On July 2, along with casinos and museums, the governor of New Jersey permitted the state's famed amusement parks to reopen, as part of its second phase of reopening.
New Jersey is adjacent to New York, which in the spring was considered the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, and especially during the spring months, New Jersey saw widespread coronavirus cases and casualties. Even now, the state has been severely impacted. The Garden State has reported 15,684 total deaths related to COVID-19; in mid-July, there have been 176,551 total cases since the first N.J positive test was announced on March 4.
The severity of the outbreak and the resulting quarantine and shelter-in-place orders essentially eliminated more than a third of the Amusement Park season in New Jersey, losing key dates such as Easter Sunday and Memorial Day. By mid-June, cases had decreased significantly and New Jersey opened its beaches. By Independence Day weekend, Amusement Parks were welcoming their first guests of the 2020 season.
For the parks, especially those located in the beach towns along the Jersey Shore, the ordeal leading up to the opening was fraught with uncertainty and the need to navigate capacity restrictions, new regulations, and a host of other issues ranging from workforce shortages to the challenge of pandemic marketing. But the parks overcame the obstacles and adjusted to the new normal with surprising efficiency.
Nerve Wracking Waits
A small crowd gathers on the midway at Jenkinsons Point Pleasant Beach
The reason was that in spite of unforeseen challenges, it's better for the park to finally be working. “It was nerve wracking, because they delayed the opening and then when the communication came through that we would open, we only had about a 10 day notice,” said Denise Beckson, Vice President, Morey's Piers, Wildwood. The complex features about 100 rides, including the waterpark, on three piers, but for 2020, while the full water park is operational, only one pier is open and there's about 15 fewer rides.
“We had the plans in place, it was nerve-wracking, we were not able to open with everything, some rides still needed to be inspected,” she said.
For The Steel Pier, an Atlantic City amusement park that opened in 1898, 2020 was the first time in its history that it had been closed. When it reopened, it turned out the food stands were doing a standout business, because indoor dining is still prohibited and the outdoor Steel Pier food found new customers.
“We really didn't know what to expect,” said Sharon Fanoz, Sales & Marketing Director, Steel Pier. “We're in a city, with nine casinos and the casinos opened, but they took away the indoor dining and bars, our food establishments and food kiosks had much to do with our success.”
The rides however, were probably about 10 percent of an old normal 4th of July weekend, which maybe a tiny silver lining. The state mandated that the park could only operate on a 50 percent capacity – like other free admission shore parks, the Steel Pier had to install an entrance system and hire workers for crowd control.
But customer flow barely reached 25 percent, which was consistent with other parks interviewed for this story. However, since opening, it seems the flow continues to increase, albeit slowly. “We're seeing a steady growth since we opened,” said Fanoz. “We do have casinos (open), more hotel rooms are occupied, and people are staying. We're a little more unique than other piers. We also do wedding events, we have an outdoor event space, and that business has increased because weddings can't be held indoors, so brides are looking for outdoor venues so they can follow guidelines, we have bookings going through August.”
The crowds may be thinner, but the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “All we have gotten are accolades,” she added. “People are so happy that we're open, we part of their summer. The extra cleaning and social distancing people expect that, it's not something that's new to them by now. Amusement parks are about having a safe environment, so it's a message we are very familiar with.”
Playland Castaway Cove in Ocean City, because of the way New Jersey structured its reopening guidelines, permitted miniature golf courses and Go Carts to open in mid-June, two weeks before the July 2nd rollout. “It gave us a little bit of business,” said Scott Simpson, owner. “Understandably, the most of our businesses is with the arcade and the rides. We were only allowed 50 percent capacity, but we're only hitting about 25 percent. We're nowhere near half capacity.”
Far from the ocean is a classic kid's amusement park – Land of Make Believe in Hope, N.J., Attendance there was also down for the opening. “Attendance was slow, less than 10 percent,” said Chris Maier, president. “But we were prepared for any number of guests that would come. The park is very large and spacious and can accommodate a very large number of people. We did not do any of the normal preseason and seasonal advertising.”
Simpson is confident that the attendance will gradually increase as word gets out and more people see that it's safe to go to the amusement park. “We're seeing families with children. The beaches are crowded. People are coming down for the day then going home at night. We're an entertainment, to the beach we're an accessory. What they want now is the beach, the ocean and the waves, they're not near anybody on the beach.”
In the days after the opening, attendance had been picking up. In typical summers, after a July 4th peak, a lull sets in for the rest of the month until business picks up again come August. While attendance may not be skyrocketing, the seasonal dip is not occurring and a steady rise is apparent, although local trips far outnumbers those spending an entire vacation down the shore.
“The days are getting busier, and we are seeing the private parking lots get filled,” he said. “We're getting only day trippers. I think it's pent up demand from people who've been locked up for March, April, and May.”
Some of the safety guidelines Playland Castaway Cove has put into place include signage, social distancing and rigorous cleaning of all rides. “We have cleaning stations at every ride, and a crew of six, with backpack sprayers, constantly going through the park.”
Simpson kept several rides offline – an Alien Abduction, Wisdom Raiders and a water slide – “it was justifiable, they are a high-touch areas and with the high number of kids, we kept them closed.”
Unemployment may be at the highest levels, but finding and sustaining a cohesive workforce has emerged as one of the most difficult challenges for parks trying to salvage the 2020 summer. The Trump administration has banned most visa programs, including J1, the junior worker program most parks rely on. In addition, with a state and federal unemployment compensation, some workers are making more on benefits than the park's wages. Morey's Piers usually has a workforce of 1,500 and is down to about 700. “Finding workers is very hard,” said Beckson of Morey's Piers, “We were getting 500 students through the visa system. The unemployment benefits go through the end of July, so that might bring some of the workers back. But a lot of the workforce is concerned about COVID.”
Another casualty of the severe streamlining of the 2020 season has been marketing. Parks and beach destinations usually have a robust marketing battle with competing promotions, but this year all's silent on the advertising front. “We've done zero marketing,” said Simpson. “Any amount of advertising won't convince people to come here. It's not worth it, you'll get nothing from it. We're doing everything with social media. “
Beckson added, “We did two billboards trying to find workers, that's the only paid advertising we've done.”