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Six reasons why crowds are packing theme parks this Christmas season

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Published: December 30, 2010 at 10:19 AM

Crowds continue to slam theme parks this week, with Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom, Universal's Islands of Adventure and even California Adventure reaching capacity, sometimes as quickly as two hours after their morning openings. SeaWorld's reporting record Christmas season attendance, too. We're seeing the largest crowds in years at the Central Florida and Southern California theme parks.

Why?

Here are six factors that are driving more and more families to America's top theme parks this Christmas week:

Good weather...

Many families throughout the north want to enjoy a week of warmer weather during the holidays, so they vacation someplace warm, such as Florida or Southern California. Since theme parks comprise many of the attractions in those locations, attendance soars.

...That's not too hot

Florida and Southern California have many other attractions in addition to theme parks, but when the high temperatures struggle to get into the 70s, or fail to get even that high (as it has this week in Florida and SoCal) most families won't consider spending much time at the beach, or with other outdoor attractions. That drives more families to the theme parks to pass the time on their vacations.

Harry Potter

Not only was the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter the biggest story of the year in theme parks, it was a present under the Christmas tree of many Harry Potter fans around the world. Universal Orlando's new land continues to draw visitors to Central Florida boosting attendance for all the local theme parks, as fans make their Harry Potter pilgrimage a week-long theme park vacation.

A weak economy

Southern California doesn't have Harry Potter, but it does have 15-million-plus local residents who can't afford to fly to Hawaii, or travel too far from home, due to continued weakness in the U.S. economy and an ongoing recession in the real estate market. (Many Southern Californians paid for their vacations over the past decade with home equity money. That's gone now, thanks to the collapse of the real estate bubble.) But people still want to go someplace special during their holiday break. So what do they do? "We're going to Disneyland!"

The drug war

In the past, Mexico provided a cheap, warm holiday alternative when money was tight for Southern Californians. But with continued drug gang violence scaring off potential visitors, more and more Southern Californians are opting to stay on their side of the border, instead. What does that mean? "We're going to Disneyland!" again.

A price that's right

Not everyone craves warm weather at Christmas time. Ski resorts traditionally have welcomed large crowds over the holidays, for families who prefer snow over sun at this time of year. But skiing's grown too expensive for many U.S. families, especially in a tough economy. Skiing makes theme parks looks like a huge bargain. Daily lift ticket prices at many ski resorts equal or exceed one-day ticket costs at many theme parks, but theme parks don't require you to buy or rent extra equipment to visit, either. Just walk through the turnstiles and go. Nor is there much of the injury risk inherent in skiing in visiting a theme park. I can't remember the last time someone blew out a knee riding Pirates of the Caribbean.

Add these six factors together, and you've created an environment that steers thousands of families into deciding "Hey, a theme park visit looks like our best choice for this holiday vacation." So that's where they go, filling parks to capacity and closing gates to new visitors within a couple hours of opening each morning.

That's great news for the industry, but a challenge, as well. Because if the seventh factor on this list becomes "theme parks are *too* crowded," that perception will drive visitors away, undercutting the attendance growth that a recession-weary industry desperately needs. Theme parks will need to invest some of the cash they are earning this week in building new rides and shows to expand their capacity and serve the crowds that they hope will visit their parks next Christmas and for many holiday seasons beyond.

Readers' Opinions

From Anthony Murphy on December 30, 2010 at 10:24 AM
I agree with the economy.

It is interesting to see the guests at Disneyland vs Disney World and the way "things go". I found us to be a novelty when cast members at DL asked where we were from (probably because we were from outside of LA and east of the Mississippi).

It is a bit strange to see Universal and Disney really not in competition with each other in CA. They seemed to have found their own nitche in the market and actually support each other. Thats very different from FL!

From Derek Potter on December 30, 2010 at 12:43 PM
Glad to see parks having a good holiday season. Unfortunately the fact that they become ridiculously busy during this time of year is what already keeps me away from them. There just aren't enough high capacity "people movers" in most of these parks to keep the lines moving very quickly.

Good for Universal Florida too. People criticized them during the worst of the recession for not heavily discounting and for budging very little on ticket prices and deals. They took their lumps in attendance, but stayed strong, kept their revenue up, and built great attractions instead of puckering up. As I predicted would happen during that crisis, Universal has managed to take a chunk out of Disney this year because Disney had a hard time seeing past the panic. I read that Islands of Adventure has been filled to capacity the past few days...the point where they could let nobody else in. As much as I loathe Harry Potter, there's no denying that Universal did it up right, and there's no denying that there are still a lot of people out there that love him. Long term success for Harry...we'll see, but for now he's king of Orlando.

From Amianne Moore on December 30, 2010 at 4:11 PM
It has been the most crowded I have ever seen the parks. Those who have never been are not getting the true feel of what the parks can offer, and I worry that they will get a bad taste and not want to experience the parks again.
From 68.91.222.180 on December 30, 2010 at 4:13 PM
Interesting comment from Derek. When Actually Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure was a "well kept secret" as you could often purchase an annual pass for the price of a "length" of stay pass (7 days for the price of 2 full days). We purchased annual passes for $100/pp/year.

The year that Harry Potter opened, their rates doubled across the board. What use to be a less expensive alternative to Disney, basically for families on a budget, to now direct competition with Disney on price. Personally, we were sadden by their greed and now have passes to Disney World. It will be a while before we head back to US/IOA.

Glad the area is doing well, it's been hard hit for the past 3 years and it shows in the appearance of the parks. Even at Disney, things that normally would have been repaired within hours were still not fixed by the time we left. Sad... Hopefully 2011 will bring not only some reliable attendance, but some much needed funds to keep all the parks looking great.

Admittedly, Sea World always looks great, but they don't even try to pretend they are Disney or US/IOA. They do their own thing and it serves them well...

From O. Lee Mincey on December 30, 2010 at 4:42 PM
I agree with your six reasons. I'll add one more, Disneyland, USF/IOA and Seaworld are great products. Quality always wills out.

Thanks for the good post!

From Larry Zimmerman on December 30, 2010 at 8:16 PM
I hadn't considered the Mexican connection, but that's a very good point, Robert. I think some judicious discounting is also helping to bring folks in and keeping them there thru the holidays. I've received holiday period offers from three of the biggies this year, and I expect that until consumer confidence climbs back up, that will continue.
From 64.237.251.17 on December 31, 2010 at 6:25 AM
Very good reasons Robert.

I also think another 2 reasons are:

-since the economy was bad for some time people weren't going on vacation either so maybe now it was time already to go back on vacation, and spend some of the money they didn't spend the last couple of years. (saying yeeze things are bad I don't think we're going on vacation this year!)

-after all is Disney! (...Universal/Seaworld) The point being, parks are going to be awful this time a year, but I'm guessing for a lot of people that is still better than no Disney in 2010. Having to wait until next year's Christmas to go on vacation again. Plus even if awfully crowded I'm willing to bet it is better to say "Hey George, what did you did on Christmas?" - Me and the family went to Disney World... v.s. Ahhg nothing we stay at home and did nothing...

-Francisco-

From 84.56.126.4 on December 31, 2010 at 9:17 AM
Hum, a theme park close to home is cheaper than a longer trip, even with Disney/Universal prices. But a trip to a major theme park is not cheaper than skiing and much more expensive than a sun and beach or a city holiday.
From Robert Niles on December 31, 2010 at 10:33 AM
At what ski resort can you get a cheaper hotel room than you can find in Orlando? As for tickets, a five-day adult lift ticket at Vail/Beaver Creek costs $385, compared with a five-day Walt Disney World ticket at just $237 ($291 if you add the park-hopper option). Plus, at Vail, you also would need to add the costs of equipment rental and ski school - with no equivalent cost for vacationing at Disney World, since you don't need special equipment or training to go to a theme park.

Sorry, the data shows that skiing is waaay more expensive than visiting theme parks.

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