Search Data Show Lagging Public Interest in Theme Parks

January 30, 2021, 12:54 PM · How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected theme parks? You can look for the answer in corporate reports, which have detailed the financial losses that theme park owners have taken over the past year. But I think an easier way to see the impact of the coronavirus - at a glance - is with Google Trends.

Google tracks how much people search for specific terms over time. You can see that data by looking up those terms on the Google Trends page. I decided to look at several top theme park terms from the beginning of 2019 to the end of 2020 to see how the pandemic affected how often people were searching for them.

Let's start with the global leader in theme parks - Walt Disney World.

Walt Disney World searches

Google reports its search data on a relative basis. So the week that got the most searches for a term is given the value of 100. Other weeks' data are reported relative to that top week. You can see the spike in searches for "walt disney world" during the week in March 2020 when the resort announced its closure. But search activity since then has remained far below what it was before the pandemic hit.

You can see the cliff effect even more pronounced on searches for Universal Orlando.

Universal Orlando searches

And for Disneyland, which presumably captures searches within the United States for the Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong and Shanghai parks as well as the Anaheim original. Again, there's a spike when the parks close, followed by a new equilibrium far below the old.

Disneyland searches

For seasonal parks, you do not see a huge change immediately before and after last March, but you can see that the swell in search traffic that happened in the summer of 2019 does not return in 2020. Here are searches for Six Flags.

Six Flags searches

And for Busch Gardens.

Busch Gardens searches

It's the same story for SeaWorld.

SeaWorld searches

I also looked at search data for the phrase "roller coasters" to get a more generic overview of interest. Again, there's a swell in the spring and early summer of 2019 that does not return in 2020.

Roller coaster searches

This Google Trends data suggest that the public's interest in theme parks has waned since the pandemic started and that it has not yet recovered, despite parks being reopened in Orlando and other markets around the world. Lagging interest in even the reopened Orlando parks suggests that the industry is not facing a situation where "if you reopen it, they will come."

Sure, industry leaders can assume that public interest in theme parks will return once more of the population is vaccinated, Covid-19 infections and deaths decline and more people begin to feel confident about traveling safely again. But let's not forget that many parks laid off their promotional staff and canceled advertising and press events when the pandemic hit.

We have continued covering the industry here on Theme Park Insider, and I still write my newspaper column every week for the Orange County Register. But search data demonstrate that theme parks have fallen off the radar for many casual fans who turned first to Google for theme park information before Covid-19. As we have seen with the Orlando parks, it's going to take more than simply reopening the gates for the industry to win back those potential visitors' interest.

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Replies (20)

January 30, 2021 at 1:15 PM

Troubling stuff indeed. But I do feel a lot of this data has to do with covid still very much a thing and the financial ramifications caused by it. People, in the quantities before the pandemic, are not interested or are saddened that parks are closed or in limited format that they don't even bother searching them up. It's going to take some time obviously but I do feel when the situation returns to circa 2019 people will swarm parks once again. Especially now that we know how it feels to have them taken away.

It's one of those situations where "you don't appreciate what you have until it's taken away from you." People will come back. In 2021, not fully at all but hopefully it's a year of getting in the right direction. That would be a realistic win.

January 30, 2021 at 4:24 PM

Not troubling at all. People aren’t going out or traveling. They search when they are planning or have visits upcoming. I bet there is an uptick on local state park and similar location searches. This will pass.

January 30, 2021 at 5:45 PM

First of all we don't know when the world gets back to normal and if it all worked we are trying now.
After that I'm sure people want to visit family and friends, do the things in their town or neighborhood they missed so much. And maybe, after that, they go think about a vacation destination.
Personally I'm looking forward to get to Florida from Amsterdam asap as one of our friends are not having to many years to live unfortunately. Theme park visits aren't the main draw for us.

January 30, 2021 at 6:32 PM

Can't say too shocked as it's obvious travel industry is still going to be hit for a while. Just read a bit on how scores of travel blogs are cutting down (if not just outright ending) because folks can't travel as much. Maybe once cases lower further with vaccines and such it returns, just makes sense not many considering a theme park right now with things still dangerous.

January 31, 2021 at 8:51 AM

For once I disagree Robert.

I think this is simply a reflection of the world as it currently is. You could make the same arguments for working from offices, for going to the cinema, for long haul flying, for eating out... We are social creatures at heart and we will go back to our social ways. It won't happen immediately so there will be a lag but in time it will all come back.

January 31, 2021 at 11:34 AM

I have to agree with others; this is a result of the climate in which we find ourselves. I'm in Nevada. I WANT to go to Walt Disney World, but this is not the right time to do that. I want to visit my "home park" of Disneyland, but that's not even possible.

So I keep up with the latest news, but I'm not searching for information on visiting. I have my Disney parks RSS feed, and that's where I get my info (including from Theme Park Insider). I'm not actively searching info because I'm already getting that info.

January 31, 2021 at 12:20 PM

Agree with others - once travel restrictions are lifted, vaccinations are plentiful, etc, the search metrics for vacations will skyrocket. I'm pumped to get back to the theme parks (maybe later this year??) but I haven't done any research since I've had 2 vacations already canceled by this pandemic. Not looking to be disappointed a third time.

January 31, 2021 at 9:21 PM

Nobody is thinking about visiting a theme park right now. People are trying to get by, feed their families, and trying to avoid getting COVID. People are losing their jobs, businesses, their homes, and applying for unemployment. The last thing on their mind is visiting Disney, or any other theme park. It’s not a priority for people at the moment.

Once the pandemic ends, people will begin to travel, and go back to Disney, and other theme parks. Disneyland isn’t even open. Disney World is, but Florida is very relaxed with public health measures. People may not feel comfortable going there right now.

We’re still walking around in masks. Eventually, things will get better, and the world will get back to some sort of normalcy. Until then, however, people will not be traveling, which includes theme parks.

February 1, 2021 at 7:43 AM

Hi Robert! I wonder - and you don’t have to respond - but has the traffic for TPI also dropped during 2020?

February 1, 2021 at 8:34 AM

I definitely agree this analysis is overblown, and there are 2 prongs to this distinct decline in interest.

1. People are not searching or seeking out information on theme parks online right now because very few are planning trips in the near future. Let's face it, a trip to WDW and many other destination parks requires intense planning and research from most people, and if only a fraction of the normal number of people are traveling to these destination parks, that will be reflected in the internet traffic. With no solid end to pandemic travel and attendance restrictions, it's simply not worth the effort to even bother researching a trip to these destination parks. For the local parks, most are not even open right now, and people usually don't do the same intensive research prior to visiting (or at least as far in advance as a WDW trip), so that would explain why people aren't searching those local parks that won't be open for at least a couple of more months. Also, with so many of these parks pulling back on new attractions and additions, there's not much about these local parks for people to search.

2. Parks aren't spending on advertising right now. Disney and Universal are spending a little bit of money, but nearly what they would normally spend during the winter months to spur people to start planning their next trip. The reasoning behind this reduced investment is clear, but the results obviously have impacted internet searches because for even those guests that aren't planning a trip to WDW would still be influenced to take a peek at WDW's website after seeing an advertisement showing a sale or special promotion. Also, if these parks were running non-stop ads like they normally would this time of year, they'd probably get bombarded with angry emails from people complaining about a theme park encouraging guests to flock to Orlando in the middle of a pandemic. There's a very delicate balance right now with advertising all tourist destinations, and it's no doubt impacting clicks to any website associated with them.

This is all really much ado about nothing, and as soon as people can see a definitive end to the pandemic, and can feel comfortable planning and taking vacations, the interest in theme parks will immediately return to pre-pandemic levels.

February 1, 2021 at 9:16 AM

Does Disney have a maintenance issue? Do we know if any ride maintenance employees were laid off, or if their budget has been cut? My family was at Epcot for Thanksgiving and we got stuck on Spaceship Earth for easily ten minutes both times we rode. At the time I didn't think much of it, but with the delay of the People Mover, the poor Caballeros in Mexico pavilion, and the recent Navi River Journey animatronic failure, it makes you wonder. For the folks heading to the parks as a pleasant life distraction, ride failures will greatly take away from that experience.

February 1, 2021 at 9:55 AM

@Russell Meyer “Parks aren't spending on advertising right now.”. I guess the U.K. didn’t get that memo, because there are plenty of ads going around, at the moment.

February 1, 2021 at 10:46 AM

Just returned from a one week, split stay between Disney and Universal. I will admit I was very fortunate to take a vacation right now, but between personal and professional obstacles these last few years that I won't get into, it was a long overdue and well deserved vacation.
Up until a few weeks ago I was still uncertain as to weather I would go, but I figured the heck with it and made the decision to book airfare and get out of dodge....

From here I am comparing my trip to how safe I felt vs. how safe I feel in my home state of PA. I live in the southeast corner of PA and COVID restrictions constantly flip from moderate to rather strict, I Suppose it depends on what set of dice Governor Wolf is rolling for the week, but that's another story.

Observations and experiences:
Airports - PHL and MCO did a reasonable job with mask monitoring by the Mask Police and plenty of hand sanitizer available if an individual needed it. I was traveling with my own hand stuff, but used the free-bee hand sanitizer frequently.

I felt safer and cleaner in the airports than I do on a typical trip to the grocery store or home depot back home - WIN airports

Disney World - stayed at the Beach Club Villas. House Keeping did not tend my room daily other than trash pickup. This was a cash reservation so we were entitled to housekeeping but trash only was more than fine and makes sense for COVID reasons. Hand sanitizer stations everywhere, in ride queue lines, before and after the ride itself. Temperature was checked entering Parks and at resort restaurant. (Ale and Compass). Social Distancing was practiced for the most part, occasional park choke points were crowded, but no different than turning the corner at a local grocery store and surprise! gridlock! Crowds would thin out rather quickly.

In short, We were living in a bubble in Disneyworld and felt safer than daily lifein stores back home. WIN Disney

Universal Orlando: Stayed at Cabana Bay in the Beach Tower in 2 bedroom suite. Same kind of deal with housekeeping. They might have missed one day for trash, but it really didn't matter Universal did things a little differently, but pretty much the same end result.

Every morning you could get your temperature checked in the lobby and they would give you a wristband for the day saying you are good to go for 24 hours. Otherwise, they would temperature check you at security check points entering the resort parks or Hotels. Hand sanitizer stations were pretty much everywhere like Disney. One difference we noticed was a cast member would personally give you hand sanitizer before entering a ride. Additionally, sanitizer stations were available after the ride. Similar to Disney, we would occasionally hit choke points in the park, but they would quickly disperse. All in all we felt just as safe at Universal as we did at Disney. Both resorts handled the finer details a little differently, but overall we felt very safe at both resorts.
WIN - Universal

On a side note there were plenty of "Mask Police" in both parks enforcing the mask rules. I even overheard a few guests at both resorts whining about the mask rules a bit, but that is to be expected I suppose.

I must say I am not sure how these two resorts will handle summer traffic if they are given the green light to expand capacity. Either wait lines will be very long, or they will need to come up with some new models on how to increase capacity without sacrificing what safety measures they have in place now.

Now, if you asked me today would I go back tomorrow? I would say most definitely. I felt safer in the Universal and Disney bubbles from COVID than I do back home.

Now back to my quarantine and COVID test later this week..........

February 1, 2021 at 12:18 PM

The graph I'd like to see is traffic and engagement on this site during the last 10 months. I suspect it is very similar to previous years. Chapeau Robert, for continuing to give us our daily feed when the wheels of our theme park world are barely turning.

February 1, 2021 at 2:02 PM

"Parks aren't spending on advertising."

Really? Because I see ads for Universal and Disney constantly when I watch some TV show online or You Tube.

February 1, 2021 at 2:16 PM

The destination parks are still advertising, but not nearly what you would normally see during this time of year. Every show on ABC would have at least one WDW ad per half hour, and NBC shows would have at least one UO ad per break. Last January during EPL matches, you typically saw 2, if not more UO ads during halftime and at least one in-game banner ad for Hagrids. I haven't seen a single TV ad for Velocicoaster despite the announcement that it will be open "soon" - even on Peacock programming, where ads are obviously cheaper and more company-focused.

The destination parks are obviously still advertising, but I have definitely seen a reduction in the amount of TV/video advertising being shown during a time of year when ad breaks have traditionally been littered with commercials targeting families starting to plan their summer vacations. Digital advertising is less impactful to me, so I can't really compare the amount of digital theme park advertising to previous years.

February 2, 2021 at 12:19 PM

I would say the trend has been due in part to this form or entertainment temporarily moving out of our conscience. While I still see advertising, it's only a fraction of what I have seen previously. As someone who was getting peppered with Hotel/Resort packages, I now receive zero.

First, the parks have to get back close to the level of services they offered pre-pandemic. We are a long way from that. 5 of Disney's parks are closed right now, hard to advertise for something that isn't open.

This made me think of another article Robert wrote about Iger saying that Disney didn't need to advertise Galaxy's Edge. Really good article then and I think it's relevant now... It's extremely difficult to achieve advertising synergy and cross promotions of products like Adventures by Disney and Disney cruise line because right now, they don't exist.

I also firmly believe the thing that works against Disney at WDW is the level of planning and how far in advance you had to plan your trip for the experience you want. I think Disney should kill fast pass for the 1st 2 to 3 years they are back at full capacities. Let the WDW resort return to the open experience it used to be would be the biggest draw. Limit it to day of reservation only for dinning (except dinner shows).

Accessibility IMO is the biggest detractor of interest right now.

February 2, 2021 at 8:38 AM

Last time we were at Disney World in Hollywood Studios; we asked about the Stars Wars restaurant. We were told you needed 3 months reservations.

We only do the night parties and they are becoming overcrowded. Noone at the park knows anything or even cares.

That's what Disney's problem is. You pay more and get less. It is just too complicated to get anything that even resembles a relaxing vacation.

We stay at the Grand Floridian and they seem to make sure we are satisfied with any reservation we want. But if we stay off site ? Forget it!

Fast pass was ok when it started then they restricted the return time.

Little by little the squeeze is on. Guidebooks that show secrets once cherished are now obsolete because they killed them.

Don't even think about going high season or you may spend a day without riding anything or finding a place to eat.

Tomorrowland should be renamed Yesteryear.

If we go again we will no longer park hop. Just go off season and spend one day at one park.

For the same price you could go to the Carribbean and spend a week having everything you paid for covered by the resort.

Universal feels more like the way it should be. You can go there and get a nice park or 2 park experience.

February 2, 2021 at 3:00 PM

a/ In view of planning a visit :
Nobody searches for something they KNOW is closed.
When announced closing, search rises to hear ABOUT closure details, after getting good notice of the information, search stops.

b/ In view of enjoying some virtual time out in a park (blog, video, vlog etc) closed or not closed would not make much difference. It's couch leisure time.
((( and this provides an answer to the remark of ProfPlum, February 1, 2021 at 12:18 PM )))

c/ Add both variaties a & b of the search REASONS, and you get the graphs that are published.
Addition :
The graphs are no proof for anything in future.
Food for thought.

February 2, 2021 at 5:55 PM

These numbers are just benign. A student of statistics would regard the information as presented has no meaning nor any real value.

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