theme park industry attendance report that came out last week, to see what we can learn about the current state of the industry.Let's dive deeper into that
I've compiled a list with the top 20 most-attended theme parks in the United States from the 2007 report, then compared those attendance figures with ones from the most recent TEA/AECOM Theme Index, to see which top parks grew the most over the past decade. The median growth among the top parks over the past 10 years was about 14% — but the most interesting observations are to be made at the extremes of the report.
|Islands of Adventure||5,430,000||9,362,000||72.41%|
|Universal Studios Hollywood||4,700,000||8,086,000||72.04%|
|Disney California Adventure||5,680,000||9,295,000||63.64%|
|Universal Studios Florida||6,200,000||9,998,000||61.26%|
|Six Flags Great Adventure||2,720,000||3,200,000||17.65%|
|Disney's Animal Kingdom||9,490,000||10,844,000||14.27%|
|Disney's Hollywood Studios||9,510,000||10,776,000||13.31%|
|Six Flags Great America||2,630,000||2,950,000||12.17%|
|Knott's Berry Farm||3,630,000||4,014,000||10.58%|
|Busch Gardens Tampa||4,400,000||4,169,000||-5.25%|
|Busch Gardens Williamsburg||3,157,000||2,780,000*||-11.94%|
|SeaWorld San Diego||4,260,000||3,528,000||-17.18%|
[*2015 data, as BGW dropped from the Top 20 in 2016. FWIW, Six Flags Magic Mountain replaced it.]
You don't need a degree in statistics to see the trends here.
Let's start at the top. The Universal theme parks have enjoyed phenomenal growth over the past decade, and that's almost entirely thanks to the enormous popularity of the Harry Potter franchise and Universal's award-winning Wizarding World of Harry Potter lands.
Almost entirely, I said. Universal has complemented its investment in the Potter franchise with aggressive enhancements at all three of its U.S. theme parks, including attractions based upon Transformers, Despicable Me, King Kong, and The Simpsons. Thanks to smart investment by new owner Comcast and savvy development by its creative team, Universal has made the jump from sharing the mid-tier with SeaWorld to joining the non-Magic Kingdom Disney theme parks in popularity.
Speaking of SeaWorld, let's look now to the bottom of this list. It's not just the SeaWorld-branded parks that have suffered over the past decade. The entire chain has tanked (no pun intended) since being sold out from the protection of Anheuser-Busch's ownership into becoming a stand-alone company. The SeaWorld/Busch Gardens parks are the only ones on this list to have suffered attendance declines over the past decade. Even worse, every one of their four parks on this list have seen their attendance drop over that period.
If Universal needed multiple improvements to climb to the top of this list, the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens parks needed to suffer multiple failures to drop so far. And they did.
Universal's growth in Orlando, coupled with Disney's resilience, has put pressure on SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa to deliver something spectacular to keep pace in the world's top theme park market. They haven't. SeaWorld Orlando tried with its Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin attraction in 2013, but that might go down as the biggest flop in recent theme park history.
The two Busch Gardens parks also missed in ordering expensive and much-hyped drop tower attractions that failed to open on time... then failed to capture the devotion of fans once they did. Until adding its underwhelming Ocean Explorer children's land this year, the San Diego park hasn't added a significant new attraction since the delightful Manta coaster in 2012.
Leaving the Anheuser-Busch family not only robbed SeaWorld/Busch Gardens of a corporate owner with deep pockets, it meant the end of the beer giveaways that time has shown might have been the most under-rated attraction at those parks. Without the lure of free beer, the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens parks have been exposed as under-capitalized attractions in generally inconvenient locations near competitive markets, without the hotels and secondary development to support growing attendance, and attraction line-ups that have suffered with too many recent flops.
The Tampa and San Diego parks are close enough to Orlando and the Los Angeles area to be in competition with their more popular Disney and Universal parks, but are not close enough to them to realize any significant spill-over benefits. Williamsburg is not a major tourism market, and while the Orlando park has a great location between Disney and Universal, SeaWorld hasn't developed the on-site hotels it needs to compete with those resorts.
The failure of any of the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens parks to get into the hotel business is killing the chain's ability to remain competitive in a business that, at its top, has become more and more about creating multi-day vacation destinations than single-day trips for locals. The SW/BG parks are acting more and more like those regional day-trip parks, and their attendance is sliding to that level, as a result.
And you might have noticed that I haven't written a word about animals yet.
The biggest mistake that reporters, analysts, and even SeaWorld management makes is assuming that the chain's problems stem from a deceptively edited "documentary" that attacked SeaWorld's management of its orcas. Since then, SeaWorld has responded by refocusing its advertising and social media outreach on its rescue and animal care efforts, to make the case that SeaWorld is a responsible custodian of its wildlife.
It hasn't helped.
Deep breath here, because I'm going to write something that makes me deeply uncomfortable. Here goes: ultimately, I believe that the attendance data shows that the majority of theme park fans... don't care about animals.
Now, people never will admit this. You can't survey interest about animals, because everyone will respond that "of course, we love them!" But top zoos don't do anywhere near the attendance numbers that top theme parks do. People went to SeaWorld, instead of to zoos, because they could see orcas breaching with trainers flying off their noses, while up-tempo music blared in a rocking stadium.
SeaWorld pulled its trainers from the water in its orca shows following the death of a trainer (not during a show) in 2010. But time has shown that people came to SeaWorld for the beer and the circuses. Without either, well, what makes the parks more appealing than a trip to the zoo? At this point, the attendance data suggests... not much.
By focusing its marketing and, now, show development, on animal care rather than thrills and entertainment, SeaWorld has dug itself a deeper hole with fans. Which, ironically, allows its foes to make the argument that their campaign is working. Which, in turn, seems to inspire SeaWorld to double down on its animal care message. Which... well... lather, rinse, repeat.
Like I mentioned, this makes me queasy to discuss. As a fan, I am interested in and inspired by what SeaWorld does in rescuing, caring for, researching, and bringing animals to people. And I know that a lot of other theme park fans feel the same way.
But we're not enough to sustain a business. Just like bringing back the circa-1983 Epcot wouldn't do as well as Disney as developing the new, IP-focused Epcot that Disney envisions (more on that later this week). While I and many people who love this business welcome theme park attractions that inform and inspire people, if they don't first entertain the hell out of their audience... they're gonna fail.
So here's the lesson from the past 10 years of theme park attendance data. Wanna make a big leap up the chart? Get ready to invest a billion or more dollars in new attractions that connect people with the characters and settings that they love, with rides, shows, food and merchandise that entertains and enchants them.
Want to slip down the list? Add new rides that don't thrill or entertain visitors — or worse, add no new rides at all. And then hope that an inspiring message about... something, anything... will make up for the lack of fresh entertainment in your park.Tweet
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