Want to go for a ride in January? The coaster is clear as theme parks expand their seasons

Arthur Levine, Special to USA TODAY
·6 min read

Folks with a yen for negative G-forces and churros in the heart of winter have long been able to head to destination theme parks in temperate Florida and California.

Those hoping to get their roller coaster fixes at parks in other parts of the country were generally out of luck. That’s changing as some seasonal parks open their gates in January and February and switch to four-season, year-round operation. But the screams reverberating on their midways this time of year may be as much from cold-weather chills as coaster thrills.

In recent years, Halloween events expanded shoulder seasons at regional theme parks, along with holiday events that kept gates open through late December.

Now, the carousels practically never stop spinning at parks such as Six Flags Over Texas near Dallas and Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia.

The trend is partly fueled by the pandemic. "With COVID, people are craving to get out, and Six Flags has a safe, outdoor environment conducive to social distancing," says Bonnie Sherman Weber, the park chain’s senior vice president of operations. She also notes that people aren’t working traditional schedules and have more flexibility to visit parks.

The roller coasters and rides at Six Flags Over Texas, most of which are open for its winter festival, are decked out with holiday lights.
The roller coasters and rides at Six Flags Over Texas, most of which are open for its winter festival, are decked out with holiday lights.

Six Flags Over Texas is presenting its first-ever Fire & Ice Winter Festival on weekends through Feb. 28 as well as Feb. 15 for the Presidents Day holiday. Visitors will still be able to enjoy the twinkling lights and snow sledding that were already part of the park’s holiday event. There are fireworks shows every Saturday, and most rides, such as the New Texas Giant coaster, are open. For an additional fee, guests can indulge their inner Winter Olympian by trying their hands at curling at the Six Flags ice rink. And if you need to warm up – or fill up – after all that, the park is serving hearty, stick-to-your-ribs dishes such as loaded baked potatoes and chili. (Note: Reservations are required.)

Sister park Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio is holding a Mardi Gras festival, complete with cavalcade floats, New Orleans-style music, colorful beads, and treats such as boiled crawfish, jambalayas and beignets – and for the grown-ups, there will also be cocktails like hurricanes. It is also open on weekends through Feb. 28 as well as Presidents Day. The park is offering a walk-through haunted maze-style attraction, The Houngan House of Voodoo, along with most of its rides. (Reservations are required.)

During Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Mardi Gras event, scheduled on weekends from Jan. 29 through Feb. 28, visitors will be able to ride the park’s roller coasters, including Alpengeist.
During Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Mardi Gras event, scheduled on weekends from Jan. 29 through Feb. 28, visitors will be able to ride the park’s roller coasters, including Alpengeist.

Generally, the winters aren’t crazy cold in Texas. The same can’t be said for Virginia, where Busch Gardens Williamsburg is opening its gates in January, February, and early March for the first time ever. "Our fans love riding our world-class roller coasters no matter the temperature," says Kevin Lembke, the park’s president.

The Virginia park is holding its own Mardi Gras event on weekends from Jan. 29 through Feb. 28 as well as the Presidents Day holiday. There will be a New Orleans jazz band, stilt walkers, hurricane cocktails and other NOLA fun. (Reservations are required.)

For its St. Patrick’s Day Celebration, which will be held on select days from March 5 to 28, Busch Gardens Williamsburg will put the spotlight on its Irish village.
For its St. Patrick’s Day Celebration, which will be held on select days from March 5 to 28, Busch Gardens Williamsburg will put the spotlight on its Irish village.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg plans a St. Patrick’s Day Celebration on select days March 5 to March 28. It will focus on the park’s Irish village and celebrate the country’s music, dance, and cuisine. More than a dozen rides, including the wooden coaster InvadR, will be open. (Tickets have not gone on sale yet, but reservations probably will be required.)

The winter events help add value to the annual membership programs available at Six Flags as well as Busch Gardens (part of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment) – especially after the pandemic forced the parks to close and reduce capacity once they reopened. The January and February events likely are an attempt by the park chains to recoup some of the revenue they have been losing because of the pandemic.

"It made perfect sense for us to continue to offer our members and guests an opportunity to safely experience Busch Gardens year-round. It’s evident people are seeking some sense of normalcy, and we are thrilled to be able to provide that with our limited-capacity events," Lembke says, adding that the pandemic "forced us to rethink our business and challenged us to be creative."

For the first time in over a decade, SeaWorld San Antonio is opening its gates in January and February. The park’s Wild Days event, which is being held on weekends through Jan. 31, will feature rides as well as animal encounters.
For the first time in over a decade, SeaWorld San Antonio is opening its gates in January and February. The park’s Wild Days event, which is being held on weekends through Jan. 31, will feature rides as well as animal encounters.

SeaWorld San Antonio, which is not far from Six Flags Fiesta Texas, is open year-round for the first time in more than a decade. On weekends through Jan. 31, it is presenting Wild Days, which will celebrate the park’s animals as well as its rides. On weekends and other select days from Feb. 6 to Feb. 28, the park will hold its own Mardi Gras event with live music, Creole and Cajun food, and specialty drinks.

The pandemic may have inspired some regional parks to open their gates in the first months of the year, but some already had been exploring the idea of operating year-round.

"We were discussing and planning year-round operation before the pandemic," says Byron Surrett, SeaWorld San Antonio’s park president. He hopes the park will keep its gates open after the threat of the pandemic has passed.

This is the second year that Six Flags Over Texas is open throughout the first quarter and the third year for Six Flags Fiesta Texas. The chain’s Discovery Kingdom park in the Northern California city of Vallejo made the switch in 2014, while Six Flags Magic Mountain, which is in the Los Angeles area, expanded its 12-month calendar to daily operation in late 2017.

"The world has changed,” says Six Flags’ Sherman Weber. "It’s not just COVID. People want to come out. They can experience the parks without the big crowds."

Six Flags Magic Mountain, located near Los Angeles, is extending its Holiday in the Park Drive-thru Experience on weekends through Jan. 31.
Six Flags Magic Mountain, located near Los Angeles, is extending its Holiday in the Park Drive-thru Experience on weekends through Jan. 31.

As with all theme parks in California, Six Flags Magic Mountain has not been able to resume normal operations since the pandemic forced it to close last spring. But it did find a clever way to welcome guests back by presenting the Holiday in the Park Drive-thru Experience, which continues on weekends through Jan. 31. Guests remain in their cars and slowly drive along the park’s promenades to see light shows choreographed to festive music. (Reservations and tickets are required for each person in the vehicle.)

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Northern California is presenting a similar event on select evenings through the end of January.

“We are trying to find some silver lining to come out of what we are all going through,” Sherman Weber says about the pandemic-era holiday experiences. “Guests are raving about it.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Theme parks: Six Flags, Busch Gardens now open in winter due to COVID