Written by Kevin Baxter
Published: January 4, 2005 at 5:34 AM
We've seen the attendance numbers and we know the big losers were Cedar Fair and Six Flags. As if that weren't bad enough, their most talked-about parks - Cedar Park and Six Flags Magic Mountain - both lost visitors when many other parks stayed even or made gains. Even worse, these are the two parks that have had the most public battle in amusement park history. Well, it's worse for them; highly entertaining for me.
Longtime readers will know how moronic I believe their whole coaster war has been. Both parks have basically ignored other parts of their parks so they could have MORE coasters or HIGHER coasters or WILDER coasters or FASTER coasters. Hey, I love coasters, but a park that only offers coasters is like a restaurant that offers only hamburgers. It's not a horrible idea, but few people want hamburgers all the time. And, apparently, few people want roller coasters all the time.
Want proof? People travel from all over to visit the mostly coaster-free Disney and Universal parks. SeaWorld Orlando has flourished with a whopping 1 1/2 coasters. Yet coasterized parks near them like Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, Magic Mountain and Knott's can't get close to those top-tier parks in attendance. BGTB is about an hour's drive from Orlando, but its commendable 4.1 million guests this year is 1.5 million lower than SWO, Orlando's least-attended park. Magic Mountain is only about 30 minutes from Anaheim (or 45... or an hour!) yet its 2.7M is less than half that of the mostly-reviled California Adventure. SFMM isn't that much farther than Universal Studios Hollywood, yet 5M fought horrible traffic to get to that smallish park. But the worst of the group is Knott's, whose respectable 3.6M becomes a little less respectable when you realize that not only does much of that total come from their popular Halloween event, but it is only a few miles away from Disneyland. You don't even have to get on the freeway and it still gets less people than the faraway USH.
But Six Flags and Cedar Fair have mostly ignored these facts. And how they have paid. Cedar Point, which used to be the country's most popular "regional park" (Cedar Fair's Knott's is actually a more popular park than CP, but its proximity to Disneyland and USH disqualifies it from its regional status) has been replaced by another Ohio park, Paramount's Kings Island. To be fair, the parks have gone back and forth for years, but PKI's recent attendance numbers show an upward trend, while CP's only rises in "New Coaster!" years. And if it never ever EVER rains, apparently, since that is Cedar Fair's excuse for PKI's current dominance.
Instead of focusing so much on SFMM, why wasn't Cedar Point focusing on PKI? It's not like there's much of a crossover in SFMM's market and CP's. Yet, there is certainly a lot of crossover between the two Ohio park markets. If they had been paying attention to what PKI has been doing - and doing successfully - the past few years, they might not be having the troubles they are having now. While Six Flags was constantly trying to outdo Cedar Fair and vice versa, PKI ignored the both of them and decided they were going to outdo a park company that is more successful than all three of them. Disney? Universal? Nope.
Specifically, the deadly duo of Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. BGTB's numbers are impressive for a mostly regional park in a not-too-populated area. BGW's numbers - 2.4M - put it at over a million people below PKI, but it is highly regarded park with a following almost as fervent as Cedar Point's. (While in a fairly populated area, BGW's low attendance is mostly due to lots of competing parks in the area, like nearby Paramount's Kings Dominion, but it does manage to beat them all.) Busch, unlike these other three park chains, has a history of theming up their rides. Not as much as Disney or Universal, as Busch can't afford to pop out $100M rides on a regular basis, if ever. But enough to separate it from most of the crowd. So Busch is actually a great company for a themeless park company to aspire to. Or to aspire to beat.
Which Paramount is clearly trying to do. Recent PKI additions like Scooby Doo, Tomb Raider and the under-construction Italian Job Stunt Track (which, for some friggin' reason already has TWO FRAPPIN' VOTES... how retarded are you if you rate a ride that hasn't even been built yet???) show more attention to theming than has ever been present in the past. An online survey is filled with many such themed attractions that prove PKI is not the only Paramount park that will be getting the Buschlike upgrades.
Of course, all the dorks out there who can't see beyond the gates of CP or SFMM will act unimpressed, but this IS impressive. Buzz is all important in the theme park world, and who is getting it for 2005? Kingda Ka, of course, is getting major buzz for Six Flags, but that's probably because the park with the TALLESTEST coaster will no longer be Magic Mountain or Cedar Point but Six Flags Great Adventure, SF's most popular park. The Curse of DarKastle at Busch Gardens Williamsburg is getting major buzz as everyone wonders whether this will be Busch's second worthy Disniversal-level ride since SeaWorld Orlando's Journey to Atlantis (recent attempts Rhino Rally and Haunted Lighthouse didn't live up to their buzz). There's the new Space Mountain in Disneyland, of course, and, to a lesser extent, its Buzz Lightyear clone. (Epcot's Soarin' clone and Disney/MGM's auto stunt show aren't generating a tenth of the buzz of Animal Kingdom's Expedition Everest, which won't debut until 2006.) There's minor buzz out there for other projects, like BGTB's SheiKra, which should be getting more buzz considering it is the country's first dive coaster. Maybe because it screams One Trick Pony? (Actually a Two Trick Pony, but still.) Plus, a little for Knott's' Silver Bullet, but most of that is because Knott's sucks. No one's going to get that excited about another inverted coaster. Then there is PKI's Italian Job Stunt Track, which may be generating the most buzz. Not because it is the most exciting ride idea ever, but because it is THE ride that has informed the world of Paramount's major new business plan.
This buzz threatens to hurt Magic Mountain and Cedar Point even more than their construction choices. SFMM will be getting a new Batman stunt show this year, and CP MAY be getting what sounds like a Giant Frisbee. Not that those things are necessarily so bad; shows should be changed regularly and I absolutely love Frisbees. But both parks are spiralling downward and having no buzz this year will not help. Both parks will probably add coasters in 2006, but by then all the focus will be on Expedition Everest and IOA's and USH's next attractions. Everest is already big, and the Universal rides both promise to be huge too. 2006 already promises to be a big one for attractions, and SFMM and CP will have to compete with that, instead of competing this year, where buzz is so far fairly moderate.
I applaud both parks for getting away momentarily from their coaster obsessions, but having ignored the family market for so long puts both parks at a disadvantage that will take many years and many millions of dollars to overcome. Good luck to them! (They'll need it!)
That's my two pennies... Gimme yours!
Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom
Disney's Animal Kingdom
Disney's Hollywood Studios
Disney California Adventure
Universal Studios Florida
Universal's Islands of Adventure
Universal Studios Hollywood