ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For the second year in a row, amusement parks are opening later and with limited capacity. Experts say the industry may not fully recover until 2023. Ann Thompson of member station WVXU in Cincinnati reports on the continuing effects of COVID-19 on amusement parks and the businesses that count on them.
ANN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Chris Baynum and his roller coaster painting business were on track to have a record year in 2020, doing projects like this.
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THOMPSON: At Universal Orlando, this worker is hydroblasting layers of paint off a ride. He's on the ground, but often Baynum's 60 to 70 employees spend time hundreds of feet up in the air, safely secured in baskets. When COVID hit, his company had about 20 projects in the works.
CHRIS BAYNUM: It seemed like everybody just pulled the plug at the same time. So we were trying to figure out how - what we do with our guys. Where do we redirect them to? Do we bring them home? And we had some just bizarre things. We had one project, a big project going that we've done for months. And we were literally two days from finishing it, and that project stopped.
THOMPSON: Baynum broke even last year, but he had to be creative, allowing parks to defer payment as his staff continued to do maintenance. He even sent a crew to France to paint idled cruise ships.
DENNIS SPEIGEL: It's been severe. It's been catastrophic.
THOMPSON: Consultant Dennis Speigel says in 2019 the U.S. amusement park industry was worth 25 billion, but he estimates theme parks have lost 10 billion nationally and 30 billion globally since the beginning of the pandemic. That's not counting job and tax base losses.
SPEIGEL: If you took the recent recessions that we've experienced through the last 15, 20 years, the oil crisis - COVID has had a larger impact on our industry than all of those combined.
THOMPSON: Reopenings are a patchwork across the country. While parks in Florida are already open, California still hasn't set a date, and New York is allowing them in early April with strings attached. In the meantime, the COVID slowdown is continuing to affect all kinds of businesses related to the amusement park industry. Jim Seay owns Premier Rides, which designs roller coasters. He's had to furlough some of his employees.
JIM SEAY: We have been bringing those people back based on the amount of work that's been coming in. But certainly some of those people went on to find other careers in industries that weren't as affected.
THOMPSON: Seay's hoping 2022 will be the year of recovery. Others say it could be 2023. But Cedar Fair, owner of Cedar Point, Kings Island and a dozen others, told investors this month that it remains optimistic for this year - this despite revenue being down 88%, and the company has been burning through 40 to $50 million a month. CFO Brian Witherow says revisiting anniversary celebrations and new rides that didn't open last year will be a big part of this year.
BRIAN WITHEROW: We're going to rebirth those here in '21 along with the new rides and attractions that we had planned, you know, across the system at the other parks. So it's always important to continue to provide our guests with, you know, new, exciting entertainment.
THOMPSON: Cedar Fair looks to broader vaccine distribution, a strong season pass base and pent-up public demand as key drivers to its recovery - pent-up demand from fans like Luke Reynolds. The Virginia man can't wait to jump back on a ride. He's a member of the American Coaster Enthusiasts.
LUKE REYNOLDS: I'm a mechanical engineer. So on that level, roller coasters have always fascinated me. But also on the other level, they're just fun to ride. It just puts a smile on your face. I don't know how else to describe it.
THOMPSON: How has he been spending time while waiting for the parks to open? Building models of roller coasters.
For NPR News, I'm Ann Thompson in Cincinnati.
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