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

Hameed Jasat isn't surprised that this summer will set a record for attendance and revenues at the major theme parks in Orlando, Anaheim and many other cities around the world.

Known to his clients simply as Hameed, he is president of the Central Florida Concierge Association and director of guest services for the upscale Peabody Hotel, which is five minutes from NBCUniversal’s two theme parks, two minutes from SeaWorld and 15 minutes from Disney’s three area parks. Hameed says it has been as busy a summer as he can remember, dating back to when he started in 1997. He credits the new attractions at the parks as well as efforts by the community to boost tourism. “In recent years Orlando has had an active campaign,” says Hameed. “We’re really selling it as a world-class destination.”

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Brian Martin of Visit Orlando says his organization projected earlier this year 57.7 million visitors in 2013, up 1.5 percent over the prior year. Based on early summer hotel bookings, however, he now expects it to actually be up 2 to 3 percent. Room reservations for the second half of 2013 are up 6.3 percent over last year. “We’re on pace this year to set another record,” says Martin.

Orlando isn't alone. Theme parks around the world are experiencing a boom.

“It appears it’s going to be another strong summer for U.S. theme parks, with the big parks in Southern California and Orlando all trending upward this summer,” says Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider. “These are the most popular in the country, and if they are going up, the industry as a whole is going up.”

The upswing at Universal’s Orlando parks dates to the 2010 opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, which led to a 40 percent year-to-year increase in attendance and has been transformative for the entire theme park industry. It has led to heavy capital investments to build or update not just attractions but entire “lands,” as Disney has done with Fantasyland.

Even Harry Potter land has a slew of new attractions, from rides to restaurants. There are already Harry Potter lands planned in Los Angeles and Japan, and by next year Orlando will have a second land, The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter - Dragon Alley, at the sister park, Universal Studios Florida.

“We’re connecting both areas with the Hogwarts Express,” says Universal spokesman Tom Schroder, “so just like in the movie you can travel between the two areas. In our minds, we are taking the level of the Harry Potter experience as it exists now and increasing it exponentially.”

Not only are there more visitors, but they are staying a little longer and spending more, according to Matthew Earnest of Entertainment + Cultural Advisors of Beverly Hills. The uptick in attendance has even allowed Disney and Universal to push through price increases that have apparently done nothing to slow the tide of visitors.  

“These new attractions are a marketing tool to get attendees back and to justify a higher price because it is an enhanced experience, a deeper experience," Earnest says. "That is very important as they try to get a better yield in terms of revenue from each guest.”

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The Disney U.S. parks set new records in the second quarter, and on Aug. 6, Disney CEO Bob Iger said both Disney World in Orlando – where the newly renovated Fantasyland reopened this spring -- as well as Disneyland in Anaheim, set new attendance records in the third quarter, which ended June 29. For that quarter, attendance at the domestic parks was up three percent, and reflecting the ability to get more out of each guest, per capita spending soared by 7 percent. Disney credited the higher per capita spending to higher ticket prices and food and beverage spending. Disney also said there were more rooms available in company-owned hotels than last year but the occupancy rate stayed the same -- reflecting an overall increase in visitors.

In California, Comcast reported in June that its theme park in Universal City also set an attendance record in 2012 -- up 15 percent over the prior year to 5.9 million visitors -- and it is on track for another blazing summer, led by the popularity of King Kong: 360 3D and Transformers: The Ride 3D.

It’s a similar story in Anaheim, where indications are the rest of the summer will stay on a winning track. Advance area hotel bookings for Anaheim were at nearly 80 percent of capacity entering August, which Elaine Cali of the Anaheim Orange County Visitor & Convention Center says is “looking positive” to be a record year.

“It has been a strong year for occupancy and theme park attendance,” says Cali. “We are looking for 2013 to be a great year with all the new entertainment in our area.”

Universal’s Schroder credits what he calls the “overwhelmingly positive guest response to the launch earlier this year of Transformers: The Ride 3D in Orlando (joining the one in Hollywood). “2012 was a really good year,” says Schroder, “and what seems to have come back from our research is that this year is looking better.”

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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.”