Why Disney and Universal Theme Parks Are Breaking Attendance Records This Summer


Parks around the world are seeing an increased number of visitors and spending.

Disney’s properties in Anaheim have been boosted by the $1.1 billion revamp completed late last year of California Adventure, adjacent to Disneyland. In 2012, California Adventure enjoyed a 22.6 percent increase in attendance to 7.8 million visitors, up from 6.3 million in 2011, according to the Themed Entertainment Associations annual survey.

The rush to new California Adventure attractions like the Radiator Springs Racers, at $200 million the most expensive ride in history, has solved a problem that has long been an irritation to Disney. “Attendance at our Disneyland Resort is now more evenly split between Disneyland and California Adventure,” Iger told analysts earlier this year, “a strategic goal of our investment in that expansion.”

California Adventure had the biggest percentage increase among the top 25 amusement parks in the world in what was a very good year for similar attractions around the globe. Overall attendance at parks worldwide was up an impressive 5.2 percent, and attendance at the top 10 attractions was up 6.7 percent, according to the TEA.

While attendance at parks in the Eurozone was flat last year, Asia was red hot, with Hong Kong Disneyland up 14 percent over the prior year, Tokyo Disneyland up 8.5 percent and parks across Asia recording double-digit growth.

“Overseas, we're seeing the expansion of leisure time and family time so they are naturally moving to provide a meaningful place for entertainment and leisure,” says Gary Goddard, a former Disney Imagineer who now runs his own successful company designing and building attractions and parks in places around the globe including Korea, Macau, Indonesia, Malaysia and especially Russia. Moscow has never had a world-class theme park, but currently three are being developed or constructed

While the bulk of park visitors are still solidly middle class, insist both Disney and Universal spokesmen, there is no doubt that since the 2008 recession there has also been a shift toward providing those with money even more innovative, unique and luxurious experiences.

There was a time the very rich didn’t go to theme parks, but parks and surrounding hotels and attractions have found ways to cater to the well-heeled.

“The luxury world is very experience-centric,” says Courtney Driver, executive editor of JustLuxe.com. “They are looking for value in the form of an ultra-exclusive-feeling experience.”

At the Peabody, says Hameed, that can begin at the airport when the visitors are picked up in a limo or, as he recently arranged, a $500,000 Lamborghini Aventador. That couple checked into the $2,500-a-night penthouse suite where the mini-bar was customized to their personal tastes. When they went to dinner, their photos were on the menu, and as they left, musicians played their favorite song.

There are special guided tours available at both Disney and Universal parks, with the right to jump to the head of the line, and in some cases special trams, visits with stars and players, VIP meals and more.

At Disneyland, single-day adult tickets now cost $92 (kids 3-9 are $86). But VIP guided tour packages for up to 10 people go for $355 an hour for a minimum of six hours ($2,130). That includes a private tour guide, a front-of-the-line pass for rides, restaurant reservations and reserved spaces at shows and parades for up to 10 people. VIPs must still also buy park hopper tickets at $137 per adult ($131 per child). For a family of four, that works out to just over $2,600, and it doesn’t include food, souvenirs or parking.

At Universal parks in Orlando, groups of up to 12 people can book a two-day, two-park “experience” for $4,250, plus park admission of $74 per day, which for 12 people is another $1,804 per person.

In Anaheim at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel, there are themed suites, including one reflecting Adventureland, that for up to $4,000 a night includes, according to Disney, “a master bedroom fashioned as a safari lodge with a claw-foot bathtub in the living area. In the master bathroom lies a grotto with a foot spa, steam and rain showers, and lighting and sound effects that make you feel like you’re in a rain forest or a savanna.”

VIP Disney hotel guests also have a private entrance into California Adventure and several days a week can get into the park up to an hour before it opens to the public.

“When money is no object,” says Hameed, “we can make anything happen.”

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