Tim's Turn | "Bring It On!"
Summer 2020 was the best weather season ever for Funtown Splashtown USA, the Saco, Maine, family-owned park.
“We would have been closed only one day during the season for weather,” General Manager Cory Hutchinson told me. Notice he said, “would have,” because, in fact, the park was closed all season, due to pandemic concerns and strict COVID-19 restrictions put in place by the governor.
The 6,000-person-capacity park could have opened, albeit limited to only 600 total at any one time. In a park with 50% of its guests coming from other states, there was also another issue—a 14-day quarantine for all persons coming from away. (That’s Maine talk for those who don’t live in Maine.) “No way could we have made that math work,” Cory notes.
During the 2020 summer and last winter, Cory and his management team had time to do a lot of thinking. “I was one of the few who worked all summer in the empty park (while maintaining social distancing from each other). I did a lot of painting, staining, scraping, and thinking,” he says.
Fast forward to 2021. The park opened later than usual, on Memorial Day at the end of May, but, like others, had difficulty acquiring summer employees. “Through the J-1 student visa program, we usually get 110 international students, but this year, we ended up, and I guess we should be happy with, 40,” he says. The staffing didn’t look promising in early May, but when management saw other area businesses offering higher wages, they raised their starting hourly rates from $11.15 to $14.50 and threw in a family four-pack of tickets for each hire, a $450 value.
Information on the new pay structure hit social media on a Friday, and on Monday, applications were “pouring in” for all departments, showing that if pay is competitive, people would rather work in a park than in a fast-food outlet.
“Prior to that influx, plans were to close two days a week, but now, we figured if we closed earlier each day, we could operate seven days with the staff we had in place,” Cory says.
That decision, unbeknownst to them at that time, helped save a big part of their business—summer camp field trips.
The camps usually account for 30% of business, but after a year of closure, Cory wasn’t sure how many would return. It turned out that most that did open this summer had no field trips planned, instead requiring their campers and staff to play safely in a bubble on campgrounds.
“One camp director asked if they could come in after the park was closed allowing only their bubble of campers along with our masked park staffers to be present. We gave him a price, and he jumped at the opportunity.” Closing two hours early provided that exclusive early evening window for the camps. Cory noted that the idea was then pitched to others who originally said they couldn’t come. “We booked 10 of them,” Cory says.
The 2021 season, despite a rainy July, held its own, according to the optimistic Cory, who notes that if they can successfully make it through these last two years, anything that comes up during the next few should not be a problem. “How much bigger challenge can we have? We are ready. Bring it on!” Cory says enthusiastically.
- Tim O’Brien is a veteran outdoor entertainment journalist and is a longtime Funworld contributor. He has authored many books chronicling the industry’s attractions and personalities and is the only journalist in the IAAPA Hall of Fame.