May 24 to Labor Day: That is the typical operating season for a Canadian outdoor amusement park.
The rest of the year is considered the offseason. With the exception of the few operators who manage to offer winter attractions, most Canadian parks spend the offseason protecting their assets from snow, ice, and freezing winds.
“Winter is typically seven to eight months for us,” says Bob Williams, the assistant general manager and marketing director of Calaway Park. Located on 140 acres just six miles west of Calgary, Alberta, Calaway is western Canada’s largest outdoor amusement park. “The winters here are very cold and dry,” he tells Funworld. “Meanwhile, the frost line can sometimes go as far down into the soil as seven feet. When this happens, we can’t use our plumbing until early May—and we open on May 24 every year!”
In Canada, Weather Rules
Although weather conditions vary across Canada, winter is a fact of life for all outdoor attraction operators here. And even in places where the winters are shorter—allowing Canada’s Wonderland north of Toronto to stay open weekends into October, for instance—the Canadian school year means outdoor attractions have to make their core income between May 24th (the traditional Victoria Day long weekend in Canada) and Labor Day in early September.
This is why there are so few outdoor amusement parks in Canada. It also explains the popularity of the West Edmonton Mall’s indoor amusement park, where weather is never a concern, and the rides can run year-round.
Fortunately, outdoor amusement parks such as Calaway, Montreal’s La Ronde, and Ottawa’s Calypso Water Park manage to make enough during their short operating seasons to stay afloat the rest of the year.
Valcartier Vacation Village, located about 20 minutes, drive from Quebec City and operator of Calypso, takes advantage of the snow by converting its summer acreage into a winter playground each year. The company is fortunate to have this option, as some other parks, such as Calaway, do not: “We tried a Christmas-themed attraction a few years ago during the winter, but it was just too cold to be enjoyable for our patrons,” says Williams.
Prepping for Winter
For most Canadian amusement park owners, there are four distinct seasons, three of which do not generate revenue. These seasons are summer, getting ready for winter, winter, and cleaning up after winter in preparation for summer.
Typically, the “getting ready for winter” season begins as soon as possible. Such is the case at La Ronde, the former Expo 67 amusement park in downtown Montreal that is now owned and operated by Six Flags.
“The winter preparation begins right after the end of the season, after ‘Fright Fest’ on October 28th,” says Catherine Tremblay, La Ronde’s communications manager. The goal is not to “waste a single day to winterize,” she adds. “Start as soon as you can!”
At Ottawa’s Calypso, the winters can be almost as long and harsh as they are in Calgary. Everything possible has to be done to protect the water park’s pools and slides from freezing damage.
The same is true for summer attractions at Valcartier Vacation Village, where winters can also be long. As a result, “We have to drain the plumbing completely, empty the pools and water entries completely, and then add a bit of water in the pools to ensure that when it freezes, it doesn’t damage the foundations,” says Véronique Sylvestre, marketing and communications coordinator for Calypso and Valcartier.
Calaway Park’s infrastructure is at risk from freezing, but indeed its entire plumbing system comes into play. That’s the reality operators live with when a rural facility is located at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
To prevent this from happening, “we blow out all of our pipes with compressed air,” says Williams. “This includes restaurants, washrooms, the works. If we allowed any water to remain in the pipes, it would freeze and cause them to burst—and we can’t afford that.”
The next big step is to protect the park from snow, ice, and sun damage. That’s right—sun damage. “Even when it gets cold, there is lots of sunlight in the Calgary area,” Williams explains. “In fact, on an annual basis, this is one of the sunniest areas of Canada. So paint fading is a real concern.”
Wherever possible, parks cope by either storing equipment indoors, or covering those assets that have to be left where they are. At La Ronde, this preparation includes “removing trains from coasters, protecting certain windows with boards, and storing certain equipment such as cash registers and batteries,” says Tremblay. “We also work to protect our buildings from unwanted visitors such as raccoons, squirrels, and groundhogs.” Such visitors are typically trying to find their own refuge from Canada’s harsh winter.
At Valcartier Vacation Village, the park’s summer/winter functionality changes the post-Labor Day cleanup. “We need to change the signs around the park, outdoor and indoor, to add signs and rules for our winter slides and restaurants,” says Sylvestre. “We also need to take out the banisters and cords of every summer attraction to delineate the lines, and switch them with lines for winter attractions and mechanical lifts, and swap the summer water slide inner tubes for winter sledding inner tubes.”
Getting Through Winter
Once winter arrives, each park’s small permanent staff keeps a close eye on the grounds. Given how quickly snow and ice can accumulate on outdoor structures—and how easily coverings can be ripped off by high winds—constant vigilance is a necessity.
“We do check our facilities throughout the winter and monitor levels of water, ice, and snow,” says La Ronde’s Tremblay. “We want to ensure all of our rides and buildings remain properly protected.”
At Calypso, “we walk around the park every week to make sure everything is in order,” Sylvestre says. This means that all buildings are checked to ensure that they are weather tight. All pipes, heaters, and pumps are inspected regularly for damage. “We manually open the pumps so that the bearings don’t stick,” she says. “We check the pools to ensure that water levels are right and stable. We take out the snow in the slides to make sure that the weight of the snow doesn’t break the slide or cause problems. We do it to ensure that nothing collapses.”
Of course, sometimes there is so much snow and ice after a storm, that it takes a while to get back on site. “We have been known to be snowed out of our offices at Calaway,” says Bob Williams. “Some days, when the wind is high and the drifts get up to seven feet tall, we have been snowed out from work and have to be plowed out before we can go in!”
Gearing Up for Summer
Even in Canada, winter does end eventually. For the country’s amusement parks, this can occur anytime from March through to May.
Even in May, winter can still strike back. For instance, “One of the more challenging circumstances is when we get too much snow or ice in late winter,” says Tremblay. “In that situation, we must wait for the ice to melt before we can begin preparations to open the park in the spring.”
One thing is certain: The runup to the May 24th weekend is a frantic time for amusement parks in Canada. Not only must operators uncover equipment, get the water running again, and repair any winter damage, but they have to get staff in place for when the gates open. At Calaway Park, this means going through 4,500 applications and holding 2,200 job interviews to get the 750 seasonal staff needed for the park’s reopening. “This is why we start looking for people in December,” says Williams.
When the parks do open on the Victoria Day long weekend, the offseason is finally over and it is time to make money. Typically, there are only 16 weeks for the parks to achieve this goal before Labor Day arrives and the offseason begins again.
“It is a demanding process, and one that makes running an outdoor amusement park far more complicated than say, one in Florida, where they don’t have to close down every year,” says Williams. “Still, we love what we do and we make money doing it. So winter is just a one of those business facts of life that we deal with!”
James Careless is an experienced freelance writer with credits at Business Week, NBC News, and NPR. He is a frequent contributor to Funworld.