One of the core lessons in the theme park business is that new attractions drive attendance. That's why parks invest millions of dollars in fresh roller coasters, dark rides and water attractions — to keep fans interested in continuing to spend money to visit. And ideally, to attract new fans to the park.
But there can be a downside to expansion. If a new attraction is too good — and too far away — it can actually decrease attendance to a theme park.
The classic example of this phenomenon is Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure. After Universal announced in May 2007 that it would build The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the park's attendance started falling, down from 5.4 million that year to 5.3 million the next, then 4.6 million in 2009, the year before Potter opened. Attendance rebounded to 5.9 million in 2010, after the land opened in June, with attendance soaring to 7.7 million in the Wizarding World's first full year of operation. Today, the park attracts nearly 10 million visitors a year.
But that drop — as fans postponed their trips to wait for Potter's arrival — chilled the industry. Sure, a global recession didn't help things in 2008, but the 2009 and early 2010 drops were all on Universal.
Granted, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was an industry-changing hit, and Universal's new ownership within Comcast has given the Universal Orlando Resort the support and stability it has employed since to continue to grow. But how can a park have it both ways — to develop potentially game changing new attractions without leaving themselves vulnerable to potentially crippling attendance and revenue drops during construction?
This is why Universal Orlando doesn't take years off anymore. In between the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley in 2014 and this June's Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, Universal gave fans Skull Island: Reign of Kong in 2016, Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon and Volcano Bay in 2017, and Fast & Furious: Supercharged last year.
Universal Studios Hollywood managed to keep its attendance rising each year during the construction of its Harry Potter land by adding a Despicable Me themed mini-land, a year-round The Walking Dead maze, and enhancements to its Studio Tour. And Disneyland has been fighting a Potter-style drop before the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge with seemingly non-stop themed festivals, including last year's Pixar Fest and this year's Get Your Ears On - A Mickey and Minnie Celebration.
Theme parks learned from Islands of Adventure in the late 2000s that you cannot give fans an excuse to postpone a vacation. Instead, parks have to program aggressively when a major new addition is coming so that people continue to visit in the meantime, in addition to planning that can't-miss vacation when the Big New Thing opens.
This need to be adding attractions continually can widen the divide between the leaders and the followers in the theme park industry, as developing and opening new attractions each costs ridiculous amounts of money. Disney and Universal can afford to do this, which helps them to widen their lead over regional theme and amusement parks that have to stick to more traditional development schedules.
But even the smaller parks are doing what they can. That's why everyone, it seems, runs a food festival now, as all parks look to grow attendance in shoulder seasons. That's also why Six Flags pushes its new membership programs so much. By tying people into a never-ending membership plan, parks can protect against not just bad weather but also the promise of better attractions tomorrow from keeping people from paying for their visit today.
For an industry built on thrill rides, theme parks hate riding the revenue roller coaster. They would much prefer a nice, boring flat ride experience for their attendance and revenue reports... though one that always runs uphill.Tweet
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.