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TOURISM–Theme Parks Spend Off-Season Gearing Up for Summer



Tourism: Enticements Offered to Draw CrowdsBefore Memorial Day

Off-season lulls have slowed the pace at local tourist attractions, such as the San Diego Zoo, Wild Animal Park, SeaWorld San Diego and Legoland California. For now, their work has taken a different turn.

Along with promotional programs to spark attendance, it’s a time for parks to gear up for summer , refurbishing grounds, building new attractions, marketing summer entertainment, and hiring seasonal staff.

The attractions are busiest in the summer, starting around Memorial Day and ending Labor Day, said Robert Baracz, associate director of advertising and promotions for the Zoo and Wild Animal Park, both of which are run by the San Diego Zoological Society.

According to Jonna Rae Bartges, spokeswoman for Legoland California, business is also strong after Thanksgiving and through New Year’s Day. There’s also a boost starting in April, she said. First, there’s Easter and then school-scheduled spring breaks.

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The patterns are somewhat different for Knott’s Soak City, U.S.A. in Chula Vista, which is open solely for the summer season.

Ohio-based Cedar Fair LLC purchased the waterpark in December.

Any day now, Soak City will begin undergoing a facelift of sorts, said park director Marty Keithley. Under previous ownership, it had been called Whitewater Canyon, and had a Western theme.

Beach Theme

The park will now sport a beach theme. Changes will include new signs that localize the rides to San Diego County and a paint job that will lighten up the buildings, Keithley said. A new family raft ride will also be built by a Vancouver, British Columbia-based company, he said.

The park will be marketed alongside another Soak City being built adjacent to the Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park. It is planned to open for Memorial Day’s weekend. There’s a possibility that seasonal passes could apply to both parks, he said.

San Diego’s year-round attractions give customers reasons to make a visit.

SeaWorld gets two-thirds of its expected 4 million visitors from Memorial Day to Labor Day, said spokesman Bob Tucker.

During the off-season, the park launches smaller-scale shows and offers promotional programs, Tucker said.

This year, they are offering Southern California residents $10 off the regular admission charge. It began in early February and will last through May 14, he said.

Time For Locals

“The idea is, is the crowds are gone in these months,” Tucker said. “So for folks in the surrounding communities, this is a time for them to come to the park and not experience the kind of crowds that we have in the summertime, and they get to do it at a lower price.”

Another off-season promotion recognizes the youth trend of collecting key chains, Tucker said. SeaWorld is giving a different one each month. February’s have dolphins.

The weekend before President’s Day, the park debuted a new seal and otter show. The timing was standard in the industry, Tucker said, noting that theme parks such as Disneyland and Magic Mountain also debuted new features that weekend.

SeaWorld’s also preparing for this summer’s new attractions, including the interactive “4-D Pirates” movie set to debut May 27, a new water show called “Intensity Games,” and other programs, such as entertainment-oriented “Summer Nights.” Like the key chains, a “pancakes with polar bears” program will follow SeaWorld’s marketing theme for the year: “Kid Around at SeaWorld.”

At the San Diego Zoo, this year’s promotions have a child-like theme. They are grouped around a certain baby panda, Baracz said. Called “Zoo Babies,” the program focuses on Hua Mei and other newcomers.

For the Easter season, the Zoo and Wild Animal Park will launch marketing campaigns focused on a particular subject or promotion, Baracz said. At the Wild Animal Park, there will be a butterfly and orchid program that runs two weeks, beginning in mid-April.

“We do those primarily to attract both members and nonmembers,” Baracz said. “One, it entices and gives members yet another reason to come and visit, and two, it gives out-of-town visitors or guests to San Diego yet another compelling reason to come and see our parks.”

The pressure to have something new is ongoing, even in the off-season, Baracz said. Seasonal events are effective, he said.

The Zoo and Wild Animal Park try to avoid direct competition, Baracz said. At the Wild Animal Park this summer, the new attraction is Condor Ridge, which features rare or endangered animals from North America, particularly the California Condors, which have never been on exhibit before.

Legomania

At Legoland, the park is preparing for its events this summer, including a “Legomaniac” convention in July, an addition to its “Kids Power Tower” ride and a new, suspended roller coaster Bartges compares to a ski lift.

“We call this a ‘shoulder period,’ ” explained Bartges, of this point in the season.

Other than tending to guests, there is work done to the park site, and they’re involved in training current and new employees. The latter can include new products, retail skills, food handling, and safety techniques for new rides or attractions.

Legoland has just begun a hiring push that will likely continue through the end of March, said Donna Schmidt, director of human resources. The park has a year-round staff of 800, of which 450 are full time. For the summer, they plan to hire an additional 400.

The park is holding two daylong job fairs. One was held Feb. 26 and another will be held in March. This year, it is offering incentives such as free food and Lego giveaways available to early applicants.

To find employees and publicize the job fairs, the park has set up partnerships with high schools, colleges, youth groups and special need groups. It also advertises in local papers and on the screens of area movie theaters.

Also, the park uses a Web site and job hot line, has walk-in application hours Mondays through Wednesdays, and offers incentives to employees who referred someone who is retained over 90 days.

Hiring Push

Another hiring push will take place at Soak City. The staff will grow from 15 in the off-season to 400 for the summer, Keithley said. He expects to hold large-scale job fairs in late March and early April.

There aren’t any plans to keep Soak City open year-round, Keithley said. “I think part of that is just because of the weather,” he said. “It’s a little cooler down in the San Diego area.”

The waterpark industry in Southern California is not very conducive to operating beyond the summers, unless it has an indoor park of some sort, Keithley said.

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