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Theme parks prepare for anticipated power blackouts
By Seth Hettena, Associated Press Writer
SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Mickey Mouse will have his fingers crossed this summer. Disneyland, Sea World and other major California tourist attractions are preparing for anticipated summer blackouts, while tourism officials move to reassure potential travelers to the nation's most-visited state that the power will stay on.
"Hopefully, like for Y2K, the planning will just be planning, and we won't have to implement," said Bob Tucker, a spokesman for Sea World in San Diego, the state's No. 3 tourist attraction with more than 3.5 million visits last year.
Officials in California's $15.4 billion tourist industry are concerned because peak tourist season from Memorial Day to Labor Day coincides with the time state regulators predict overwhelming demand for electricity and more rolling blackouts.
Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood and SeaWorld -- the state's top three attractions with a combined 22.7 million visits last year -- could all be hit by power outages this summer, according to representatives of those parks and utility officials.
Blackouts are a possibility that theme park officials don't want to discuss in detail, fearing that would add to tourists' concerns. But tourism officials say the parks would likely get a warning from power providers, and signs would go up alerting visitors about ride closures and other problems. Backup generators would switch on at the three biggest parks.
At SeaWorld, for example, generators can handle 20 percent of the park's power needs for about eight hours. Less-popular attractions, such as water rides on a cool day, would be closed quickly. In the worst cases, roller coasters and other rides are designed to return to starting points if power is cut, ensuring that visitors don't spend too much time on Space Mountain.
Disneyland, the state's leading attraction with 13.9 million visitors last year, gets its power from the city of Anaheim, not Southern California Edition. Chula Castano-Lenahan, a spokeswoman for the Magic Kingdom, said that lowers the risk of blackouts because the city has a more stable power supply. She declined to discuss contingency plans for the park.
State tourism officials insist that disruptions caused by blackouts will be minimal, but the parks aren't taking any chances. Marketing departments are launching programs to ensure visits don't drop off; and lights and unused equipment are already being switched off in "backstage" offices as part of escalating conservation efforts.
Lobbyists for Universal Studios Hollywood are working to have the theme park added to a bill that could help the power stay on. The legislation would allow the state's No. 2 attraction, with 5.2 million visits last year, to buy power from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which has a more stable supply than Edison, the park's current supplier.
In a marketing offensive, SeaWorld will send 10 Volkswagen Beetles customized to resemble killer whales on a tour of the West this summer. "It's letting people know that we're here," Tucker said. "It's an extra initiative that we came up with because we felt this year we had to be a little more proactive."
SeaWorld saw its electricity prices triple last year as San Diego underwent deregulation. The park absorbed the costs by scaling back expenses and hiring fewer workers, keeping the cost of admission at $41.95, Tucker said. Hoteliers say their businesses are seriously threatened by the power crisis.
The threat of blackouts this summer "can only have a chilling effect on families who are now planning their summer vacations," said Samuel A. Hardage, chairman and chief executive officer of Woodfin Suite Hotels. "Most tourists would rather not run the risk of being stuck in a hotel elevator."
Woodfin Suites, like many hotels around the state, has imposed a $4 per night power surcharge on its California hotels in response to electricity bills that Hardage said have increased 313 percent. Other hotels around the state have started imposing surcharges ranging from $1 to $3 per room per night, said Rick Lawrance, president of the California Lodging Industry Association.
Summer is the off-season in the desert oasis of Palm Springs, where temperatures soar into the triple digits. Some hotels say that given the added cost of power, it makes sense to close. For the first time, the Palm Springs Marquis, a 165-room luxury hotel, is shutting from July 1 to Aug. 25 due to the power crisis.
Around the state, hotel operators say they are already seeing a decline in occupancy, forcing them to cut rates on rooms. Unless the power crisis is quickly resolved, Hardage said, "skyrocketing utility bills will force us and other hoteliers to look to our labor force to bring costs into line."
The California Division of Tourism has distributed a letter on its Web site, as well as in overseas offices and tour agencies, telling potential visitors that disruptions will be minimal and essential services are exempt from power outages.
"California is faced with a very real energy challenge, but the lights are on and our welcome to visitors is as warm as ever," wrote Caroline P. Beteta, executive director of California Travel & Tourism Commission.
-- Swissrose (firstname.lastname@example.org), April 13, 2001