New Rides for Winter Season : Theme Parks Use Chills to Keep Attendance Hot

Times Staff Writer

The holidays are coming to the Southland’s theme parks--and some people are going to be sick.

For the first time, three tourist attractions--Magic Mountain, Universal Studios and Disneyland--are opening major new rides in the middle of winter. All three will offer enough dips and dives to thrill and chill even the most ho-hum patron.

But while some customers may end up queasy, industry insiders expect that profits will be healthy indeed. That’s because the costly new attractions are expected to spark enough interest--especially among local patrons--to help fill the parks during the winter months when attendance usually is in the basement.

In an era of stiff competition for recreation dollars, tourist spots continually must add attractions to hang onto their share of the 30 million visitors expected to visit California’s amusement parks this year.


And while amusement attractions don’t always aim for off-season openings, there’s no doubt they help to keep customers coming back. That’s because unveiling rides during the holiday season “gives you something to say in the winter when normally you’d be searching for something (new) to tell local visitors as well as the tourist business,” explained Ron Bension, president of Universal Studios Hollywood.

Winter openings are particularly important for local visitors, who can represent more than 50% of a park’s annual attendance but don’t usually visit theme parks unless there is a new reason to do so.

That’s why Magic Mountain is unleashing Condor, a stomach-churning, thrill ride that features cars dangling and spinning from arms that revolve atop a 112-foot tower. The $1-million ride, which opens Nov. 23, is expected to help bring the Valencia park record attendance this year of more than 3 million.

Universal Studios has a white-knuckler of its own, “Earthquake: The Big One,” which is set to start rumbling Dec.


17. The $13-million attraction should shake coins from customers by simulating the effects of a 145-second, 8.3 magnitude earthquake with crashing ceilings, a runaway tanker and a falling, 11,000-pound concrete slab.

And Disneyland hopes consumers will plunk down their dollars to see its Splash Mountain flume ride based on Disney’s “Song of the South” film. When it opens in early ’89, the attraction will have three big drops and at one point be Disneyland’s fastest ride at 40 m.p.h.

The openings mark a big change from conventional thinking in the amusement-park industry.

Called Brilliant Tactic

It used to be that amusement parks here--as well as the rest of the country--opened their major new attractions around Memorial Day in May, the traditional start of the summer theme-park season.

That all changed when Disneyland opened its Captain Eo attraction in October, 1986, and later its Star Tours ride in January of the following year. Both had impressive openings. And Disneyland was credited with a brilliant new tactic.

These days, officials at the Anaheim park say they intended no such thing. “I’d like to say there was a grand strategy,” said Robert McTyre, Disneyland’s vice president of marketing and entertainment. “But the way we look at it, we open an attraction as soon as we can get it built because it will improve the show and draw additional attendance.”

Intended or no, what’s become known in the industry as Disneyland’s innovation has caught on, with Universal and Magic Mountain this year experimenting with winter openings for the first time.


The plans reflect a belief that exciting--if not downright scary--innovations can add anywhere from about 2% to 10% to a park’s annual attendance, much of that by local patrons. Universal’s addition of Earthquake could increase attendance by 10% to 25%, said Bension, who added that the ride is opening now because “we don’t want to sit on it” until next summer.

Not everyone agrees that winter openings always guarantee hotter profits. Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, for one, is sticking with conventional strategy and plans to open a $5-million program of new attractions around Memorial Day.

Willing to Gamble

“We still feel the 100 days of summer are the time we need . . . to attract attendance,” said spokesman Stuart Zanville.

But others are tantalized and willing to gamble that opening major rides in the off-season will help attract visitors.

“The Southern California consumer is pretty sophisticated,” said Joe Schillaci, president of Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia. By opening Condor this month, “local residents (will) have the chance to see a new attraction before the heavy tour season starts. . . . We’ll keep up the momentum that we started” when Magic Mountain opened Ninja, a suspended roller coaster, earlier this year.

“The trend has begun . . . (and) we’re jumping on the bandwagon,” Schillaci said.

In other words, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.


In addition to building off-season business, off-season openings allow parks to get the inevitable glitches out of a new ride before the summer crunch.

“There’s always a certain amount of down-time to get any new ride fine tuned,” noted Tim O’Brien, managing editor of Amusement Business, a Nashville, Tenn.-based trade publication, who agrees off-season openings help bring in local business. And after all, “it’s better to (irk) 200 people than 2,000 people who are waiting in line.”