In the face of a recession, amusement parks change their tune

Once upon a time, amusement parks were simple. Their sole measure of success was how fun they were, and as long as they continued to update the rides, minimize food poisoning, and keep their admission prices from becoming too insane, they were almost guaranteed a steady influx of visitors.

Over the past few months, however, amusement parks have become a tougher sell. After all, when thrill-seekers in search of heart palpitations need look no further than their 401(K) statements, it's not easy to convince them to lay out huge amounts of money to spend the day among wailing children, overpriced fast food, and costumed entertainers that all too often reek of cheese and sweat.

With Six Flags facing bankruptcy and Disney reporting a 50 percent drop in operating profits, its clear that the summer fun business is in need of a serious overhaul. Perhaps the biggest hurdle is the fact that consumers are increasingly focused on value, a concept that is somewhat alien to a business that routinely charges $30 or more just to get in the door. However, some parks and amusement areas are pairing entertainment with value by bringing flea markets and other alternative vendors into the mix.

New York's Coney Island amusement area, which has been suffering a slow decline for much of the last 40 years, is experimenting with a vending-based operation. This summer's "Festival By the Sea" features open-air vendors and live music, set against the backdrop of the historical Cyclone roller coaster. While the program has already suffered some setbacks, developer Joe Sitt is betting that it may provide the influx of visitors and dollars that the area needs.

This mix has already proved profitable for Flea World, an attraction that bills itself as "America's Largest Flea Market." Located near Orlando, Flea World combines hundreds of flea market vendors with live entertainment, rides, and other attractions. It doesn't charge admission and, according to its advertising director, it receives 3 million visitors per year. While not record-breaking, these are pretty impressive numbers for a company whose neighbors include Disney, Sea World, and Universal Studios Florida.

On the flip side, many flea markets are offering carnival-style attractions and food vendors to bring in patrons who aren't willing to spend their money on amusement parks. The popularity of these events suggests that Sitt's Coney Island strategy may well pay off.

Another hurdle that many amusement parks are facing is the perception that they are environmentally-unfriendly monstrosities that encourage wasteful behavior and pollution. With green increasingly becoming a cultural watchword, some amusement parks are attempting to position themselves as entertainment that is both fun and environmentally sustainable. For example, Philadelphia's Morey's Piers has widely publicized its recycling initiatives, use of efficient lighting, and emphasis on environmentally-safe cleansers.

Similarly, Disneyland resort has hyped its new, environmentally-sound bakery, which uses solar lighting, asphalt paving, and other innovations to reduce its use of electricity and water. Meanwhile, Santa Monica's Pacific Park hosted an alternative fuel day, in which they promoted their new bumper car ride by giving out food and prizes to the owners of alternative fuel cars.

While it remains to be seen if these promotions will be able to save the amusement industry, one thing is for certain: between green initiatives, alternative vending, and other charitable promotions, many parks are trying to transform themselves from consumerist monuments to temples of morally-justifiable fun. Their ability to do so may well be the measure of their future survival.

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