Snow is on the ground, more is in the forecast. Midwinter in Sandusky, Ohio makes summer seem like either a distant memory or impossible dream. But no matter how severe the onset of the polar vortex gets in the Midwest, summer's arrival is always inevitable and Cedar Point, a vast amusement park that opened in 1870 and is the flagship property of the Cedar Fair Entertainment Company, is a "busy beehive of activity," said Bryan Edwards, Public Relations Manager.
Nearly 400 people work the 364-acre Cedar Point complex in the off-season, including maintenance teams performing winter preventative work, construction crews assembling new rides, and thousands of plush toys and other prizes and souvenirs being delivered to replenish inventories.
The scope of the pre-opening preparations is enormous - more than 1.6 million LED lights that have to be working and comprehensive maintenance must be performed on the 150 rides and attractions. Each year, Cedar Point uses more than 1,800 gallons of paint in 872 different colors so the fun and excitement of the amusement park is ready for opening day.
The human resource department is busy reviewing resumes and applications to fill the upcoming season jobs, when the ranks of the employees swell to 5,000+.
Opening Day Count Down
For Edwards, the buzzing of the marketing section of that beehive will just increase as winter turns to spring and the park begins to open on weekends through May, culminating in Memorial Day Weekend.
Cedar Point attracts about 3 million people per summer, and the season has been extended through October, on "Hallowweekends."
"The busiest time for me will be a few weeks from now, when we begin actively promoting opening day and Memorial Day weekend," said Edwards.
Edwards admits that as far as marking the 145th anniversary, there is nothing really special planned, other than a few spectacular new rides and attractions and creating marketing strategies that all annually go into making this mammoth amusement park and resort thrive half the year. "In five years, for the 150th anniversary, we are already planning some amazing events and we do not want to take away that thunder," said Edwards.
Cedar Park, voted the "Best Amusement Park in the World" for 16 consecutive years by the readers of Amusement Today, is open approximately 162 days per year and attracts 3 million visitors per season.
"We like to call amusement parks a recession resistant industry," said Edwards. While unwilling to go into specific figures, he stated that revenue from attendance has remained steady, even during what has been a sluggish economy, especially in Ohio.
But the unsteady economy may be a factor shifting the demographic make-up of park goers. Amusement parks are affordable entertainment for the entire family. Cedar Point, with more than 1000 hotel rooms and the Lake Erie beach-like shoreline nearby, has the added draw of being an affordable resort destination.
The combination of those attributes makes the amusement park vacation - especially for shorter stays - appealing to budget conscious families seeking summer fun.
"We're half-way between Cleveland and Detroit," said Edwards. "We're within that two hour driving distance from major cities like Columbus. But we are also seeing a rise in attendance from people in Chicago and even New York state, places we are only within a day's drive from. For budget-conscious families, our park is a great value. We get a lot of day trippers, but those extended stay visitors are coming from longer distances."
In addition to speculation that an affordable vacation avoids costly air-travel or encourages an extended stay-vacation for nearby Midwesterners is sustaining demand for Cedar Point, one clear trend for this amusement park resort is the shrinking of the booking window.
Families are willing to spend for the fun of rides, but unwilling to make up their mind early in the calendar year.
"Our surveys show that more and more people are delaying their decision to the last moments," said Edwards. "People used to plan their vacations here months ahead of the date, now it is more like weeks or even days. We used to get a lot more bookings in January, but now we get more people planning their vacations only a few days in advance."
Vacationers staying at the resort - and amusement park attendance - has remained steady, so the booking window shrinking is more of a nuisance than anything else. While the economy, and shaky consumer confidence is a factor in the vacation decision delay, another reason is likely the flexibly online booking has increasingly enabled. "More and more people are planning their trips and vacations online," said Edwards.
As internet booking now dominating vacation planning, the advertising mix is "naturally going more and more online," said Edwards. "We are still reaching the older adults with television. The television is the most visual medium, and the park is visually so exciting, television is still the best medium." He pointed out that in todays media climate, YouTube and other services extend the shelf-life of these spots beyond strategic placements within appointment television programming.
Online marketing also now includes an expanded communications role, further escalated by the rise of blogging and social media. In recent years, "we are placing more stories with online bloggers," said Edwards. Augmenting instead of bypassing the public relations push towards more mainstream online news resources, Edwards said that research has indicated that "bloggers are seen as more trustworthy outlets."
Travel bloggers are the most obvious target, but also what is generally called the "the mom blogger" is another online source for stories.
"These bloggers are more trustworthy to consumers," he said. "We have added them to our more traditional sites."
Social media has also enabled more direct interface with customers. Cedar Point's Facebook page has 1,340,00+ Facebook Fans, but Edwards points out that promotions are not "as big a deal with Facebook, it is more about having an ongoing conversation with our guests. We interact with them about what they like or what they have a problem with. We get more of a immediate response, and it is creating another set of metrics for us. If we ask what is their favorite ride, and then that gets shared on Facebook, then somebody else retweets it, we get more instantaneous feedback."
Cedar Point features more than three miles of midway, actually a collection of adjacent midways. "There are several midways, however our biggest is our Main Midway," said Edwards. "It runs from our main entrance to a spot where it breaks off and creates a loop around the back of the park."
All the midways feature 72 rides, but Cedar Point's midways are most famous for their roller coasters - 17 Roller Coasters in all, with more than 10 miles of roller coaster track.
Cedar Point is known as the "Roller Coaster Capital of the World," and the Peninsula in which the park is located is called Roller Coast.
Of these coasters, the Gate Keeper, manufactured by Bolliger & Mabillard, a Swiss company, has gotten the most recent attention. The Gate Keeper is one of only five "Wing Coasters" in the world. According to Wikipedia, Wing Coasters are where "pairs of riders sit on either side of a roller coaster track in which nothing is above or below the riders."
The Gate Keeper travels at a top speed of about 67 mph, has a 170 foot, 40 degree inclined lift hill with a 164 foot drop, and features two keyhole towers that the trains travel through. The Gate Keeper replaced two other roller coasters, required the construction of a new entrance to the park, and its opening in May of 2013 was the most successful opening weekend in Cedar Point history.
This year, visitors will notice significant upgrades to the Gemini Midway, undergoing what park officials are calling a"big refresh," with "the installation of new rides, food locations, shade structures, lighting, landscaping, pavement, etc.," said Edwards.
The new rides include Pipe Scream, manufactured by Zamperla of Parsippany, N.J. and the Lake Erie Eagles, by Larson International, Inc., Plainview, Texas.
Another new ride will be the Sling Shot, manufactured by Funtime, an Australian company. According to the ride description, passengers are "secured in an open-air two-person capsule before being launched nearly 360 feet into the sky at speeds of up to 62 mph to the second highest point of the Cedar Point skyline. After a brief feeling of weightlessness, riders will descend back towards Earth before catapulting back up and down until the capsule comes to rest back at the launching point."
Both are "thrill rides" - more intense than other rides and not recommended for younger family members or the severely squeamish - with the Pipe Scream being a roller coaster with 302 feet of track, "flying 43 feet above the midway at 43 mph" and it is next to the Lake Erie Eagles, where "Riders will sit in one of eight "eagles" suspended from arms 28 feet in the air. As the ride spins, the eagles will swing outward - and riders have the unique opportunity to control their flight experience from mild to wild!," according to the Cedar Point website.
In addition to the vast amusement park, Cedar Point has the Castaway Bay indoor waterpark/resort, which is open year-round and features a 38,000-square-foot indoor waterpark with water coaster, wave pool, slides, and children's areas.
"We are probably as susceptible to the weather as any large fair," said Edwards. "When it rains, our ridership is down. But then we can encourage guests to visit the Castaway waterpark."
Cedar Point is one of 11 amusement parks managed by theCedar Fair Entertainment Company, a publically traded company headquartered at the Sandusky property. The other amusement parks under the Cedar Fair umbrella are Great America in Santa Clara, California, Wonderland Vaughan, Ontario, Canada, Carowinds in Charlotte North Carolina, Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom Allentown, Pennsylvania, Gilroy Gardens in Gilroy, California, Kings Dominion in Doswell, Virginia, Kings Island in Mason, Ohio, Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California, Adventure Park in Muskegon, Michigan, Valley Fair in Shakopee, Minnesota, Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Missouri.
"We are the largest of of all the amusement parks in the company," said Edwards.
At 145 years old, Cedar Park is also the longest established of this amusement park conglomerate. As preparations continue for opening day, this seniority also means a revival of traditions. "Families coming to Cedar Park is a summer tradition going back generations. That is always nice to see, third and even fourth generations of families sharing the experience."