If you scoffed at the drones operating the spaceship in the movie "Silent Running," you may not laugh now. The multibillion-dollar amusement park industry has been hit especially hard by high energy costs. So as part of a scramble to cut costs, it is rewiring its parks with central computer-programmed energy management systems (EMS).
Off and on go the air conditioning, heating, lighting, sprinklers, smoke detectors, and security and fire alarms -- at the computer's beck and call -- to decrease energy usage.
While Disneyland's EMS has saved 9.8 percent in monthly costs since October 1979, its Florida sibling, Disneyworld, has dropped its consumption 16-20 percent since 1974. Bob Redgate, manager of energy conservation at Disneyworld, credits most of the saved energy to a computer that controls the park's air-conditioning units.
But all has not been left to the computer. While the world's largest solar-powered ride is being designed by Disneyworld, smaller parks also are using less expensive energy technology.
* Two solar collector systems are replacing propane gas and electricity to produce 200 gallons of "free" hot water a day in the campground of King's Dominion in Richmond, Va.
* The 40,000-gallon miniature Niagara Falls at Canada's Wonderland, located in the center of its International Street, will be the first waterfall in an amusement park to act as a natural cooling system -- on opening day next May.
* Dorney Park in Allentown, Pa., is growing poplar trees to produce alcohol fuel, while spinning two windmills -- one 101 feet high from ground to blade top -- to produce electricity.
"To my knowledge, we're the first park in the United States and maybe the world to use windmills for power," says Dorney Park owner Robert Plarr. He projects his 45- and 250-kilowatt-powered windmills will produce 10-12 percent of total park energy by 1981.
Many park utility bills are monumental today. The past five years found Six Flags Over Georgia's utility costs increasing 150 percent. And Magic Mountain in southern California faces about $1,250,000 in energy bills, up from $250,000 in 1975.
This is forcing the 25 major theme parks in the United States to re-examine energy use. Minuscule things like changing light bulbs shave costs. "On the average, in large area site lighting, the park has saved two-thirds or more of the wattage that was consumed, by changing from incandescent to mercury vapor, sodium vapor, and fluorescent lighting," says Joe Pendergast, director of facilities at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif.
Other moves in energy conservation strategy include: using scooters and motorcycles for security vehicles; designing low-maintenance landscaping; reprocessing surface water for park irrigation; using natural gas instead of electricity and diesel fuel; recycling waste paper; replacing constantly running toilets with flush toilets; revamping old facilities and equipment; training employees during daylight hours; doing park washdowns with less water, every other morning vs. every night; and reducing parking lot train runs to conserve fuel.
Gas consumption fell 60 percent at Marriott's Great America in Santa Clara, Calif., when it said replaced its large pickups with economizing Toyotas and Datsuns for use as maintenance, warehouse, and security vehicles.
Following swollen energy prices, admission fares industrywide climbed $1 or more a year, with some "child" fare discounts disappearing completely. But customers rate a conservation incentive, too: Six aluminum cans equal a $2 discount at Magic Mountain.
At last year's International Association of Amusement Parks' convention, energy was not a major topic; this November it will be. The industry is taking its infant steps now in exploring as many energy-slashing methods as possible. Some include passive-solar heating, underground earth-sheltering, "integrated" greenhouses, and windpower.
Christopher Lee of Economics Research Associates -- a Los Angeles group that does feasibility studies for the amusement park industry -- looks at 1981 with "cautious optimism." He anticipates, "It won't reach the level of the 1978 peak, but it could be a good year."