Theme parks in damage limitation mode

Stealth, Thorpe Park

With sold out bookings and extensions of opening hours and operating calendars, you could be forgiven for thinking theme parks were having a good time of it lately.

But underneath the surface, the attractions are struggling to recoup extreme losses associated with over three months of enforced closures due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

The parks are using a number of common tactics, with a squeeze on annual pass-holders being one.

This week Paultons Park received considerable media coverage for the introduction of a £1 booking fee for annual pass-holders in response to what it said were significant no-shows where people book and then don’t turn up.

The coverage was somewhat unfair given that Merlin Entertainments has had the policy at its UK theme parks since they were permitted to reopen in July.

The slots for annual and season pass-holders have been severely restricted, with the number of slots available to paying customers far outweighing those available to pass-holders.

Naturally the parks are operating at restricted capacities, and are trying to restore health to their year’s cash flow, but targeting your most loyal customers might be storing up problems for further down the line.

VAT savings

Another common tactic for the parks is the only partial passing on of the government’s VAT cut from 20% to 5% on tourist attractions.

Given that Merlin had long-argued for this cut – and even at one time advertising its admission prices as what they’d look like without VAT – it is a another risky balancing act between optimising your income stream and alienating visitors.

Pre-booking admission, which is now mandatory at most parks, costs the same as it did before the VAT cut was announced by the government.

The situation has been dire for Merlin, who required more than £500 million of borrowing a month into the lockdown for emergency working capital and to covering outgoings.

Other parks have adopted more bespoke strategies. Lightwater Valley decided to reopen with its two signature rollercoasters The Ultimate and Raptor Attack closed.

The decision makes the North Yorkshire park’s offerings almost exclusively aimed at young children and families. It is difficult to know how much of a saving is associated with the closure of these rides, but surely the decision is keeping many a thrill-seeker away.

While the parks probably know best when it comes to what’s good for their cash flow, the severity of COVID-19’s impact on the UK’s already-dwindling theme park industry cannot be overstated.

We might all be feeling the repercussions for years to come.