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Walt Disney theme parks dominate theme park attendance in 2009

By Robert Niles
Published: April 26, 2010 at 9:30 PM
The Themed Entertainment Association, along with AECOM Economics, has issued the 2009 theme park attendance report. [PDF file]

Here are the Top 20 United States theme parks for 2009:

1. Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom: 17.2 million +1.0%
2. Disneyland: 15.9 million +8.0%
3. Epcot: 11.0 million +0.5%
4. Disney's Hollywood Studios: 9.7 million +1.0%
5. Disney's Animal Kingdom: 9.6 million +0.5%
6. Disney's California Adventure: 6.1 million +9.5%
7. SeaWorld Orlando: 5.8 million -6.8%
8. Universal Studios Florida: 5.4 million -12.0%
9. Islands of Adventure: 4.5 million -13.8%
10. Universal Studios Hollywood: 4.3 million -6.0%
11. SeaWorld San Diego: 4.2 million -12.6%
12. Busch Gardens Tampa: 4.1 million -12.3%
13. Knott's Berry Farm: 3.3 million -6.5%
14. Canada's Wonderland: 3.2 million -6.5%
15. Kings Island: 3.0 million -4.0%
16. Cedar Point : 2.9 million -8.0%
17. Busch Gardens Williamsburg: 2.9 million +3.7%
18. Hersheypark: 2.8 million -1.2%
19. Six Flags Great Adventure: 2.6 million -4.6%
20. Six Flags Magic Mountain: 2.5 million -2.5%
(tie) Six Flags Great America: 2.5 million -6.3%

And the Top 20 theme park worldwide:

1. Magic Kingdom
2. Disneyland
3. Tokyo Disneyland: 13.6 million -4.5%
4. Disneyland Paris: 12.7 million +0.4%
5. Tokyo DisneySea: 12 million -4.0%
6. Epcot
7. Disney's Hollywood Studios
8. Disney's Animal Kingdom
9. Universal Studios Japan: 8.0 million -3.6%
10. Everland (South Korea): 6.2 million -6.5%
11. Disney's California Adventure
12. SeaWorld Orlando
13. Universal Studios Florida
14. Ocean Park (Hong Kong): 4.8 million -4.6%
15. Nagashima Spa Land (Japan): 4.7 million +1.1%
16. Hong Kong Disneyland: 4.6 million +2.0%
17. Islands of Adventure
(tie) Yokohama Hakkeijima Spa Paradise: 4.5 million -0.7%
19. Universal Studios Hollywood
20. Lotte World (South Korea): 4.3 million +0.6%

Analysis? The global economic recession battered everyone in 2009 - except Disney, which rode a brilliant get-in-free-on-your-birthday promotion to attendance gains at all six of its U.S. theme parks last year. Only one non-Disney park in the U.S. Top 20 managed to increase its attendance in 2009: Hats off to Busch Gardens Williamsburg for pulling off that impossible-for-everyone-else feat.

The worst attendance losses were at the non-Disney theme parks in Orlando, especially at the Universal parks. Islands of Adventure suffered the worst drop-off among the top 20 in 2009, which I will attribute to IOA fans holding off last year, waiting instead to visit in 2010, when The Wizarding World of Harry Potter debuts. Throw in the delayed opening of Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit at Universal Studios Florida, and many Universal Orlando fans clearly chose to sit out 2009.

Finally, should we quit calling Cedar Point the flagship of the Cedar Fair chain, now that the Sandusky, Ohio theme park is fourth in that chain for annual attendance? Heck, Cedar Point's no longer the most popular Cedar Fair park in the state of Ohio, as Kings Island rode the debut of its Diamondback coaster to pass its northern neighbor last year. (Actually, a better way to describe that would be to say that, thanks to Diamondback, Kings Island lost fewer visitors than Cedar Point did in 2009.)

Thoughts?

Readers' Opinions

From Manny Barron on April 26, 2010 at 10:01 PM
Thanks for posting these numbers. I'm always amazed at the Magic Kingdom. I've been to both Disneyland and MK in the summer and Disneyland always feels like it has more people. Maybe I've been lucky when visiting MK and seeing short waiting times. IOA and USF will obviously benefit from Harry Potter this year and Sea World Orlando will hurt the most from this.
From Steven Lee on April 26, 2010 at 10:24 PM
Thanks for posting! Always interesting to look at!

I noticed on the corporate list Herschend Family Entertainment is no longer in the top 10. Last year they were 10th place with 9.2 million.

My forecast for 2010 attendance is that we see theme park attendance globally increase slightly since the economy is on a recovery path. I see Disney parks have a slight increase, Universal Orlando having a significant increase (not sure if it will counter the 12% they decreased though in 2009). I think SeaWorld will have either a slight decrease or no change in the 2010 report next year (thinking the decrease more likely).

Anyone notice Disney's California Adventure was the second highest increase in the top 25 parks list and the highest within Disney?

From James Rao on April 27, 2010 at 4:18 AM
Wow. The gap between the haves (Disney) and the have-nots (everyone else) continues to expand.

Interestingly, even in a down year, folks were still heading to Orlando, but only to go to Disney. Illustrating once again that the other Florida parks (while featuring some amazing attractions) are just there to absorb the Disney spillover. I expect that trend to change a little bit once IOA opens Harry Potter later this year.

Kudos to Six Flags for moving up in the pecking order a bit, to BGW for making gains when everyone else dropped like a rock, and to DCA for its substantial increases. I can only imagine the growth this much maligned location will receive in the years ahead. Furthermore, I expect Herschend will bounce back in the year ahead now that the loss of Celebration City has been accounted for and because of renewed expansion at Silver Dollar City (Tom & Huck's River Blast), Dollywood (Adventure Mountain), as well as continued improvement at Wild Adventures.

And, for the record, I've been calling Knotts Berry Farm the flagship Cedar Fair park since my comment in this thread on October 17, 2009 at 8:20 AM! =)

Now, back to work...ugh, how I miss my carefree visit-TPI-every-five-minutes days...

From Mark Migliaccio on April 27, 2010 at 4:35 AM
Busch Gardens Williamsburg debuted Christmas Town last year as well. And the park was packed almost every night. This may have had a lot to do with the jump in attendance.
From TH Creative on April 27, 2010 at 5:42 AM
Assuming that Universal's numbers fell as folks have put-off a trip until the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opens.

Still, ya gotta give props to Disney. Hypothetically, if the Potter attractions were to DOUBLE attendance at IOA, it still would not reach the attendance numbers of the lowest scoring WDW park (Animal Kingdom).

Disney just DOMINATES this industry.

From Derek Potter on April 27, 2010 at 6:50 AM
Disney attendance is also a result of the heavy promotion and hotel discounting that they did last year. They accomplished the mission of maintaining attendance, albeit likely at a cost financially. The rest of the parks (Universal, Busch, Cedar Fair, Six Flags) for the most part maintained their price structures, and suffered in the attendance column.

Universal is ripe for a monster year. The Harry Potter attractions are opening and there's a roller coaster that many haven't ridden yet. With the economy starting to loosen up a little bit, hopefully people will start coming back like they were a few years ago.

Nice to see Six Flags getting back into the picture. Most of their improvements the past couple of years have been infrastructure ones too. It's amazing what some paint, working attractions, clean sidewalks, a little marketing and better management will get you. With the size of their markets, they have huge potential.

And no, I won't stop calling Cedar Point the flagship park of Cedar Fair. Attendance at Knotts was slightly higher, but I attribute that to the extra operating days and better weather. If Knotts ran at 5 or 6 million, then I might listen to that argument, but they only run a few hundred thousand more than Cedar Point with an operating schedule that's a full 5 months longer. If judgment is going to be made on a park's quality or status based on attendance, then one should look beneath the surface numbers as well. Factors such as operating schedule, location, economic climate, weather, and promotion should be examined. An interesting stat for some of these parks is average number of visitors per day. I present a formula

Total Attendance/number of operating days= average per day

Knotts- 11,000 average per day...based on a 300 day schedule. I think they are open more days than that, but I used the remainder of the calendar.

Cedar Point- 21,324 per day. Based on the full 2010 operating schedule of 136 days.


Canada's Wonderland is well run with no competition. Certainly not dismissing their success, but they benefit from that position as well as being close to Toronto. As for Ohio, if you look at the attendance figures for the two parks in the past 25 years, you'll see that Cedar Point and Kings Island have been battling back and forth in the attendance war for a long time regardless of ownership. Kings Island happens to have the hot attraction in the region and a really good kids area, and people have responded to that. When CP builds a big new ride and people start extending their stays at their hotels again, Cedar Point will pull ahead....and then Kings Island will, and so on. I also think that the company is wisely spending a lot of money at other parks. Kings Dominion and Carowinds are getting the high profile rides this year, and their markets will respond. Don't be surprised if you see Kings Dominion on this list next year.

From Anthony Murphy on April 27, 2010 at 6:35 AM
That is not good for the Six Flags Parks, especially by SFGA which seemed like they held way more than 2.5 million in 2009. That number seems way too low based upon what I saw and the hype, pricing, and specials they ran all season long. As for SFGA making it in the top 20 along with SFGAdv and SFMM, I guess they are the top SF parks.

Still, SFGA numbers seem too low to me based on attendence when I was there, insanely low ticket prices, lots of special events, and pairing up with a resort and giving their guests "perks"

Magic Kingdom being top dog is no suprise here!

From Bob Miller on April 27, 2010 at 6:43 AM
Robert, like Derek mentioned about Disney's promotions, I wonder what attendance would have been like without them? I know the resort discount drew Zachary and I there last year.

And how many people went for their birthday and brought along other friends? And considering that the northern parks are closed during the winter months, how much more would they gain if they were in a warmer climate like Disney World?

From 136.1.1.102 on April 27, 2010 at 7:56 AM
I believe your comment on Cedar Pint not being the flagship park of Cedar Fair was a little short sighted. It had a few things working against it last year. First and foremost is that Cedar Point is located in the most economically depressed region of the country. Double digit unemployment in all the major markets from which it draws (Southeastern Michigan, Northern Ohio, & Western Pennsylvania). Secondly, there were no major new ride openings last year. With Kings Island being so close it drew many of Cedar Point's guests to Diamondback for the one-time visit of the season. Lastly, and probably the most significant, that region of the Midwest (Michigan & Northern Ohio) did not have a summer last year. The weather was rainy and cold for most of the summer causing many casual visitors to cancel their day trips. I believe many of these things will be remedied over the next few years. The economy is bouncing back. The weather cannot be THAT bad every year (it was awful). Finally, I strongly believe Cedar Point due for a big new ride introduction next year encompassing the spot where Demon Drop once stood. All together I believe Cedar Point will be back at the top of Cedar Fair in terms of attendance.
From Thomas Caselli on April 27, 2010 at 8:05 AM
Obviously other parks would have higher attendance numbers if they were in warmer climates but they aren't and Disney is still Disney. Disney is always running promotional things, but that doesn't change the fact that nobody does it like Disney.
From 166.205.6.34 on April 27, 2010 at 9:46 AM
Are you kidding, other parks didn't run promotions???

Universal ran that huge ad during the super bowl last year giving out at least 100,000 FREE tickets!

If you're a Florida resident Universal is also always sending people free one-day tickets in the mail...

And Sea World along with Busch Gardens offer the Fun Card where you pay for less than a day and come back all year for free.

Disney did run probably their most aggressive discount compaign in their history but they pale so much in comparison to the other discounts the other parks are offering.

Disney is still by far the most expensive ticket in Orlando yet people continue to only visit them because they're Disney and can really get away with anything...

From Robert Niles on April 27, 2010 at 10:35 AM
I wish that the report drilled down to the Top 50 parks, as it did when Amusement Business and ERA were running it. It'd be nice to see what other parks managed to increase attendance in 2009. Anecdotally, I hear that Legoland California and Holiday World increased attendance, along with Busch Gardens Williamsburg, in 2009.

Not so coincidentally, those are three of my favorite non-Disney parks in this country. Quality and value deliver visitors, in any economy. I hope that every park with declining attendance on this list takes it as a challenge to improve its guest value in 2010, no matter what the economy does.

Sure, a tough economy can make it tough to justify a major new attraction. Corporate finances might make borrowing to build difficult. But there's always something that any park can do to improve guest value, whether that be in pricing, cleanliness, customer service, entertainment or food.

Take a look at Magic Mountain, which aggressively has made changes in these areas in recent years. Sure, it was down, too. But Magic Mountain's decrease was the second-smallest in this group (and the smallest of the non-Disney SoCal theme parks), which allowed the park to climb back into the Top 20, after missing out last year. Yes, Magic Mountain debuted Terminator Salvation last year, but other parks that debuted bigger coasters suffered worse declines.

Better customer value helped stanch the losses at Magic Mountain. And great customer value helped Busch Gardens, Holiday World and Legoland increase. Parks that see this downturn as inspiration to make improvements in this area will be the ones that dominate the industry when more customers return.

From Derek Potter on April 27, 2010 at 11:17 AM
Thomas, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the power of the Disney resort promotion. Universal's promotions weren't small potatoes, but Disney's hotels and 4 on property parks make their operation quite the racket. Again, let's scratch below the surface.

If a family of 4 visits Disney for 5 days, the park can rack up multiple visits per guest per park per day. If the family simply goes to one park every day regardless of length of visit, Disney has added 20 to their attendance. If they visit more than one park per day on any given day or repeat visit regardless of length of visit, the numbers add up even more. Multiply those potential numbers with the amount of Disney hotel rooms, and you begin to see how attendance can pile up quickly.

The hotel packages and park hopper passes are big reasons why all of the Disney properties in Orlando are able to rack up such big numbers. The parks and resorts all feed off of each other, creating massive attendance figures full of short term pass holders. That's why Disney chose to pretty much give away their hotel rooms when times were tough instead of free park tickets, because they know their customer and they know their habits. A free park ticket only gets the customer for one day. 3 or 4 free nights at a hotel gets them for almost a week. Does it cost them profit? You bet it does, but they keep the turnstiles going.

Of course there is still a reason why all of those people choose to go to Disney. Aside from all of the formulas, deductions, and numbers, it's still a fantastic place to visit.

Agree with you Robert on the list being short. I would like to see the top 50 as well.

From Steven Lee on April 27, 2010 at 11:37 AM
So I'm hearing talk that these numbers are not so accurate. I've heard that TEA is not even contacting many of the parks that are in the top 20 or near the top 20. I understand that Disney mostly doesn't release figures but it's other parks as well that have not been contacted. I've heard talk that the Busch Garden parks are not even being contacted for numbers that TEA is completely generating the numbers themselves for these reports.

So if this is true, why? and what are the REAL numbers?

From 144.96.43.83 on April 27, 2010 at 11:57 AM
Oh yeah I was surprised to see numbers released. Having worked for the mouse, I know park attendnce (even park capacities) are industry secrets. As for WDW guest count there are several counts Disney does.One is the number of guest in a park at a time. Another is the number of park hoppers being used in a day (so really Disney knows not to count every single admission , and thanks to the biometrics, it keeps a pretty good tab, there's a count of hotel guest and park hopper tickets sold (which is used to estimate for operations of the parks) and then a seperate hotel count (big convention business where a lot of folks don't go to the parks) and one of the last counts they do is of parked vehicles and transportation count. I'm pretty sure Disney does not release numbers, and if they do, they do not double count their guest...if they did, they everything they did based off of attendance numbers would be inflated and they're much smarter than that.

But in whole, I can believe Disney parks attendance is still up. Aside from free birthdays and free volunteer day, Disney doesn't do much more advertising that other companies in part...it is Disney World...people from all over the world know about it. It has an image, a presence that makes it the ultimate pilgrimage for entertainment that doesn't need much advertising. Working there, I asked people who came from other countries why they came to WDW, particularly if there was a Disney Park in their country and all they could say was that this was DIsney World, the big one, the legend.

And I agree with the concept that Universal gets the Disney overflow. The Universal parks are not worth traveling all the way to Florida for by themselves, that is until perhaps the Harry Potter World. When that opens, I think Universal will only have an attendance spike for 2 years max. And no doubt that Disney in the end, will benefit from Harry Potter as well, and by the time the HP spike wears off, the new F Land will be done.

From Thomas Caselli on April 27, 2010 at 12:09 PM
I wasn't criticizing anybody and I never said that no other parks did any promotions. I was just stating the fact that Disney has been running different promotions for along time. It is something that they do.
From Adam Dodds on April 27, 2010 at 12:56 PM
Oh yeah I was surprised to see numbers released. Having worked for the mouse, I know park attendance (even park capacities) are industry secrets. As for WDW guest count there are several counts Disney does.One is the number of guest in a park at a time. Another is the number of park hoppers being used in a day (so really Disney knows not to count every single admission , and thanks to the biometrics, it keeps a pretty good tab) there's a count of hotel guest and park hopper tickets sold (which is used to estimate for operations of the parks) and then a separate hotel count (big convention business where a lot of folks don't go to the parks) and one of the last counts they do is of parked vehicles and transportation count. I'm pretty sure Disney does not release numbers, and if they do, they do not double count their guest...if they did, they everything they did based off of attendance numbers that would be inflated and they're much smarter than that.

But in whole, I can believe Disney parks attendance is still up. Aside from free birthdays and free volunteer day, Disney doesn't do much more advertising that other companies in part because...it is Disney World...people from all over the world know about it. It has an image, a presence that makes it the ultimate pilgrimage for entertainment that doesn't need much advertising. Working there, I asked people who came from other countries why they came to WDW, particularly if there was a Disney Park in their country and all they could say was that this was Disney World, the big one, the legend.

And I agree with the concept that Universal gets the Disney overflow. The Universal parks are not worth traveling all the way to Florida for by themselves, that is until perhaps the Harry Potter World. When that opens, I think Universal will only have an attendance spike for 2 years max. And no doubt that Disney in the end, will benefit from Harry Potter as well, and by the time the HP spike wears off, the new F Land will be done.

From 68.33.93.33 on April 27, 2010 at 3:19 PM
There's no doubt that the Disney Company has the greatest marketing and promotion team of any Fortune 500 company. Between Disney, ABC, and ESPN, not to mention the other "arms" of the company, they understand how to generate revenue.

True, Disney offered incredible promotions to drive attendance into the park, but that's the Disney model! Its marketing team understands that getting people into the parks is what makes the money. In-park spending is higher at Disney parks than at any other theme park, period, regardless of attendance. I commend Disney for generating high attendance as a way to boost overall revenue. What parent can say no to the "Daddy, I want..." phrase uttered numerous times at Disney parks, not heard nearly as often at other parks.

Remember the last time you got that "free" ticket to the ballgame? How much did that free ticket end up costing you? Parking, hotdog, beer, nachos...

Disney understands that getting people into the park is the important part; once they are there, the wallets don't get put away. The fact that they had huge promotions shouldn't be an "excuse" as to why they lead the industry in attendance - it was by design, and it sure paid off!

From Michael Owen on April 28, 2010 at 8:35 AM
It's interesting to see that DCA as seen such increases whilst IOA has seen a decline in annual attendance as both parks are conducting considerable expansions, even if the DCA expansion is more of a long-term project.

I think it shows just how important local customers are to California Adventure. Even though there is new things coming over the next few years people aren't holding back on visits as many have the luxury of living close enough to Disneyland Resort to visit multiple times a year.

Over at IOA people are holding out as the park relies much more heavily on out-of-state and international guests who are more likely to hold out and plan a trip next year rather than visiting in 2009.

From 63.162.202.233 on April 28, 2010 at 8:47 AM
One qualifier to the Busch Gardens Williamsburg increase in attendence could be the addition of being open weekends Thanksgiving-to-Christmas with a holiday overlay in portions of the park. They caught a break on the weather most of those weekends, and it was very popular with the locals...although it was a let down that the Griffon was the only major ride open throughout the entire park.
From Robert Niles on April 28, 2010 at 10:25 AM
Strong point about BGW adding events to increase its attendance. That's exactly the thing that seasonal parks need to be doing. Everyone's figured out how to use Halloween to extend the season. Now parks need to look elsewhere on the calendar for additional opportunities to bring in people.
From Derek Potter on April 28, 2010 at 11:02 AM
It does get tough to do some of those special events at seasonal parks. Years ago Kings Island had Winterfest. It was pretty successful, but discontinued when Paramount bought the park in the early '90s. They tried to bring it back a few years ago, but it wasn't much of a success. It could have been a management/design thing, but the unpredictable and often nasty Ohio winter makes it tough to guarantee a pleasant experience. A Cedar Point winter event would be absolutely freezing.

Another issue for seasonal parks could be trying to get employees back to work for two weeks in the winter. Reliance on college, high school, and summer help doesn't guarantee that you can easily call them back to work for a couple of weeks during the holidays.

Seasonal parks that aren't taking advantage of the Halloween season are missing out big time.

From Tiffany Alfonso on April 30, 2010 at 7:52 AM
I'm not surprised that the Disney Parks hold the highest attendance in 2009! As a Disneyphile who live an hour from WDW myself, I can blame it on the birthday freebies, the out-of-towners, and the turismos (including the irksome Brazilian tour groups).

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