Theme parks hope lights stay on but prepare for worst


Mickey Mouse will have his fingers crossed this summer.

With California’s power shortages expected to worsen as the temperatures rise, tourism officials and theme parks are trying to reassure travelers they have plans to keep the electricity flowing to their rollercoasters, ice cream vendors and pools.

The theme parks don’t want to discuss the possibility of blackouts in detail, fearing it might add to tourists’ concerns.

“Hopefully, like for Y2K, the planning will just be planning,” said Bob Tucker, a spokesman for SeaWorld in San Diego.

Peak tourist season coincides with when energy operators predict overwhelming demand for electricity. 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 outages, according to the theme parks and utility officials.

“California is faced with a very real energy challenge, but the lights are on and our welcome to visitors is as warm as ever,” Caroline Beteta, executive director of California Travel & Tourism Commission, wrote on the commission’s Web site.

Tourism officials say that even if blackouts are imposed, power providers would likely warn the theme parks first.

The three biggest parks have backup generators; SeaWorld’s can handle 20 percent of the park’s power needs for about eight hours. Less-popular attractions would close. In the worst cases, roller coasters and other rides are designed to return to starting points if power is cut.

California has been struggling for months with tight power supplies, blamed in part on soaring wholesale electricity costs, reduced hydroelectric power in the West and power plant maintenance.

To fight the crisis, Gov. Gray Davis has been asking for a half-billion dollars about once a week since January to buy power for cash-strapped Southern California Edison and bankrupt Pacific Gas and Electric. In all, he has requested US$5.2 billion.

The good news is the state’s spending has slowed, said Department of Finance spokesman Sandy Harrison. The last US$500 million requested lasted the state 16 days.

The bad news is the pace is likely to pick up again, said Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio.

Disneyland may be among the luckier contributors to California’s US$15.4 billion tourist industry: It gets its power from the city of Anaheim, not power-strapped utility Southern California Edison, said spokeswoman Chula Castano-Lenahan. The city has a more stable power supply and that lowers the risk of blackouts, she said. She decline to discuss contingency plans.

None of the theme parks is taking chances, though.

Universal Studios Hollywood is lobbying for legislation that would allow it to buy power from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, rather than Edison, the park’s current supplier.

Tourist attractions across the state are also increasing conservation efforts, such as switching off lights and equipment in “backstage” offices. SeaWorld, which saw its electricity prices triple last year as San Diego underwent deregulation, scaled back expenses and hired fewer workers so it could keep admission at US$41.95, Tucker said.