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Economy’s been good to amusement parks

– The chief executive of one of the country’s largest amusement park companies said Wednesday that with Americans staying closer to home since the economic downturn, “staycations” have boosted business at the parks, and he predicted the trend would continue even with the economy improving.

CEO Matt Ouimet spoke about the future of Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. and the industry after touring the southwest Ohio plant where the newest roller coaster for the company’s northwest Ohio park, Cedar Point, is under construction. Ouimet said Cedar Fair’s parks generally draw most of their visitors from within a couple of hundred miles.

“I think staycations are here to stay because people have rediscovered that it’s more fun, less complicated and less expensive to get in your car and drive to Cedar Point or other parks,” Ouimet said.

As he toured the plant, Ouimet several times said simply: “Wow!” Clermont Steel Fabricators LLC in Batavia, just east of Cincinnati, is constructing the steel parts that will form a winged roller coaster, called Gatekeeper, set to debut May 11.

Ouimet viewed sections of track and towers that will form a 100-foot-tall keyhole-type opening for riders to pass through as they soar above guests entering the park. The blue-steeled tubular coaster will feature a 163-foot vertical drop and speeds of 67 mph, with riders on seats that extend sideways with nothing above or below them.

The $25 million coaster that will make people “feel like they are flying” will help provide the thrills that Ouimet says are a major part of Cedar Point’s attraction.

But he said it’s also an example of the investments Cedar Fair plans to make in its parks.

The company owns 15 entertainment sites, including 11 amusement parks and four water parks. While Ouimet didn’t provide specific investment plans for those parks, he said Kings Island, Cedar Fair’s amusement park just north of Cincinnati, “is on my radar.”

The new coaster is part of a roughly $30 million project overhauling the entrance to Cedar Point in Sandusky.

The company also plans to spend about $60 million over the three years to renovate its hotels and some other projects at the park along Lake Erie.

The company has said it expects 2012 will be its third consecutive year of record profitability and has projected revenue for the past year at $1.06 billion to $1.08 billion.

While Cedar Fair had become the nation’s third-largest amusement park chain by the time Ouimet arrived in June 2011, it has had to deal with problems in recent years, including a large debt from its $1.24 billion acquisition of Paramount Parks Inc. in 2006. That deal added five amusement parks to the chain but was followed by the economic downturn.

Now Ouimet says “business has never been better from a financial standpoint.”

The key to success for Cedar Fair parks and others is to focus on the job of “keeping people happy.”

“As long as we do that and provide a great value for a full day’s experience, the industry will be healthy for a long time to come,” he said.