FORT MILL -- The price tag on a season pass to Carowinds has taken a plunge down Thunder Road, as York County's largest tourist attraction looks at ways to battle the nation's roller coaster economy.
Carowinds, which opened for its 36th season this month, is selling season passes for $59.95 for groups of two or more, the lowest price at opening weekend in at least three years, park officials said. The reduced price, combined with a water park expansion and consumers having less money in their pockets, has the popular amusement park predicting more Carolinians will be visiting on day trips this spring and summer.
For Carowinds, a park that relies heavily on regional tourists, that could mean a steady season of repeat customers despite the uncertainty of the national economy.
"Even with a slow economy, people are still going to go have fun," Carowinds spokesman Scott Anderson said Friday. "I think it (the economy) negatively impacts destinations more than regional attractions."
Gas prices are expected to keep increasing between now and Memorial Day, and park officials are banking on consumers taking advantage of the season pass multiple times, instead of taking trips to distant attractions. Anderson said ticket sales since December have been stronger than normal, and when the park opened last weekend, it saw bigger crowds than Easter weekend in 2007.
AAA Carolinas research confirms the theory. Carol Gifford, a AAA spokeswoman, said gas prices will likely inch closer to $4 per gallon through Memorial Day, meaning travelers will be making cuts.
"It's likely that tourism spots in the area, like Carowinds, will see an increase in patronage as people stay close to home," she said. "We have found when gas prices go up people don't cancel their vacations, they just change where they're going to go. If they planned a long trip, they'll alter it and stay close to home."
Anderson acknowledged that an entertainment budget, even for local fun, is often the first place families make cutbacks. So, the park also is adding value to its reduced pass price. Free parking, free admission to Scarowinds and periodic promotions are included for season pass holders this year, he said.
The Bondi Beach water park expansion slated for completion in May is expected to draw curious crowds when it opens on Memorial Day weekend, Anderson said. He said new attractions usually translate into larger receipts for the park.
"We could expand the water park every year," he said. "It's that popular."
Additionally, Carowinds is offering cheaper single-day admission prices for tickets purchased online and promotional discounts with Coca-Cola, Harris Teeter and Bi-Lo.
Roller coasters renamed
Parkgoers will notice a few changes inside the 112-acre park, too. Popular roller coasters Top Gun and Borg Assimilator have been renamed Afterburn and Nighthawk, respectively, and several shops and restaurants have new names.
The changes were dictated by Sandusky, Ohio-based Cedar Fair Amusements' purchase of Carowinds in 2006. The change in ownership means the park is no longer affiliated with Paramount Pictures and all Paramount movie references had to be removed. However, the Nickelodeon characters will remain a park fixture, Anderson said.
"From the park experience standpoint, nothing has changed," Anderson said. "Most of the differences are very subtle."
Thunder Road, a 32-year-old wooden roller coaster, is being renovated, too.
"Some work is done to Thunder Road each year. But this year, we're totally rebuilding both turnarounds," he said, noting it would reopen by the end of May.
Driving other tourism
While Carowinds explores ways to increase attendance, York County tourism advocates hope to draw visitors south from the Carowinds Boulevard magnet.
"We know Carowinds is a destination in York County, and for a lot of people it's a day trip," said Bennish Brown, director of the York County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We're trying to offer other things for people to do to extend their trips."
Brown said his group has partnered with Carowinds this spring visiting trade shows and developing itineraries for schools and other groups visiting the park. The joint effort makes it easier for tourists to visit the Museum of York County, Historic Brattonsville and other local attractions while they're in town.
"We think people will stay closer to home, but we can still attract visitors traveling on I-77," Brown said. "We're trying to do a better job of cross marketing. That's what this is all about."
Carowinds is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends during the spring and fall. The park will be open daily during the summer. For more information, visit www.carowinds.com.
Adam O'Daniel • 329-4069