Amusement Parks Set Out On A Green Ride

Despite Recession, Operators Investing In Conservation

August 09, 2009|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

PITTSBURGH -- Schussing through ersatz Alps on mock bobsleds, riders on the Bayern Kurve tend to hang on for dear life rather than study the brightly colored lights illuminating the thrill ride at Kennywood.

The bulbs shine in a variety of hues, but they're all green to the operators of this historic amusement park on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. In a bid to see if anyone notices, the traditional incandescent lights on this ride and another at Kennywood have been replaced by LED ones, saving money on the park's hefty power bill and greatly reducing the frequency with which the bulbs burn out and need replacing.

Don't look now, but amusement parks are gradually getting greener, even in the teeth of an economic downturn. Whether it's using LED lights, recycling or fueling rides with used vegetable oil, parks are finding that conservation can pay off.

"Over the past couple years, there's definitely been a move toward this," said Colleen Mangone of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. "It makes sense. In a lot of ways, it's a win-win. It helps the environment, and in these economic times as you find ways to be more efficient, you end up saving costs as well."

Kennywood is neither the first nor the most daring when it comes to greening its amusements. That's in keeping with the park's historic flavor - it opened in 1898, and features wooden roller coasters and classic rides along with a towering steel coaster and a computer-graphic haunted-house shoot-'em-up ride.

Kennywood spokesman Jeff Filicko says the 44-acre park is simply adapting to the times, and to a growing environmental sensitivity.

"As it's becoming more of a buzzword, I think amusement parks are waking up to ways they can reduce their carbon footprint," said Filicko.

Amusement park giants like Disney and Universal Studios began greening in earnest a couple of years ago, ramping up recycling efforts, switching people movers to burn alternative fuels and installing solar panels. Universal Parks & Resorts organized celebrity-studded "Eco-fairs" at its parks in Florida and California to give guests green-living tips and glimpses of environmentally friendly technology.

Last year, amid gasoline price spikes, the Busch theme parks jumped in by converting their restaurants and eateries from foam and plastic dishes and utensils to tableware made from biodegradable cornstarch or bamboo.

And even though tough times are testing how recession-proof amusement parks are, the economic downturn hasn't halted the industry's greenward drift. The Walt Disney Co. set ambitious long-term environmental goals, including achieving zero net greenhouse gas emissions, for its theme parks and the rest of the media and entertainment empire. And despite seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors earlier this year, Six Flags Inc. announced a companywide green initiative in June aimed at reducing electricity, fuel use and waste.

"We've made a commitment to introduce and incorporate everyday sustainability solutions within our family of parks," said Six Flags spokeswoman Sandra Daniels. The theme-park giant said it would start with four of its 20 North American parks, switching all diesel-burning vehicles and trains to used vegetable oil and putting in LED lights to cut electricity use and greenhouse gas emissions.

At Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, for instance, the lights on the Big Wheel were switched to LED bulbs. Company officials estimate the greenhouse gas reductions from that one move are equivalent to planting 2,800 trees or taking 70 cars off the roads, Daniels says.

Locally, Six Flags America in Bowie isn't one of the company's four pioneers, but Daniels says it does have bottle-shaped recycling bins throughout the park and plans to convert the Capital Railways train from diesel to vegetable oil soon.

Another regional attraction seeking to reduce its environmental impact is Hersheypark. The Hershey, Pa., park's most visible green feature is an 80-foot wind turbine installed six years ago along with solar panels. The generator isn't hooked up to the park's power grid right now, but there are plans to reconnect it, said spokeswoman Kathy Burrows, a member of the park's green team. The company has pledged to inculcate environmental sensitivity throughout its resort and park operations.

As an example, Hersheypark has switched from incandescent to fluorescent bulbs on the racing lights of its roller coasters, and it's doing the same with many of its buildings, said Burrows. The company also is using cornstarch dishes and utensils at its resort facilities, but not in its park - at least not yet.

"Generally, I don't think guests at amusement parks think as much about recycling as a guest at a hotel would," said Burrows.

That's a mark of the caution with which amusement park operators approach major green initiatives - practicing prudence in tight times while taking care not to tarnish the carefree mood or fun they're trying to sell the public.

For Kennywood, celebrated for its classic rides and landscaping, spokesman Filicko says there's likely a limit to how green the park will go. Pointing to its circa-1926 wooden carousel, a national historic landmark, he says, "This is one ride that'll probably never go to LEDs."

If you go

Kennywood, 4800 Kennywood Blvd., West Mifflin, Pa. 15122, 412-461-0500. Admission is $34.99 for adults, $21.99 for kids under 46 inches tall and $16.99 for adults ages 55 and older.

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