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Kings Island owner looks to new coaster to boost record sales, visitors


When the economy was down, attendance at Kings Island, Cedar Point and other Cedar Fair amusement parks was up. And hopes are that a new roller coaster debut this year at Kings Island can boost results again in 2014.

Sandusky, Ohio-based Cedar Fair Entertainment Co., which owns Warren County amusement park and waterpark Kings Island, turned in 2013 its fourth consecutive year of record results for revenues and attendance.

Net revenues last year reached $1.14 billion. A record-breaking 23.5 million visitors in 2013 attended Cedar Fair’s 15 amusement and water parks in Ohio, California, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Missouri, Michigan and Canada, according to Cedar Fair.

Company officials think they can beat results again in 2014.

“We don’t say that we’re recession proof, but we do believe that we’re recession resistant,” said Stacy Frole, vice president of investor relations for Cedar Fair.

The Great Recession that began at the end of 2007, and from which the economy has not fully recovered, hurt Cedar Fair’s results in 2009. Net revenues dropped to approximately $916 million that year from more than $996 million in 2008. Sales returned in 2010 above the year before, to $977.6 million, and have risen every year since, according to company financial records.

“During a time of recession, we may lose some people who can no longer afford to come to our properties, but we might also pick up the middle-class to higher-income family that’s choosing to forgo that trip to Florida and stay closer to home,” Frole said.

The economic downturn meant many families in the region took so-called “staycations” rather than weeklong beach trips, benefiting Kings Island’s ticket sales. However, in recent years, Kings Island also saw a drop in group and large corporate bookings, said Greg Scheid, vice president and general manager of Kings Island.

“Everybody holds onto their dollars even tighter and tighter every day, so what we have to do is give them a reason to come to Kings Island and spend that money,” he said.

Attendance and sales numbers at Kings Island spills over to the regional economy. Warren County, nicknamed Ohio’s largest playground, tends to be a driving destination for tourism to Kings Island, The Beach Waterpark, Great Wolf Lodge and other attractions, said Bridget Kochersperger, spokeswoman at Warren County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“I think part of the reason that Kings Island continued to thrive is that even with the economic downturn, people were still taking driving trips. Those became sometimes the primary kinds of trip they took,” Kochersperger said.

Investments at Kings Island over the years such as the $10 million expansion in 2012 of its Soak City waterpark draw more visitors, who might stay longer. And the more time visitors spend in Warren County, the more money they tend to spend at other local businesses, tourism experts say.

About 7.8 million people visit Warren County annually and they have an economic impact of about $993 million, according to county CVB.

“The number one thing that people do when they travel here, apart for what they come for, is shopping,” Kochersperger said.

“Fun-forward” strategy

Kings Island is now open for the 2014 season. On Friday, it debuted the new $24 million roller coaster Banshee, which it touts as the world’s longest inverted roller coaster.

Parks building new roller coasters look to create a ride that has staying power, one that will generate visits for not only the debut year, but for several years to follow, said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a Cincinnati-based industry consultant.

Theme parks “bounce back very quick during recessionary periods, faster than some of their cousins, which are restaurants, airlines, movie theaters, etc.,” Speigel said. “More people go to theme parks annually than go to all professional paid sporting events” including football, baseball, basketball and hockey.

Cedar Fair named a new chief executive officer, Matt Ouimet, in 2012. Soon after, a new strategy was introduced focused on customer experience and family fun. It recognizes roller coasters aren’t the only way to increase ticket sales and promotes events, a greater variety of food options and family-friendly attractions such as Kings Island’s Dinosaurs Alive!

This year, Cedar Fair is investing approximately $145 million in new rides, technology and other park improvements across the company, including the new Banshee steel roller coaster, Frole said. Roughly $120 million was spent in 2013.

The amusement park operator is also introducing its first interactive thrill ride this year at its park Canada’s Wonderland, and if successful, will roll out the ride to more of the company’s locations next year, Frole said. Riders can compete with each other in a game. The “4-D” ride’s software allows Cedar Fair to also switch scenes throughout the year, such as turning characters into zombies during Halloween.

“As we move forward and we focus on the overall guest experience that we talked about… I would say most likely parks are going to see a new roller coaster every four to five years now” versus two to three years before, Frole said.

A new executive chef position has been created at Kings Island. Their responsibility is to work with the head of the park’s food service department to maintain quality and introduce new dining options, Frole said.

Cedar Fair has installed a new in-park television network at line cues for rides.

Another investment has been made in wristband technology. Park visitors this year can pre-load a scannable wristband with their tickets for admittance and spending money during the day.

As the economy improves, Cedar Fair parks might lose travelers resuming out-of-state vacations, but regain people who can afford a day-trip costing $44.15 per person on average.

“The better experience we can give you while at our parks and the more memories we can provide, the more likely you are to return next year,” Frole said.

Ohio “coaster capital” of world

Kings Island and Cedar Point each draw more than 3 million visits per year and are always ranked among the top 20 theme parks in North America, said Speigel, of International Theme Park Services.

More than 380 million people visit amusement, theme and water parks nationally each year, he said.

“Ohio is the coaster capital of the world,” Speigel said.

“Between Cedar Point and Kings Island, there must be at least close to 40 roller coasters now, and then you add some of the other parks that are in the area, and it would be among the top contenders.”

Opening a new ride could mean a 2 to 4 percent spike in revenues for a park in a given year, Speigel said.

“Coaster is still king,” said Speigel, who was one of King’s Island’s original developers and managers. “It’s the number one ride that theme park operators go to when they want to build attendance, and depending on the type of ride, how many twists and turns, that will determine the impact of the front gate.”



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