed newsletters throughout their anniversary seasons. Others acknowledge the anniversary but do not alter the regular routine of the park.
Even operators who do not hold special events during their anniversary seasons say recognizing their attractions’ milestones—even if just by placing an anniversary banner on their websites—matters. Doing so can pay off in both attendance increases and in encouraging past guests to consider a return trip.
“Anniversary seasons bring back a lot of the memories you might have of a place from when you were younger,” says Lisa Rawson, a volunteer board member for Conneaut Lake Park. “Our park has remained almost untouched for so long. If you come back to visit, you’ll see that it’s mostly the same as when you left it. You used to ride the ‘Blue Streak’ roller coaster. Well, there it still is. It’s not all neon or tricked out. It’s just the way you remember it. When you see that a park has reached a milestone year, that triggers a lot of warm feelings. It might inspire you to come back for a visit.”
Worth the Effort
Marking a milestone anniversary can take plenty of time, effort, and money. Many attractions raffle off vacations or give away new cars. Others roll prices back to decades-ago levels. Still others work extensively with local newspapers, radio stations, and TV channels to promote their milestone years.
Officials with those attractions that put forth this effort say the hard work pays off. Some point to increased attendance. Others point to the additional press that anniversary celebrations generate in both print and online media, press that may inspire families to visit their attractions that next week or next summer. Other parks point to the number of Facebook fans or Twitter followers who participate in online trivia contests or submit decades-old photos of them riding roller coasters and Ferris wheels. Such social media participation brings attractions and their fans closer together. The conversations could also result, again, in future visits.
“The events and giveaways we had attracted thousands of people who might not otherwise have come to Mall of America,” says Dan Jasper, vice president of public relations with Bloomington, Minnesota-based Mall of America, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. “And while those guests often come for the festivities we are having this year, they stay and eat at a restaurant here, or go on a ride, or visit our aquarium. At the same time, the giveaways and events build goodwill. That leads to positive word of mouth, and that is always something an attraction needs.”
Steven Gentile, manager with Farmingdale, New York’s Adventureland Amusement Park, has also seen the positive benefits of celebrating a milestone anniversary. Throughout the park’s 50th anniversary season, Adventureland held talent contests on Wednesday evenings. The contests became popular, attracting both local singers and dancers and their friends and family members. Winners of each Wednesday’s talent show had the chance to participate in a grand finale contest at the park on Aug. 29. The winner of that event performed during the IdolMaker USA summer concert at Jones Beach Bandshell in New York’s Nassau County.
“I have seen a 20 percent increase in our sales on Wednesday nights this summer,” Gentile says. “People want to be part of that excitement. They want to see and be a part of the 50th birthday celebration here.”
But attendance increases are not the only benefits that amusement parks see from anniversary celebrations. Don Helbig, public relations area manager for Mason, Ohio’s Kings Island amusement park, says the park’s anniversary celebration—Kings Island marked its 40th year in 2012—helped rekindle interest in the park among guests who have not visited in a decade or more.
Helbig says he knows this because of the Twitter messages he has been reading from former visitors. As part of the anniversary celebration, Kings Island’s Twitter page ran a daily trivia question about park history. (A sample question: What park attraction has given the most rides? Answer: The “Racer” roller coaster, with more than 9 million rides.) The trivia contest inspired many former guests to post their own memories of the park, even if they had not been to Mason for years. Some posts garnered as many as 200 responses.
“You see on Twitter that we’re celebrating our anniversary, and it brings back all the fun that you’ve had here,” Helbig says. “You remember coming here with your kids. You remember riding the ‘Racer’ for the first time. You think about those things. You might even remember working at Kings Island. And part of a park’s success lies in reminding people of just how many good memories they can have while spending a day.”
Getting Past and Future Guests to Care
If park officials can’t convince their guests—whether past or future—to care about the park’s milestone year, then celebrating an attraction’s anniversary can be an empty exercise. So how do parks convince consumers they should care about a 30th, 40th, or 50th anniversary season?
For many parks, it is all about providing guests with the chance to actively participate in the celebration. This can involve everything from giving guests the chance to win prizes and free trips to encouraging visitors to send in family photos showing them riding classic thrill rides.
As previously mentioned, another way park visitors tend to appreciate anniversary celebrations is via a bargain. Starting in July, Kings Island allowed guests to pay just $19.72—a price that matches the park’s 1972 opening year—to enter after 5 p.m. Helbig says this promotion proved popular and cemented the park’s opening date in the minds of guests.
At Mall of America, crowds have shown up for the anniversary celebration in part to win valuable prizes, ranging anywhere from a five-night trip for two to Jamaica to $1,000 shopping sprees; these were given away every day for the 20 days leading up to the mall’s 20th anniversary. Customers tend to react positively when they have the chance to win something.
Then there are the big events that not only attract crowds, but generate buzz on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. For the mall’s official birthdate, Buddy Valastro, star of the TLC show “Cake Boss,” created a 3-D birthday cake to mark the milestone; that event, Jasper says, attracted big crowds. The mall has even played classic 1992 movies—reminiscing the year Mall of America opened—in its on-site movie theaters.
“The events really do draw in people,” Jasper says. “We had thousands of people lined up for the birthday cake by Buddy. We gave away 2,000 pieces of that sheet cake to guests. You know that they talked about that event with their friends and family members, even with their coworkers. That helps the mall in the long run.”
The Low-Key Approach
In contrast, Conneaut Lake Park doesn’t make a big deal out of its milestone seasons. The park posted black-and-white photos submitted by visitors on Conneaut Lake Park’s Facebook page. Also, earlier this year, Conneaut Lake Park board members successfully navigated the complex process of making the amusement park eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. (The park is not yet on this list, but becoming eligible for a spot is a necessary first step.)
“For me, this park is all about memories and tradition. It doesn’t really matter what year it is. Every year here is about creating new memories,” Rawson says. “When you start to look at the national treasure that Conneaut Lake Park really is, then you get such a better appreciation of this place. It’s something that gets in your blood, that gets in your heart.”
Dan Rafter is a journalist with more than 15 years’ experience. He has written for the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, BusinessWeek Online, Phoenix Magazine, and several trade magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.