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Sesame Place prepares for season

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March 20, 2011

Regional parks are benefitting from people staying close to home, according to one expert explaining Sesame Place's success. Staff Writer

There's a little bit of extra excitement in the air at Sesame Place, and it's not just because opening day is a month away.

Besides adding a new mechanical ride and a new character, the Middletown theme park is about to launch an all-new Neighborhood Street Party parade, the biggest daily production ever.

"We've been waiting for this day for many years," said Diane Benedict, the park's vice president of entertainment.

Sesame Place opens to the public April 30. But everything needs to be in order by April 22, when the park opens for its annual Variety Day, an event for children with autism and their families.

The parade - which features all new floats and new characters - represents a $1-million-plus investment by park owner Blackstone Capital Group, an investment firm that purchased Sesame Place and nine other theme parks from Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2009.

It was the park's second ownership change in as many years. Anheuser-Busch, which owned Sesame for 28 years, was purchased in 2008 by Belgium beer brewer InBev, which quickly sought to unload the parks.

Blackstone, Sesame officials said, has been a willing partner.

"They see this product is valuable," Benedict said. "It's popular. It's worth investing in."

Theme park expert Cliff Warner agrees. Warner is chairman and founder of the Thinkwell Group, a California company that designs exhibits for "guest experiences" - everything from museums and resorts to theme parks.

"One of the great things about the Sesame brand is that as long as they keep their size right, it's very manageable," he said. "They have a renewing audience. There's always going to be the toddler through 6-year-old (population). People keep having kids, and they want to bring kids to a quality entertainment/education brand."

While Sesame does not divulge exact park attendance numbers, last year it surpassed a record 1 million guests, Benedict said.

Offering new attractions is critical to keep customers coming back, said Rob Hunden, president of Hunden Partners, a Chicago-based real estate consultancy that works with theme parks and other destinations.

"You always have to be fresh and offering something new, especially for something that has a smaller area," Hunden said. "For ride-based theme parks, every three to four years having a big, new ride is critical. But in addition to that, having new shows, new software as they call it, that is critical to keeping interest in letting people know there's something new and different all the time. It gives them a reason to come back."

Both Hunden and Warner said theme park attendance, especially for regional parks like Sesame Place, has remained strong despite the economic downturn.

"All of the regional parks are benefiting from people doing staycations and staying close to home," Warner said. "The parks are getting attendance from people that are nearby. People still want to do something. They tend to do the recreation things that are in their backyards. Sesame Place is a great location for such a large community of people."

Sesame Place got the OK for the new parade in January 2010, Benedict said. It retired its long running Rock Around the Block parade at the end of last season.

In addition to the parade, Sesame Place is introducing Murray Monster, Sesame Street's reality TV personality, and a new mechanical ride called Elmo's Cloud Chaser.

Park officials wouldn't disclose how much the parade production cost, but Benedict said it's more than $1 million.

The new Street Party parade is so big that every entertainment team member participates, either as a performer or a float driver, Benedict said.

That amounts to nearly 50 people twice a day during the height of the season.

"It's the largest show in the park," Benedict said.

Efforts to reach Blackstone, Sesame's parent company, for comment were unsuccessful. Representatives did not return several phone messages.

For the first time, the parade also will be held at night, under brand new street lights. Benedict said the entertainment department has been asking for a night parade for years, but questioned whether park guests would want to stay late. That was answered by the popularity of Sesame Place's nighttime fireworks, which started in 2007.

"The guests have shown they want to stay," she said. "It shows us this is the right production for our park. Who doesn't want to take their kids to see an electric light parade?"


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