Pivot Points: A Look Back at the Challenges and Triumphs of 2020
“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters—one represents danger and one represents opportunity,” wrote former American President John F. Kennedy. In the face of the global pandemic, many attractions around the world showed great character by seizing opportunities in 2020. Original opening strategies, fresh ways to connect with guests, and the creation of special events allowed attractions to pivot.
Here are examples of ingenuity at work across the global attractions industry during an unprecedented year.
The Scares Must Go On
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
Tampa, Florida, United States
What goes bump in the night never missed a beat this Halloween at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. The park opened its popular “Howl-O-Scream” event in September with several changes. Show Manager John Prast knew in January what a traditional event would look like; those plans started evolving almost weekly as COVID-19 lockdowns took place across the United States.
“The first goal for the event this year centered around safety—and not just safe for guests, but safe for the ambassadors working the event,” Prast says.
By March, Prast was already redeveloping plans, anticipating additional changes would be needed. That meant continually approaching the park’s operations, culinary, and security teams with changes. The mantra that kept Prast and his team working toward opening a safe event was knowing “this event is an escape from reality for our guests and scare actors,” he says.
Out of an abundance of caution, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay shuttered its indoor haunted mazes and added additional outdoor scare zones, allowing for better social distancing. A musical comedy traditionally staged indoors was moved outside to an amphitheater. Besides the physical changes, Prast says attraction operators also need to change their messaging during difficult times to connect with guests in a positive way.
“We never want to say, ‘We’re sad we can’t bring you the event as planned.’ We instead say, ‘We’re excited to bring ‘Howl-O-Scream’ to everyone in a safe way,’” he says.
Let the Feast Begin
Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Williamsburg, Virginia, United States
Visitors to Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia enjoyed an exclusive experience in 2020, thanks to creative thinking. The phase three reopening guidelines established by the Commonwealth of Virginia mandated only 1,000 people may visit a public entertainment venue at a time.
“It was midsummer when we said, ‘We have to be a little more creative how we think about offering a great experience,’” says Kevin Lembke, park president of Busch Gardens Williamsburg. The result? Overhauling the park’s operating calendar with the “Coasters and Craft Brews” event. The park welcomed just 1,000 people a day by opening a portion of the park. Select roller coasters, rides, and food and beverage (F&B) offerings highlighted “Coasters and Craft Brews.” On summer weekends, the park held two four-hour sessions, with a two-hour break scheduled in between to allow for deep cleaning.
“Once we knew the guidelines were going to keep park capacity low, we had to think differently,” Lembke says.
He believes attractions leaders can challenge their teams to pivot using the two questions he asked: “What is our brand?” and “What can be financially viable?” The park developed a “guest experience that is very authentic to the Busch Gardens Williamsburg experience,” according to Lembke.
Following the success of this summer’s “Coasters and Craft Brews,” the park created an expanded autumn event to celebrate Oktoberfest. “Taste of Busch Gardens” continued to allow just 1,000 visitors time to sample additional rides and greater F&B fare, the latter available when purchasing a tasting card lanyard. Five food or beer samples cost $30, while 10 samples cost $60.
“We look forward to continuing to grow these events as we work our way back to a complete offering,” Lembke says.
While summer break looked different for kids around the world, in Colombia, two theme park friends made quarantine more fun. Félix and Alegra, the two beloved characters of City Park in Bogota, Colombia, became the mascots of the park’s Fun Camp, an eight-week virtual summer camp. “Fun Camp was born from the need to adapt and reinvent ourselves in order to continue bringing happiness to our visitors,” says Paula Durán, project director at City Park.
Park leaders first pivoted in March when they decided City Park’s brand of fun should accommodate children at home. As the quarantine extended into summer vacation, Fun Camp blossomed. Each week, more than 800 children received a Fun Camp Kit at home. Each contained all the materials needed for the upcoming activities, thus freeing parents from the task of shopping for supplies.
The project was such a success, parents asked City Park to continue similar programming for the rest of the year. The park is now providing workshops on weekday afternoons and weekends. While the park pivoted, Durán suggests attractions leaders keep their mission at heart.
“I would say let’s not forget our essence: People even in this situation have to find ways to have fun—and we as an industry must innovate to offer them experiences that give them happiness and good times,” says Durán.
Kaatsheuvel, North Brabant, Netherlands
For the first time in a decade, Efteling in Kaatsheuvel, Netherlands, expanded its operating calendar to a full 365 days a year … until the fairytale park was forced closed its doors this spring. “Ordinarily, we welcome many visitors from all over Europe during Easter, but unfortunately, this was not possible this year,” says Efteling CEO Fons Jurgens. Realizing how special the park is to employees, Efteling created a drive-thru for associates. The tour allowed employees to become tour guides in their own vehicles and share the park with their families before taking home a goodie bag.
“It is very special to go through the empty park. With all its blooming flowers and plants, we don’t want to keep the enchantingly beautiful place that Efteling is just to ourselves,” explained Jurgens. The park then flew a drone overhead to record the majestic beauty of 100,000 tulips and 30,000 spring flowers. Efteling shared the video with guests sheltering in place at home in an attempt to spread joy and hope. The park reopened its gates in mid-May.
‘Scary Road’ Ahead
São Paulo, Brazil
As its home state of São Paulo tested positive for the highest number of coronavirus cases in Brazil, Hopi Hari remained shuttered for months. Yet, the closure didn’t force the attraction to put on the brakes; rather, leadership hit the gas pedal with “Horror Drive Tour.”
“We wanted to promote an attraction that maintained the standard of quality of the events held by us and that guaranteed the safety and well-being of both the visitors and the team,” says Alexandre Rodrigues, president of Hopi Hari.
“Horror Drive Tour” followed Brazil’s COVID-19 health protocols as Hopi Hari created a haunted drive-thru. With touches of the popular “Hora do Horror” event, Hopi Hari welcomed guests back—as long as they stayed inside their vehicle. “In a car, you have nowhere to escape. This allows us to provide a different emotion from anything we have done here before,” says Rogério Barbatti, the park’s content manager.
The route stretching 3 kilometers was full of frightening creatures, which emerged from the darkness as guests slowly drove past them. To help with dispatching and capacity, visitors first got in the mood with live DJs in the parking lot, where they could remotely purchase F&B items using WhatsApp. “Never before have people needed to be so entertained and wanted to create new memories with the people they love,” says Gustavo Barbosa, senior marketing analyst at Hopi Hari. He recommends other attractions “be part of these moments and use the opportunity to reinvent yourself.”
International Spy Museum
Washington, D.C., United States
While museums in the U.S. capital remained shuttered, one museum asked guests to “sneak in.” The International Spy Museum began offering small groups of guests the ability to visit after hours. Once inside, they were encouraged to run secret spy missions throughout the galleries and celebrate their success with boxed dinners or snacks on the museum’s rooftop.
“Our content really encourages us to ‘be bad,’ push the envelope, and break the rules,” says Anna Slafer, vice president of exhibitions and programs. “After all, spying is really about lying, cheating, and stealing—but it is also about creative problem-solving under pressure and critical thinking—and that’s what we’re all doing on all fronts now.” In the middle of a global pandemic, that included offering “Operation Secret Sleepover,” an event enabling a family or small group of friends to sleep overnight in the museum’s gallery. The “Operation Secret Sneak In” tour allowed guests in only if they leave before the clock strikes midnight.
In the virtual world, the International Spy Museum offered virtual tours, workshops, activities for kids, and even team-building events using wigs to create their own disguise. In a time of crisis, Slafer says attractions leaders need to start asking questions.
“Identify what your different audiences need: escape from boredom, loneliness, a way to connect, or parental help,” she says. “Accept that it can take a while to mentally let go of what you already do and what you already know. Use creative ideation games to help the team ‘force fit’ your unique content to things you wouldn’t have otherwise thought about doing.”
Coleraine, Northern Ireland
When golf courses were one of the first facilities to reopen in Northern Ireland during the pandemic, Jet Centre family entertainment center (FEC) had to think fast how to open its 18-hole mini-golf course outside. The FEC owned by Movie House Cinemas Ltd. features an eight-screen digital cinema, an 18-lane 10-pin bowling alley, a large arcade, and an indoor children’s play facility. All of it, however, could only be accessed by entering the complex, which was still not allowed. “We had to come up with an alternative solution,” says Wanda Donna, center manager. The complex quickly pivoted and placed a portable structure outside in the parking lot, designating the hut as a new entry point onto the golf course—thus preventing the need for guests to enter the building. The FEC also added mobile hand-washing sinks for guests to use before and after their round of golf. In addition, Jet Centre placed hand sanitizer stations all over the course. “For us it was—and still is—giving our guests the confidence to come and ensure that we provide the highest levels of hygiene possible,” says Donna. While the first few weeks were quiet, Donna says business picked up shortly after, and Jet Centre exceeded the revenue that it generated in the same period last year.
Here Comes Santa Claus
Elysburg, Pennsylvania, United States
Silver bells will be ringing in Central Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Valley this December.
“We’ve always been in the business of making memories and hope this is a whole new chapter to that,” says Trevor Knoebel as his family-owned park will offer the drive-thru “Joy Through the Grove – A Christmas Light Experience” for the first time this holiday season. The Knoebels team laughs when asked if launching a new event during the start of winter—and in the middle of a pandemic—is a wise move.
“We’re used to dealing with challenges in the form of floods, but nothing sustained like COVID-19,” says Stacy Ososkie, Knoebels public relations director. “Our team is awesome putting the park back together.” That same ambitious spirit will guide the park as it installs more than 400 illuminated displays on a path that will travel down the park’s main boulevard and throughout much of the campground. With preexisting electrical connections positioned every several feet for RVs, power for the lights will be plentiful … following a season that was anything but easy.
“Enter COVID-19, and we were wrestling with not being able to open for our season that is normally 136 days. We lost 48 of those days,” Knoebel says. “Joy Through the Grove”—first proposed in April when the park was closed during Pennsylvania’s lockdown—is designed to promote additional visits and revenue in 2020. “From a business standpoint, this will help us be sustainable,” he says. Admission will cost $15 per carload on weekdays and $20 on weekends.
Merchandise items, like blinking necklaces and ornaments, and F&B items, like kettle corn, will be available for purchase.
Six Flags Great Adventure
Jackson, New Jersey, United States
In a year like no other, Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, could have found itself sitting idle. However, with 1,200 animals from six continents—which were still receiving professional care—the park pivoted fast, finding a way for guests to see them.
“On March 10, the day after New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy made his first emergency order, we began a discussion about our safari and the feasibility of transitioning to a drive-thru,” explains John Winkler, president of Six Flags Great Adventure, Hurricane Harbor, and Wild Animal Safari. Winkler’s team wasted no time putting a plan in place, so when Murphy announced drive-ins and drive-thrus could reopen, the park was ready to offer a safari experience on May 30, similar to the park’s former attraction.
“We’ve welcomed several thousand cars each day,” says Dr. Bill Rives, safari director and chief veterinarian. To keep the experience contact-free, guests purchase tickets in advance and scan them right through their vehicle window. “For the safety of both guests and animals, windows and doors must remain closed,” Rives explains to Funworld. The park created an audio tour with educational facts that guests can stream right from the Six Flags website.
“During a crisis, nostalgia is comforting and can provide a sense of hope. The reawakening of the safari as a drive-thru has led to an entirely new generation of consumers experiencing the safari for the first time,” Rives says. He and Winkler admit that given their successful pivot, they’ll reevaluate how to best operate the safari in the future, concluding “a hybrid solution” may be an option in the new year.
The park pivoted again in October, holding a drive-in concert starring contemporary Christian duo For King & Country. The performance held in the parking lot cost $125 per car with 4 passengers. Guests parked in an oversized parking space that allowed for social distancing.
Typhoon Texas Waterpark
Houston, Texas, United States
In 2020, Evan Barnett went with his gut—literally.
“From day one, we really wanted to have a quality food, and since we’re in Texas, we wanted to have really good barbecue,” says the president of Typhoon Texas Waterpark in Houston. Before opening five years ago, the water park sought a “barbecue coach” and hired its own pitmaster. Soon, the park’s food made a name for itself.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘We don’t necessarily want to go to the park—but we want your food,’” says Barnett.
The water park used COVID-19 to launch what Barnett calls a “crazy idea.” He opened the shuttered park to vehicular traffic so guests could tour the facility in their cars, order a barbecue meal, and then drive away with dinner. Thus, the drive-thru smokehouse concept was born. Typhoon Texas Waterpark shared the news through live kitchen tours on Instagram and Facebook, posted on weekend afternoons as folks started to think about dinner.
“It took off. The organic stuff we did actually really worked,” he says of the free marketing. Almost 4,000 cars visited in the first three weeks of opening. The park added order takers (who interacted with guests from a distance) and even adjusted its point-of-sale software to accept online ordering. Barnett says the park is now looking to keep the smokehouse open year-round.
Besides brisket, he offers a side of advice for other attractions leaders: “Put it on a whiteboard and look at how you can find an additional revenue stream. Be creative; don’t say no.”
Universal Studios Florida
Orlando, Florida, United States
While Universal Orlando Resort canceled the planned 30th year of “Halloween Horror Nights” (HHN) at Universal Studios Florida, the park introduced a way for fans to still get a taste of horror. A highly themed pop-up shop, named the Halloween Horror Nights Tribute Store, opened with props and artifacts on display from prior events, a menu of specialty food items, and limited-edition merchandise for sale. Two “hidden” rooms embedded in the store opened after the August debut to keep fans coming back. One of the rooms was themed after Beetlejuice, the character from the 1988 movie and featured in the 1991 debut of the park’s Halloween event. The other room allowed guests to enjoy a variety of F&B options inspired by Halloween. In mid-September, the park pivoted again, by opening two of HHN’s standing haunted houses. Both “Revenge of the Tooth Fairy” and “Universal Monsters: The Bride of Frankenstein Lives” opened on weekends for no additional charge. To control lines and promote social distancing, visitors used the Universal Orlando app to make a reservation.