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Southland Parks Say Turnstiles Spinning Slower : Economics, Gangs, Quakes Cool Out-of-State Crowd's Zeal, but Not Californians'

August 01, 1988|MARY ANN GALANTE | Times Staff Writer

Some thrills are more appealing than others. Trackless roller coasters and wild space rides are one thing. Earthquakes and gang shootings are quite another.

That's one reason cited to explain the summer doldrums that seem to have hit the Southland's $11-billion recreation business this summer.

Everything from politics to competition from the Summer Olympics in Korea and a World's Fair in Australia have been offered to explain drops of as much as 5% to 10% in attendance at major amusement parks from record attendance figures last year.

"There are gangs on TV every five minutes," said Gordon Armstrong, a spokesman for Universal Studios, which relies on tourists for more than 75% of its business. "Are you going to spend $4,000 on a vacation when your life may be threatened?"

Out-of state attendance is flat at Universal and foreign visits are down considerably, according to Armstrong. By contrast, California residents haven't been frightened away. Universal has actually increased its in-state attendance by 50% this year with the addition of a new Star Trek attraction.

Armstrong also cited the Olympic Games and Australian World's Fair as possible tourist diversions.

Even the presidential election has received some blame because would-be tourists may be uncertain about the economy.

"People may be holding on to their money," said Stuart Zanville, spokesman for Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, who noted that there may also be concern over interest rates.

According to Zanville, tourists' attendance at Knott's is down at least 8% through mid-July, despite the recent additions of several heavily promoted multimillion-dollar attractions such as Kingdom of the Dinosaurs and Bigfoot Rapids.

San Diego's Sea World has seen a 2% drop in attendance this year too, although that is down from a year ago when attendance jumped 20% to 3.7 million from 3.1 million.

"I have to admit we'd hoped for more," said Sea World spokesman Daniel LeBlanc. "I think everybody had."

That hope also most likely extended to Disneyland, where summer business is flat. But then, of course, that's only if you compare the figures to attendance records set last year, noted Magic Kingdom spokesman Bob Roth.

"Given that, we're not having a bad year at all," Roth said. "The last two to three years have been incredible. . . . This is a real short-term thing."

Short term or not, both Knott's and Disney have resorted to promoting discount admissions to boost attendance during what is usually their busiest season. Knott's is distributing discounts in conjunction with Burger King, Pepsi-Cola and an area restaurant. Disney is offering bargain prices with its summer passports that give unlimited evening admission to the park for $64.

The poor showing in attendance, not surprisingly, is reflected in related industries. Domestic passenger volume at Los Angeles International Airport, for example, was down 10.5% in April and 7.6% in May from those months last year. Passenger traffic at Orange County's John Wayne Airport dropped 0.9% in May and 0.8% in June.

Indications for the past two months are that domestic travel is still taking a drubbing, possibly because there are fewer bargain air fares, suggested Lee Nichols, a spokesman with the Los Angeles Department of Airports.

Hotel business was flat in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and down about one percentage point in Orange County for June, according Pannell Kerr Forster, management consultants to the tourism industry. San Diego occupancy rates slid 8.5% in June, but that was with 16% more hotel rooms that have opened since last year.

Bus Tours Popular

But those lackluster occupancy rates may not be bad, said Jim Burba, a senior principal with the consulting firm's Irvine office. "It could be that last year was a very good year," he said. "If that's the case, being down (a bit) would put (hotels) back in the normal range of occupancy."

Beaches and parks, however, seem to be more than well occupied this summer.

After a slow start, state parks, campgrounds and beaches from Ventura County through South Orange County are starting to see waves of visitors--about 25% of whom are tourists.

"It could be a comment on the economy," said David Pryor, lifeguard supervisor in Orange County for the state's Department of Parks and Recreation. "We charge a $4 entrance fee per day for an entire carload."

Parks and beaches aren't the only popular destinations.

Starline Sightseeing Tours in Hollywood is breathing a sigh of relief with tour and charter business from May through now up about 20% over last year.

Another a major tour bus operator, who asked not to be identified, reported that the charter bus business throughout the Western United States "is going crazy."

The bus operator said there has been a substantial increase in visitors who spend a few days in Los Angeles before boarding a bus to visit the Grand Canyon, Yosemite or Las Vegas.

But those same tourists are not boarding buses to sightsee in Los Angeles, he said. That business has decreased 15% to 20% in recent years.

"I think the whole Southern California area has lost its popularity," he said.

At least for the summer.

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