Playland’s Castaway Cove is adding Air Race, one of seven new attractions, to its park on the 10th Street Boardwalk in Ocean City.
Riders fly in a plane that makes barrel rolls on a steel arm that lifts and falls as it spins in a circle. It’s new to American markets.
The stark economics of ride selection dictate that Air Race generate enough money to justify its costs to buy, install, maintain and operate. But that figure can depend on the ride and how it fits with the park.
Owner Scott Simpson, of Upper Township, spent more than two years studying Air Race’s performance in Europe, crunching the manufacturer’s daily ridership projections and considering how his Ocean City visitors would respond.
The decision can make or break the short season at a shore amusement park. But New Jersey amusement operators said there is no simple formula for identifying a consistent winner.
“I just want the best rides I can afford and I think the customers are going to want to ride,” Simpson said.
The stakes are high. Installing a new $1 million ride can cost nearly half as much as buying it. New rides almost always lose value on the secondary market, if they sell at all. And rides that are down for maintenance for long periods quickly get blackballed.
“Once you realize you made that poor decision, the entire world knows it’s an unproductive piece of equipment. Your chance of recouping your costs by selling it is zero,” Simpson said.
Most American parks, including Storybook Land in Egg Harbor Township, charge a single admission price that entitles customers to ride as many rides as they want in a day, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
But shore amusement parks typically offer pay-per-ride pricing or a combination of daily passes. This puts even more pressure on individual rides to perform.
“Manufacturers are constantly coming up with something new and exciting: higher, faster, loopier,” said Anthony Catanoso, owner of Steel Pier in Atlantic City.
He and his New Jersey park colleagues regularly attend trade shows across the country to see the ride makers’ latest thrills. His goal is to bring something never before seen to his East Coast audience, he said.
Catanoso said parks generally frown on rides that require more than two operators. And they look for add-on revenue to make money.
The Steel Pier’s Rocket offers $55 package deals that include tickets for two riders, T-shirts and a digital video of the experience, he said.
Universally, roller coasters are New Jersey’s big moneymakers, Catanoso said. But each park has its own tales of woe about rides that broke down, needed more workers than advertised or simply failed to capture the public’s interest.
Steel Pier had a trampoline bungee ride that was popular with visitors who could spin in crazy midair stunts. But only one person could ride at a time and it required three operators.
“We couldn’t charge enough money to make it worthwhile,” he said. “You never know. You do your best to look at the ride’s history, research these things. But there’s always a chance you buy a ride that just isn’t worth what you paid.”
Space is an especially big concern for Boardwalk piers.
“We’re limited by 150,000 square feet surrounded by water. It limits our options. We have to be creative in how we interlock rides and watch our space envelopes,” Catanoso said. “We have to get the most bang for the buck, so we look for high-capacity rides on a small footprint.”
Steel Pier is adding a 30,000-square-foot addition to the park to make room for its newest attraction, America’s tallest Giant Wheel.
Ocean City’s Simpson fell in love with Air Race when he saw it at Coney Island in New York. But that ride’s footprint was too big for his park. Like most shore amusement parks, every foot of real estate is prized.
The ride’s maker, Zamperla, came back with a scaled-down version. Simpson said he was concerned that in shrinking the circumference, Air Race might lose some of its pizzazz or, because of its tighter radius, spin with too much stomach-churning force for Ocean City families.
Simpson long ago gave up riding spinning rides. But he brought his employees to a trade show so he could watch them tackle Air Race and observe their reactions.
“They couldn’t help but smile,” he said.
Attention to detail is important in an industry that saw revenue decline nearly 6 percent in 2009 after the recession. Revenue started to rebound the following two years and is expected to continue growing with the economy, according to the economic analyst IbisWorld.
Weather permitting, this year could be the best the industry has seen in 10 years, said Dennis Speigel, president of consultant International Theme Park Services based in Cincinnati.
“They have to choose their product well,” he said. “When you operate a pay-as-you-go park, people are very fickle. They don’t have the whole buffet to eat. In the pier business, you’re dealing with a lot of impulse buys. What’s that? Let’s go see. There’s a lot of competition for their dollar.”
Perhaps nobody knows that better than Jack Morey, vice president of Morey’s Piers in Wildwood.
Morey said classic rides such as roller coasters, haunted houses and carousels are reliable money-makers. But offering something new every year is key, he said.
“Chances are we overinvest — wildly,” he said. “But the long-term penalties for underinvesting are closed piers.”
Morey’s Piers is making plans for a new wooden roller coaster designed to appeal to older children, teenagers and adults. Each new attraction must be vetted by the park’s chief financial officer, Jim Blakecq.
Every ride presents a financial risk to the park, so he performs a cost-benefit analysis to compare projected revenue with installation, operation and maintenance costs. He even considers how much electricity it draws.
Ideally, new rides will draw more dollars to the park. But sometimes these rides simply peel away riders from other park attractions, netting the company no additional revenue, he said.
“That’s one of the more difficult things to assess,” he said. “A lot of it is gut feel. If all the numbers work out, how does it fit with the overall experience in the piers? Does it feel right? Jack is really good at making those determinations.”
Every ride must be manufactured to handle the salt air, which adds a layer of cost. A thorough financial analysis is important because so much is riding on the outcome, he said.
“You can’t just throw up a bunch of rides and expect it to be a draw. That’s why we continually reinvent ourselves to give people a new experience,” he said. “Most people outside this business have no clue about what it takes to put this together.”
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