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

5:00 AM PST 08/15/2013 by Alex Ben Block
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Parks around the world are seeing an increased number of visitors and spending.

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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