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American seaside amusement parks are in crisis. Their numbers have reached alarming proportions, as landowners whack up the rent and force operators to close in favour of new developments like luxury housing. Park World talks to several park operators on the eastern shore of the US to determine the causes and look for possible remedies. Like canaries in the coalmine, their stories are ominous warnings for many in the amusement industry. Paul Ruben reports.
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi
In 2004, Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Panama City, Florida, was sold to make way for the construction of seaside condominiums (apartments) that have yet to appear. Carolina Beach Amusement Park and Jubilee Park, both in Carolina Beach, North Carolina; Ocean Breeze Family Fun Center, Surf City, North Carolina; and Alabama's Gulf Shores Amusement Park also closed in 2004 for redevelopment.
In 2005, Dowdy's Amusement Park, Nags Head, North Carolina, faced a similar fate, while Biloxi Beach Amusement Park, Biloxi, Mississippi; and Funtime USA, Gulfport, Alabama; were swept away by Hurricane Katrina. And in 2006, South Carolina's Myrtle Beach Pavilion turned out the lights in favour of more real estate development.
This year Trimper's Rides, a 117-year-old iconic park in Ocean City, Maryland, faces soaring property taxes and other increased costs that are forcing the Trimper family to consider closing. At New York's venerable Coney Island, Astroland is scheduled to close at the end of the summer after 45 years in operation. A developer bought the park for $30 million and plans to build hotels and condominiums. With a year-to-year lease at Atlantic City's Steel Pier, this may be the final season for the Catanoso brothers to operate amusements there too.
Although there were once many beachfront parks in the US, according to the National Amusement Park Historical Association, Trimper's Rides and Astroland are two of only 24 seaside parks that remain open in the US along both the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts. While there were once 42 seaside amusement piers such as the Steel Pier operating in America, only 11 are still running with rides today. That's nine coastal parks that have closed in just three years, and three more parks and piers threatened in 2007.
This mirrors a similar decline in the UK. During this same period since 2004, Dreamland in Margate, The Rotunda in Folkestone and Southport's Pleasureland have all closed. Others went before that and more are believed to be in danger now.
In 1970, when Joni Mitchell recorded Big Yellow Taxi, it referred to the view from her hotel room in Hawaii. But if it's true that people don't know what they have until it's gone, then the very existence of seaside amusement parks, a joy for many vacationers, is being threatened and they will be missed. Parks are closing at an alarming rate.
Buddy Wilkes, general manager of Panama City’s Shipwreck Island waterpark, was also general manager of the adjacent Miracle Strip Amusement Park for 15 years, having worked for the company for 28 years. “After Miracle Strip was closed in 2004 to make way for condominiums,” he reports, “the market peaked, the land was resold and the site sits idle today. During the condominium boom that took place in Florida, and numerous other coastal states, land values went through the roof. With the high cost of operating and maintaining mechanical ride equipment, the ever-increasing cost of liability insurance, fuel cost, worker's compensation insurance and other related expenses, it was a 'no-brainer' to take the money for the land, which would easily be greater than the revenue you could generate over the next 10 to 15 years.”
Between about 1880 and 1955, New York City's Coney Island (pictured) was the largest amusement area in the United States, attracting several million visitors per year. At its height this oceanfront playground contained three competing major amusement parks, Luna Park, Dreamland and Steeplechase Park, plus many independent amusements. These parks disappeared years ago, but Astroland, a 3.1 acre park founded by Dewey Albert in 1962, carries on the amusement park tradition. Dewey's son, Jerome Albert, joined him in the business three years later. Carol Hill Albert and her husband Jerome are now the co-owners but unfortunately this will be Astroland's final season. They have sold the site to a real estate developer, but still have a 10-year lease to operate New York City's Cyclone rollercoaster.
“Coney Island is undergoing development that sections outside the amusement area sorely need. We turned down the original offer a year and a half ago from the developer, Thor, which has bought up about 85 per cent of the beachfront, and had no intention of selling,” she admits. “However, when we saw that we were about to be surrounded by three to five years’ of demolition and construction, and we could not obtain any commitments from the city regarding our future, we felt we had to sell. We have a summer payroll of 370 people, by far the largest operation in Coney Island, and we could not sustain the inevitable losses.”
For 117 summers, generations of children in Ocean City, Maryland, have frolicked through the gates of Trimper's Rides on this resort town's signature boardwalk. But this might be the last summer.
“We experienced an assessment increase in 2007 from $29 million to $71 million, and a tax increase from $540,000 to $900,000, plus a tax on amusement rides,” admits Doug Trimper, vice-president of Trimper's Rides, an amusement park operated by the fifth generation of the Trimper family. “Something has to happen. The property tax increases are greater than our net income last year. This is a ludicrous situation with the unbelievable skyrocketing assessment. This is a very real threat to the survival of our park. Our bottom line has become more difficult every year with rising costs of equipment, insurance, payroll and taxes. This latest tax crisis, caused by the condominiums that are trying to cover the face of the earth, could very well be the straw breaking the proverbial camel's back.”
“We are currently appealing our tax assessments through the normal process,” Trimper continues. “Sadly, the result will not be known until the roughly two-year process runs its course. We have, therefore, contacted politicians at the state, county and local levels to see what more unconventional options are available. We are trying to show them that the impact of the loss of revenues we generate in various parts of the tourism industry will be greater than the amount of taxes we need waived in order to stay in business. I believe they understand the concept, but precedents of this sort can be a real problem.”
The Steel Peer in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was opened in 1898 and so named because of its steel underpinnings. After years of neglect and ultimately the devastation of a 1982 fire, Donald Trump's Taj Mahal casino rebuilt the Atlantic City icon. In 1993 the Steel Pier resumed its rightful position as the centrepiece of family entertainment on the Atlantic City boardwalk when the Catanoso brothers, Anthony, Charles, William and Joseph, along with their partners Taft Johnson and Edward Olwell, brought their experience and love of the amusement business to their biggest project to date. Today, the Catanosos and their partners are luring back the family trade to a town that had become a one-dimensional gambling resort. But their lease on the Steel Pier is tenuous.
“The threat is development,” acknowledges Anthony Catanoso, the Pier's president. “The owners of our property are considering developing condominiums and/or retail facilities. As a tenant, this is totally out of our control. However, we are hopeful that a change in ownership of the property will favour our long-term existence.”
New Jersey has the most operating seaside parks in America, 13 in total. But New Jersey operators are faced with the double threat of both rising land values and overly restrictive regulations. The daunting regulations and requirements for operating in the state also weigh heavily in the decision to operate or utilise the property for other purposes. What had started out as a way for New Jersey to assure rider safety has turned into a Draconian morass of never-ending paperwork involving issues that have no bearing on the safety of the riding public. The engineering department that reviews rides is understaffed, leaving many projects with long approval periods. This has created an atmosphere at many operations where it simply is not worth the aggravation to move forward unless the ride is pre-approved by the state or absolutely necessary for the continued success of the business. Even more confounding is that many of the requirements for rides in parks do not apply to travelling shows despite the fact the rides are identical, because rides that are not moved are considered structures.
Established in 1969 by the brothers Will and Bill Morey, Morey's Piers in Wildwood, New Jersey, is the largest seaside amusement centre in North America. The collection of four different amusement piers, positioned along the five-mile-long boardwalk, offer more than 70 rides, two waterparks and a variety restaurants and other options. Today the operation is headed by Will Morey's sons, Will and Jack.
“Our biggest threats,” offers Jack Morey, “are beach erosion, employee housing, public parking, short seasons and the erosion of hotel rooms as properties are transformed into condominiums. While many of these threats are technically avoidable, they all require a difficult and ever changing partnership with the public sector.”
At the end of the 1939 New York World's Fair, one of the pavilions was dismantled and shipped to Ocean City, New Jersey, where it became the Playland boardwalk arcade that is now the front of Playland's Castaway Cove. David Simpson and Fred Tarvas purchased the Playland arcade in 1959, and began to add rides. Tarvas departed in 1972, and in the late '70s Scott Simpson, David's son, took over day-to-day management and today shares ownership with his father of a facility that features exciting rides for the whole family.
“The primary reason for many parks closing is that the land values for development may exceed what the park could generate in sales,” contends Scott Simpson. “That would make anyone think, 'Why work and generate fewer dollars than collecting interest on land values without working?' Restrictive zoning is the only way to prevent the conversion of the parks over to other uses. There will come a time when the challenges of operating in New Jersey may become so severe that they will influence the decision on whether to remain open or change the use.”
David Gillian, a musician, first came to Ocean City in 1914, where he played with several orchestras. But in 1930 Gillian opened a ‘Fun Deck’ at the Boardwalk. Upon retirement in 1957, his sons, Bob and Roy, took the business into the next generation. In 1965, Roy left the family business to start Gillian's Wonderland Pier on the inland side of the Boardwalk. This year Roy's son, Jay, has assumed ownership of Gillian's Wonderland Pier and continues to provide safe, wholesome entertainment.
Jay Gillian is cautiously optimistic about the future of coastal amusement parks. “Any park can fail, but with constant improvements, upgrades and reinvestment you can succeed. The constant threat that small organisations like Wonderland Pier observe are over regulations from the state and constant change in state regulations. This is a deep concern for our industry in New Jersey.”
All of America's early traditional amusement parks were built by trolley companies at the end of trolley lines to generate weekend business. As the nation grew, the land on which the parks operated became very valuable suburban properties and in the '60s and '70s many parks were bulldozed to make way for shopping malls and condominiums. Today, the appeal of seaside property is threatening parks there with a similar fate.
“Nothing can be better,” asserts Albert, “than having access to a beautiful beach, great ocean, a boardwalk, the smell of hot dogs and, what is no doubt a personal prejudice on my part, the lights and sounds and squeals of delight from a seaside amusement park.”
“The special appeal of shore parks began way back in the beginning of Coney Island,” reflects Trimper. “The beach and ocean are a magical retreat for most people, especially those who are land bound. It is a natural continuation of the magic for boardwalks. Unfortunately, people think if a little of this magic is good, living there would be better, and developers have not missed this notion. One of the very things that attract people to the coastal resorts is now facing extinction due to the desirability it helps create.”
“People can combine the beach and boardwalk experience with amusements,” suggests Catanoso. “The natural amenities go hand-in-hand. However, the problem is operating on land that is extremely valuable for development of condominiums, hotels, high rises, shops and so forth. Also, these shore parks face natural elements of storms, salt air and erosion. Zoning and environmental laws and regulations protect some areas but not all. But by and large, the shore is the best place to operate.”
Beaches and Boardwalks
“A shore park is a combination of things, the location of the beach and the boardwalk,” suggests Jay Gillian. “This setting gives guests the atmosphere of not just enjoying a park but also the magic of the sea shore. Tradition is so important. When you visit parks like Gillian's Wonderland Pier you know that the Gillian family has been a part of the Ocean City Boardwalk for over 75 years and it has been passed from generation to generation. Our special challenge is competing with the shorter summer schedule for children due to outside activities.”
Simpson agrees that the beach is the primary reason people visit coastal parks. “It has become a pastime passed on to generations of families. We are very fortunate to be located at a weekly transitional resort area where our customer base changes continually. Our primary challenge is the lack of local people for employment. With the escalating home values many families have moved off the island.”
“Parks in beach destinations serve as amenities hotels and condominiums that don't have the resources to provide family attractions as part of their respective properties,” notes Wilkes. “For years seaside tourist destinations relied on small parks and attractions to entertain their guests after a day on the beach. That fact has also presented a challenge for those park operators. Many parks in seashore destinations compete with the beach during the daytime hours, leaving the prime time operating hours sometime after seven in the evening after families come off the beach, shower, and go out to their evening meal.”
Should parks and leisure attractions, especially those along the shore, receive some sort of protection? If so, what and from whom? The task of saving seaside parks from condominium development is a complex problem since it involves private property rights. Some measures that governments need to consider include re-zoning amusement properties as enterprise or historic zones. Because compromise and trade-offs will be required, it will be important that park operators, local and state officials all be involved in the process. Additionally, taxes, regulations and other factors are becoming increasingly burdensome.
“Whether parks along the shore should receive special treatment is not for me to say,” states Trimper. “It is for all people of society to ponder and decide. I am in a position where the forced sale of the land I am on would bring me far more revenue than decades of running the Ferris Wheel. But, we are trying to continue a park than my great grandfather opened in 1890. It is all we have ever done, or want to do. Therefore, it really is up to other people and their political representatives to decide whether they want a copy of Miami Beach, or whether they want to try and hold on to the quaint summer resorts that have defined the coast for so many years. All government levels will have to determine a way to keep the goose laying the golden eggs.”
“Parks along the seashore are sitting on a gold mine,” admits Wilkes. “There will be no more waterfront land created, and parks sitting on those types of locations could in some ways be considered to be warehousing their land with parks. I assume most of them are operating in the black, but the big payday for parks like ours was when the right offer for the land was received. There certainly wasn't a need for any protection in our case, but some parks who don't have the type of land that is desirable for other development may need support from their local community. That's typically the big loser in those cases, as summer jobs for local youth and hometown attractions disappear.”
Heed the Need
The challenges in New Jersey are slightly different, at least for pier operators. “The Wildwood amusement piers are somewhat protected in that they cannot be developed for anything other than amusement type businesses,” observes Jack Morey. “This is, however, a double edged sword as it is difficult for us to evolve with consumer demands and desires. Additionally, New Jersey is a very expensive place to do business and the limitations of development need to be better matched with incentives for keeping the unique cultural landscape economically healthy.”
Some type of government intervention, especially tax relief, is unavoidable, Simpson believes. “Sooner or later the parks will have to close as the land values will create a inheritance tax problem that will prevent the parks from operating as they may have in the past. The tax liability will create an atmosphere where companies will have little left over for investment back into their businesses. Inheritance tax issues would help future generations to continue if the tax could be delayed until the asset is sold out of the family.
Another concern, especially along the New Jersey Shore, is beach replenishment (or coastal erosion), one aspect of the longer-term global problem of rising sea levels that can render today's seaside parks tomorrow's ocean floor. Solutions to global warming remain elusive. “A beach replenishment is programme is something that federal, state, local leaders, IAAPA and the New Jersey Amusement Association need to work together on to insure the future of the industry. Without the beach,“ warns Gillian, “there would not be a shore amusement industry.”
“I don’t know what kind of protection can be offered seaside amusement parks other than having informed and committed urban planners, and a community that is willing to be active,” urges Carol Hill Albert. Hers is one of two parks threatened at Coney Island in New York City. “Coney Island has, of course, its icons – The Cyclone rollercoaster, Wonder Wheel and Parachute Jump, which will remain. The City has also committed to save the B and B carousel. I greatly regret that the 200ft Astro tower, which can be seen from everywhere and is still operating, has not been landmarked and will have to be sold.”
Just as women's dress hem lines rise and fall over the years, is it possible that the threat to shore parks is cyclical? They may be closing now, but will they become fashionable again? “I think shore parks are fashionable and will always be fashionable,” affirms Catanoso. “However, when they go they are usually gone forever – except in the case of Steel Pier which reopened after a six-year hiatus but whose future is still uncertain. In my opinion, the disappearance of shore parks is the ugliest form of beach erosion.”
“I don't believe what is happening is cyclical at all,” contends Trimper. “Once many of these parks disappear, it is unimaginable for me to picture their return. We have owned our land since 1890, and are struggling to survive rising costs of all sorts. How would somebody else purchase the land at today's values, and build entertainment centres? Who can afford that type of a loss leader business? Once they are gone, people will have photos and memories, but coastal parks will never return.”
“I don’t know why all the seaside parks are closing,” Albert admits. “My assumption is that rising real estate values are a large factor in determining the future landscapes of these parks. I can’t predict the future, alas. I think there will always be a role for seaside amusement parks because people enjoy them. It’s been part of the American summer experience. How this will evolve I do not know.”
“Seaside amusements could never compete with the second home condominium market if highest and best use land development principals are employed,” asserts Morey. “As competition for the leisure dollar expands worldwide, it becomes more important for the public sector to protect the assets that make the community desirable.”
“We'll see other types of entertainment springing up to fill the void left by closing seashore parks,” believes Wilkes. “I think we'll see facilities like the Kemah Boardwalk in Texas, which is not really a park, but a cluster of rides, games and attractions affiliated with the Landry's branded restaurants. Other possibilities for family entertainment at beach destinations might be the addition of attractions like a Ripley's museum or aquarium that require a small footprint and doesn't have to be located directly on the beach. In our community a committee was formed to search for alternative family entertainment to replace Miracle Strip Park. Gary Walsingham and Bill Sims built a Ripley's museum, and I understand they are contemplating other Ripley branded attractions. The committee and the community are continuing to search for more operators to entertain the families that vacation on our beach.”
Court the Support
“I think many resorts are concerned about the loss of entertainment in their communities,” concedes Simpson. “But in reality the primary reason for going to the shore is the beach and ocean. Without the beach we would not exist. There are more locations without amusements than with them. The activities at those resorts just tend to be different in scope. The other resorts are still very successful in their own right.”
Catanoso cites the need for more public consultation and support about alternative land uses. “In most cases concerning private property, the public has no say. The only way the public can weigh in is by zoning laws and masterplans that may or may not be effective, depending on your community's masterplan."
At Coney Island, Albert contends that “New York City has in its favour a vigorous and informed planning commission. Amanda Burden, chairwoman of the New York City Planning Commission, has made public statements that she has no plans to change the zoning to allow condo development in the amusement area. Communities need to support and ensure they have this kind of leadership in their planning commission.”
Trimper speaks eloquently about the need for public consultation and support for amusement venues. “We have made an effort to educate the citizens of the surrounding area of the potential for our demise. We have spoken with business groups who are concerned that we might not be there for them to market as attractions. We have spoken with government officials, not demanding results, but warning of the outlook for the future.
“Life is all about change. You change, you evolve, or you become outdated and perish. Evolution is as much of a part of the entertainment industry as any other facet of life. We feel we are updating, improving, and most importantly preserving our heritage, even as we look toward the future. I don't believe even the most anti-business person, convinced that we load our pockets with endless amounts of tourist money, would prefer the alternative ...more condominiums. We in America have been selling ourselves for decades to anybody with some bucks, from this country or another, and it is time for us to open our eyes to see what we have left. Our quaint coastal amusement areas have reached the edge of our existence. It is up to people everywhere to decide whether to pull us back from the edge or let us go the way of small town picnics, two-lane roads, and a time when enchantment was more important than towers of concrete apartments.”
Seaside park operators face challenges that all park operators face plus several that are unique to their beach front location. New development, especially condominiums, escalating land values, rising taxes, short-term leases, hurricanes, coastal erosion, oppressive and capricious government ride regulations, employee housing needs, public parking, short seasons and inheritance taxes all threaten their continued success. These issues need to be resolved, or before we know it Joni Mitchell will have been prophetic. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.