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Coasters plunge, numbers soar

Attendance was up in 2006 for theme parks that invested in new headline thrill rides.

By Mark Albright, Times Staff Writer
Published April 5, 2007


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[Times file photo]
Busch Gardens Africa got a lingering boost from the second year afterglow of SheiKra, Florida's first dive coaster.

Florida theme park attendance

The numbers are out for 2006 theme park attendance: Here's what they show: Eight of the nation's 11 most popular parks are in Florida. New thrill rides were big draws for the state's theme parks. Expedition Everest helped boost attendance at Disney's Animal Kingdom by 8 percent over last year. The novelty of Busch Gardens' SheiKra doesn't seem to have worn off, as the park saw a 1.5 percent increase.

Source: TEA and Economics Research Associates

If there's any question about the drawing power of new headline thrill rides, take a peek at Florida theme park attendance in 2006.

The biggest gainer was Disney's Animal Kingdom, where attendance soared 8.6 percent after the debut of the Yeti-chases-runaway-roller-coaster Expedition Everest. Meanwhile, Busch Gardens Africa got a lingering boost from the second year afterglow of SheiKra, Florida's first dive coaster, which along with some new special events, propelled the Tampa park to 4.3-million visitors in 2006. The performance nudged Busch Gardens up a notch to the nation's 11th most popular theme park. It's one reason why Busch will close SheiKra down for two weeks after Memorial Day to punch up the fear factor by yanking out the floor from its trains.

"Adding a major ride can bring a 5 to 10 percent increase in attendance," said John Robinette, senior vice president of Economic Research Associates in Los Angeles that compiled the annual attendance report released Wednesday by InPark, a theme-park trade journal based in Milwaukee.

While the modus operandi of theme parks has never changed - a safe and secure, aesthetically pleasing environment for a family gathering - updating the setting keeps people coming back.

"Rule number one in the theme park business is 'thou shalt invest,' " added Ray Braun, senior vice president of the same firm.

The performance came during a soft year for the Florida visitor industry, when state residents' discretionary income was pinched by taxes, energy prices and insurance bills.

For Disney, it was the payoff of several big investments in new and refreshed attractions and stepped-up promotions for Florida residents, as well as the second half of a 50th anniversary celebration for all Disney theme parks.

In fact, eight of the nation's 11 most popular theme parks are in Central Florida. And two Disney parks, Epcot and Disney MGM Studios in Orlando, each capitalized on two new headline attractions to post attendance gains of 5.5 and 5 percent, respectively. That far exceeded the industry average of 1.5 percent among the 20 largest parks.

The news was more subdued at Universal Orlando, where new owners from GE Universal did not unveil any headliner rides.

Park officials however, were able to increase customer per capita spending in 2006.

Attendance at Universal Studios was up 1.2 percent, to 6-million. Islands of Adventure, a separate gate, slumped 4.8 percent, to 5.3-million.

SeaWorld, which introduced another Shamu show that includes more than 100 new trained animal behaviors, saw its attendance rise 2.5 percent, to 5.7-million.

Cypress Gardens, which is now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, hosted 1.6-million visitors, up 14 percent over the first year after the historic Winter Haven park reopened.

Globally, Central Florida remains the theme park capital. Eight of the world's 25 most popular theme parks are here. Disney, however, is by far the biggest operator, with eight of the 10 largest parks and 10 of the world's 25 largest parks spread over four countries. Attendance at all Disney parks totalled 112.5-million in 2006, or almost four times its closest rival.

The refrain is similar among water parks, where Central Florida is home to four of the seven most popular in the country. Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach at Disney World posted robust gains of 6.6 percent and 5.4 percent while Wet n' Wild, which is owned by Universal, was flat. Adventure Island in Tampa, which like SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Africa is owned by Anheuser-Busch Cos., posted a 1.5 percent gain to 609,000.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or 727 893-8252.

[Last modified April 4, 2007, 23:15:49]


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2006 ranking

Park and location 2006 attendance Percent change
1 Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, Lake Buena Vista, Florida 16,640, 000 3.0
2 Epcot 10,460,000 5.5
3 Disney MGM 9,100,000 5.0
4 Animal Kingdom 8,910,000 8.6
5 Universal Studios at Universal Orlando, Florida 6,000,000 1.2
6 SeaWorld Florida Orlando, Florida 5,740,000 2.5
9 Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando, Florida 5,300,000 - 4.8
11 Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, Tampa, Florida 4,360,000 1.5
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