‘Ride out’ bad economy at local parks

By Nick Pitts
April 23, 2009

Megan Pellegrino

The smell of cotton candy and shrieks of thrill seekers, two familiar scenes of summer, are on the horizon. But students are fearful that summer means empty wallets, small paychecks and no time for vacations.

“How am I supposed to enjoy my summer vacation when I have no money to spend,” senior English and communication major Jillian Smith said. “Graduating without a job isn’t helping my bank account so I highly doubt I’ll be having fun this summer.”

Trips to destinations like Disney World and Busch Gardens may be pushed off the calendar.

Trips to nearby amusement parks will take their place for many.

Luckily for Smith, a resident of South Jersey, she does not live far from these smaller, less costly forms of entertainment.

The regional parks are gearing up for a potentially big season. “I believe it is going to be one of our best years, I really do,” operations manager of Clementon Park and Splash World in Clementon, N.J., Joe Eckman said.

Eckman, a 12-year veteran of the park, admits that this is the worst the economy has been since his tenure, but he understands the opportunity this allows.

“For those people who just don’t have the money to go far this summer, we are the place to be,” Eckman said. “We are that place they can go day after day and still have a good time with their families.”

According to the Washington Times, Disney World has cut 1,900 positions in their U.S. theme parks as of April 4.

Although these cuts had been part of a previously announced reorganization plan, the bad economy has sped up the process. This is because larger destination parks are bracing for less than ideal numbers for this summer season.

While the economy is causing many families to cut back on extensive vacation plans, local parks, who have much cheaper entry prices than Disney World or Universal Studios, are gearing up for better-than-average seasons.

“With the economy, it is what it is. I know it probably hurts the bigger parks like Disney, Busch and Universal Studios,” Jay Gillian, owner of Gillian’s Wonderland Pier, said. “But for our kind of seashore park, sometimes it is better for us, to be honest with you.”

Gillian, already a park owner in Ocean City, N.J., is even expanding his operations to Sea Isle City, N.J., another local seaside town that has not had amusements of any kind in over 10 years.

It will be the only new amusement park in the country to open this season, and just the third seaside attraction on the Jersey Shoreline.

“I think it is going to be a good year for local parks, but I also think its going to be a strategically make it or break it year,” Wade Jackson, Webmaster of a regional park fan site, said. “Parks are getting exposure to a lot of first-time visitors that are going to give it a try, but they may never come back if the experience sucked, so this is their chance to shine.”

David Dorman, general manager of Clementon Park and Splash World, plans on taking full advantage of that chance, without emptying too many wallets.

“Our strategic plan even before the economic climate changed was to really play to our strengths, and that was to offer great family entertainment at a small price,” Dorman said. “We are already offering the best season pass bargain there is. For less than $50 a person, you can bring your family to this park for 107 days this summer.”

“People find a way to make sure they have fun, cause that is whats going to keep them sane, doing something fun,” Eckman said. “Whether it be at Clementon Park and Splash World, going to a movie, or going bowling no matter what it is, they’re going to find a way to have money to do something fun.”

Gillian Agrees.

“People will always do something for their children, especially when times are tough,” Gillian said. “My grandfather, the original owner of Wonderland Pier, always said ‘They’ll always find money to put their child on a merry-go-round.'”

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Nick Pitts

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