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Big Crowds Put Theme Parks Back on Track

September 16, 1996|JILL LEOVY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

UNIVERSAL CITY — A strengthened economy and lots of hype are making 1996 a banner year for Southern California theme parks, which in turn are boosting the regional tourism market.

Universal Studios Hollywood and Disneyland are reporting record crowds this summer, with both predicting best-ever attendance figures for 1996. Meanwhile, Los Angeles County hotels are having their best year since 1989, and some tour groups are even having trouble finding enough charter buses to handle all the sightseers.

"People have decided it's OK to come back here now," said tourism researcher Melissa Mills of San Francisco-based PKF Consulting. "We haven't had a disaster now in a year."

At Universal, the new Jurassic Park ride proved a hit despite problems with colliding cars, spattering hydraulic fluid and sputtering special effects. The park announced last week that attendance is up 35% over last summer, to 2.5 million.

And at Disneyland, heavy marketing for the soon-to-end Main Street Electrical Parade appears to have been even more effective than last year's blanket marketing campaign for the Indiana Jones ride. Disneyland won't release any figures, but said 1996 will easily top last year's record-setting summer.

"We have already exceeded projections for 1996, and the year isn't even over yet," spokesman Tom Brocato said.

Knotts Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain and Sea World of California in San Diego are also reporting strong, though not record-setting, attendance for the summer.

Surveys by PKF Consulting, considered a good barometer of trends in the industry, show that hotel occupancy in Los Angeles County peaked at 76% in July. An occupancy rate of 65% is generally considered to be the break-even point for hotels, Mills said. Traffic at Los Angeles International Airport is also up, 9% from last year. And restaurant dollar volumes statewide have grown 6%, according to the state Board of Equalization.

"Tourism in California has had a red-hot year," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Southern Californian tourism suffered badly from a series of events in the early '90s, starting with the Persian Gulf War and followed in quick succession by the Los Angeles riots, Malibu fires and Northridge earthquake.

Such problems--or, to quote tourism promoters, the "bad press" they created--were compounded by an economic recession and the downsizing of Southern California industries. All combined to gut business travel.

And it didn't help that hotels were overbuilt in the 1980s, Mills said.

But it's now clear that "people feel like spending money again in California," Mills said.

Added Kyser: "Tourism did real well last year. But this year, the wealth has been spread around even more." Always one of the nation's leading tourism destinations, "California has been rediscovered," he said.

Locals are returning to long-familiar attractions. And the number of foreign tourists is growing too, especially those from Mexico, Japan and Taiwan, said Carol Martinez, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"This is a very big year for us," said Bruce Knudsen, general manager of L.A. Sightseeing Tours, a company that caters to Japanese visitors. Knudsen said bus tours are so popular this year that there is a citywide shortage of tourist buses available for subcontract.

At Universal Studios, President Bob Gault credits the gains in attendance with the "great reception" that greeted Jurassic Park--The Ride, which opened in June amid epic publicity.

Two mishaps occurred on the ride this summer, including one in which four people were briefly hospitalized with minor injuries after they were accidentally sprayed with hydraulic fluid.

And mechanical problems kept knocking the ride's fake dinosaurs out of action--a problem so recurrent that signs routinely appeared informing visitors a particular dinosaur was "at the vet's."

But none of this seemed to daunt public enthusiasm for the ride. Park-goers lined up for an hour or more every day throughout the summer, Gault said.

The park set an all-time daily attendance record of 43,000 on July 5. At this rate, Gault said, beating the 1989 record attendance figure of 5.1 million will be a "slam dunk."

Aggressive marketing by theme parks in recent years helped them reap big rewards when the recovery finally hit, said Tim O'Brien, an editor at Nashville-based Amusement Business magazine.

New rides, discounted tickets and a host of new promotions will help Disneyland surpass last year's staggering visitor numbers, which O'Brien estimates totaled 14.1 million. The opening of the Indiana Jones ride in March 1995 boosted Disneyland's attendance by nearly 40% almost overnight, thanks largely to aggressive marketing, he said.

Disneyland has now ingeniously turned to what travel consultant Dave Wilcox calls "counter-advertising"--marketing not the installation of a new attraction, but the cancellation of an old one.

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