Tiny amusement parks by the sea draw penny-pinching crowds


In the midst of one of the worst recessions in decades, tiny beach-side amusement parks along the California coast are reporting robust business and big crowds while most of the state’s big theme parks have seen shrinking revenue.

Small, privately owned seaside parks, such as Pacific Park at the pier in Santa Monica, Belmont Park in San Diego and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, don’t have multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns or 3-D attractions as do Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood. But they boast something even more appealing to penny-pinching tourists: Free admission.

As a result, vacationers are turning to old-fashioned Ferris wheels and carousels over expensive, high-tech thrill rides.

Seaside parks: An article in Friday’s Business section about seaside amusement parks said operators of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk invested in a new ride and other improvements because the park has been so profitable. Park operators said they decided to make the investment because they were optimistic about the future of the park and the state of the economy. —

Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier, for example, offers 12 rides on 2 acres of sun-baked boardwalk. But in 2009, it drew nearly $18 million in revenue, a 5% increase over the previous year, on top of a 5% increase in 2008.

“In this economy, we’ve actually done OK,” said park spokesman Jeff Klocke.

The admission-free parks are succeeding by letting visitors pay as little as their wallets allow. Visitors pay only for the attractions they ride, and with no gates to restrict access, they can also leave for cheap meals or haul in a picnic basket.

“We came here because it didn’t cost anything,” said Leila Nightingale, a tourist from England, who visited the park with her friend Jessica Townsend. “We are traveling around the world and we are trying to save money.”

By comparison, the cost of a full day at Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure Park in Anaheim is $72 for an adult. At Universal Studios Hollywood, $69 will buy a Southern California adult a pass that is good for the entire year.

Such entry fees are too steep for folks like Alex Soria, a vacationer from Queens, N.Y., who visited Pacific Park on a recent weekday. He said he paid only $6 for parking to hang out with friends at the Santa Monica park.

“This is heaven,” he said over the din of a passing roller coaster.

As the nation’s economy began to falter last year and unemployment rates rose, many of the nation’s largest theme parks began to offer steep discounts to lure guests.

Most of them reported flat or slightly declining attendance numbers in 2009, said Ed Shaw, a senior associate for Aecom, an independent consulting firm that publishes an annual report on theme park attendance.

And because of the discounted ticket prices, many of the large theme parks are reporting a drop in overall revenues, he added.

For example, Six Flags Inc., the operator of 19 parks in North America, including Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, reported an 11% drop in revenue in 2009, which the company attributed to a 6% decrease in attendance and a 5% drop in revenue per visitor, according to public records.

The world’s largest theme park operator, Walt Disney Co., reported a 7% drop in revenue -- to $10.7 billion -- from its theme parks in fiscal 2008-09. The park attributed much of the loss to lower spending on park tickets, Disney-managed hotels and merchandise.

Many small seaside parks on the East Coast suffered losses last year, primarily because of lousy weather, in particular a rainy June and a chilly July. But on the West Coast, the weather was more forgiving last summer and the crowds plentiful.

Belmont Park in San Diego enjoyed a 7% increase in revenue last year over 2008, said the park’s general manager, Wendy Crain, who declined to release dollar amounts. Most small parks are privately owned and are not required to divulge revenue numbers.

Belmont Park, located near Mission Bay, one of San Diego’s most popular oceanfront areas, attracts nearly 1.2 million visitors per year. The beach-side park offers 10 rides, including a 1925 wooden roller coaster and a reproduction of an antique carousel.

“The most significant thing is that we are not down,” she said.

Farther up the California coast, attendance numbers at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk have jumped about 5% in 2009, said Marq Lipton, a spokesman for the park. The increased numbers over 2008 are based on parking data.

He also declined to release revenue figures, but he said the park has been so profitable in the last few years that it is investing nearly $9 million on a new Haunted Castle ride and adjacent improvements. The new ride opens this summer.

The Santa Cruz boardwalk, known for its 1924 wooden roller coaster, the Giant Dipper, has been featured in several movies, including the 1987 vampire thriller “The Lost Boys.”

“The free admission is very attractive in all economic times but especially now,” Lipton said.

At the Santa Monica Pier, Pacific Park has also been reinvesting its robust revenue into the park. In 2008, the park spent about $2 million on what it describes as the world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel.

Last year, the park replaced five aging attractions at a cost of about $1.5 million. This summer, the park plans to spend more than $1 million on two new rides, along with other improvements, Klocke said.

In Newport Beach, the crowds at the tiny Balboa Fun Zone have been up and down over the last year. But then again, the Fun Zone offers only three rides -- a carousel, a Ferris wheel and a bungee-jump attraction -- plus arcade games and retail shops near the Balboa Pier.

Last summer the crowds dropped by about 15% compared with the same period in 2008, said Rita Stenlund, interim executive director of the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum, which owns the Fun Zone.

But during the recent winter holidays, she said, the crowd numbers jumped nearly 20% over the previous holiday, making up for the summer decline.

“I think it’s because people are looking for a positive local experience,” she said.

If the trend continues, Stenlund expects vacationers to pack the Fun Zone during the upcoming spring and summer seasons. “We are definitely seeing some positive signs.”