California Adventure Sees Visitors Jump in Annual Theme Park Survey

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California Adventure theme park

The Disneyland-adjacent park, fresh off a $1.1 billion revamp, sees attendance grow 22.6 percent in a year that saw strong growth in North America and Asia.

Disney's $1.1 billion revamp of California Adventure is looking like money well spent.

The five-year renovation to the Disneyland-adjacent theme park, with attractions like the $200 million Radiator Springs Racers (the most expensive ride in history), helped boost attendance by 22.6 percent in 2012 to 7.8 million visitors -- enough to make it the 11th most-attended theme park in the world. (The park drew 6.3 million visitors in 2011.)

That was the biggest percentage increase among the world's top 25 amusement and theme parks, according to the Themed Entertainment Association’s annual survey. In fact, 2012 was a very good year for amusement parks, which enjoyed a global rebound after the 2009 recession caused theme park attendance to plunge by 6 percent.

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Overall, global attendance was up a strong 5.2 percent, and attendance at the top ten attractions grew 6.7 percent.

U.S. theme parks are expecting a 2.8 percent increase this year to a record $13.4 billion in sales, according to research firm IBIS World. IBIS also thinks theme park revenues will climb another 2.4 percent each year through 2017. (Just last week, Disney raised the price for a ticket to Disneyland from $89 to $95 for an adult single day pass, nearly a 7 percent increase.)

Along with the economic recovery, much of the growth in theme park traffic was driven by attractions -- aside from California Adventure, Universal saw big gains from its Wizarding World of Harry Potter park in Orlando, which opened in 2011.

It doesn’t come cheaply. Disney spent three times as much on theme park improvement in 2012 as it did in 2008, not only on California Adventure but also to remake Fantasyland in Orlando and elsewhere. It is also building a major new park in Shanghai, in partnership with the Chinese government.

That's because Asia is a hot market. The continent showed double-digit growth in 2012 for all theme parks, with Hong Kong Disneyland alone up 14 percent.

By contrast, attendance stalled at Europe's theme parks in the wake of a widespread credit crunch. Overall attendance remained static at about 58 million visitors, according to Natalia Bakhlina, associate director of economics for TEA in Europe: “The industry has suffered from the enduring recession climate, worsened by cold and rainy weather in Northern European countries.”

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The strongest growth in Europe was recorded by Legoland Windsor (two million visitors, up 5.3 percent) and Puy Du Fou, a historical park in France (1.6 million, up 6.7 percent).

Disney, where 126 million ticket buyers make it the biggest theme park operator in the world, had the top eight attractions: The Magic Kingdom in Orlando (17.5 million visitors, up 2.3 percent), Disneyland (15.9 million, down 1.1 percent), Tokyo Disneyland (14.8 million, up 8.5 percent), Tokyo Disney Sea (12.6 million, up 8.5 percent), Disneyland Park Paris (11.2 million, up 1.9 percent), EPCOT in Orlando (11 million, up 2.2 percent), Disney’s Animal Kingdom (9.9 million, up 2.2 percent) and Disney’s Hollywood Studios (9.9 million, up 2.2 percent).

Universal Studios in Los Angeles was number 16 on the list with 5.9 million visitors, up 15 percent over 2011. The Universal Studio Recreation Group, which is part of Comcast, attracted 34.5 million visitors, up 7.9 percent over 2011.

“Overall growth in the North American theme park market was substantial in 2012 with 131.6 million visits to the top 20 theme parks, equal to 4.6 million more visits or 3.6 percent higher than in 2011,” according to Brian Sands, TEA’s vice president of economics in the Americas, in the report. “This is the second consecutive year recently with growth of around 3 percent.”