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Do the Lines Seem Shorter at Theme Parks?

Recreation: Biggest parks in North America had flat or smaller attendance than last year, the first time since 1991 they didn't see an aggregate rise.


ORLANDO, Fla. — At Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World's newest theme park, elephants and giraffes roam an ersatz African savanna munching on lush vegetation.

The animals also appear to be taking a bite out of something else: attendance at Disney's other Florida theme parks.

Disney's parks weren't the only ones with smaller crowds this year. The biggest theme parks in North America mostly had flat or smaller attendance than last year, according to figures compiled by the trade publication Amusement Business.

Overall, attendance at North America's top 50 theme parks dipped in 1998 to an estimated 165.3 million people, almost 2 million fewer than in 1997. It was the first time since 1991 that the combined parks didn't show a growth in attendance.

The larger theme parks don't release attendance figures, but Amusement Business calculates the attendance each year based on sources within the theme parks and information provide by visitors and convention bureaus.

A combination of bad weather and weak marketing contributed to the attendance drop, said Tim O'Brien, southeast editor of Amusement Business.

Once again, Disney's theme parks topped the list of the most-attended parks. Tokyo Disneyland was the most-visited theme park in the world with 16.7 million visitors, down about 3.4% from last year.

The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World retained its spot as the top-drawing theme park in North America with 15.6 million visitors, down 8%.

Disneyland in Anaheim, followed in the No. 2 spot in North America with 13.7 million visitors, down 4%. The decrease would have been steeper because of a drop in Asian tourists, but local visitors largely made up any shortfall.

Rounding out the top five in North America were Epcot at Walt Disney World with 10.6 million visitors, down 10%; Disney-MGM Studios at Walt Disney World with 9.4 million visitors, down 10%; and Universal Studios Florida, with 8.9 million, which remained flat.

Meeting its projected forecast, Animal Kingdom came in at No. 6 with an estimated 6 million visitors.

While Walt Disney World had a record year overall, each park got a smaller piece of the attendance pie since the number of parks increased from three to four. Animal Kingdom's opening in April appeared to cut into attendance at the three existing parks, which had 3.6 million fewer visitors than last year.

"Visitors did not extend their stay in the market to see more as officials had hoped for," O'Brien said in the Dec. 28 edition of Amusement Business. "Many chose the new Animal Kingdom over one or two of the other Disney attractions. . . ."

Disney spokesman Duncan Wardle conceded some crossover was expected but said Disney, with the addition of the fourth park, was on pace to break its attendance record last year.

"We've been very pleased with attendance," Wardle said. "It's been a record year for Walt Disney World."

Premier Parks, which the purchased Six Flags chain in April, had 15 parks among the top 50 parks in North America. The year was a mixed bag for Premier, which is now the largest regional park chain in the world.

While some of its parks, such as Six Flags Marine World in Vallejo, Calif., boosted attendance by two-thirds from last year, others such as Six Flags St. Louis saw a quarter less people pass through the turnstiles. Amusement Business blamed misdirected marketing for the drop.

Attendance at Anheuser-Busch-owned Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Sea World Florida remained flat this year. Both animal-themed parks had record attendance last year but faced new competition from Animal Kingdom.

Attendance at Anheuser-Busch's other theme parks in the top 50 were also mostly flat.

The biggest growth in theme park attendance came from smaller parks in the top 50 such as Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Mo., which had 1.2 million visitors, up 9%.

Park officials credit that boost to its new Mamba roller coaster ride, which is 205 feet tall, a mile long and reaches speeds of up to 75 mph.

"They love it," said park spokeswoman Whitney Howland. "It has put Worlds of Fun in a special class of roller coaster parks."


A Sour Theme

Here is a list of the top 10 theme parks in North America, their attendance and percentage change from last year.


Attendance Percent Rank Park (millions) change 1. The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World 15.6 -8% 2. Disneyland, Anaheim 13.7 -4% 3. Epcot at Walt Disney World 10.6 -10% 4. Disney-MGM Studios at Walt Disney World 9.4 -10% 5. Universal Studios Florida 8.9 flat 6. Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World 6.0 N/A 7. Universal Studios Hollywood 5.1 -5% 8. SeaWorld Florida 4.9 flat 9. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay 4.2 flat 10. SeaWorld California 3.7 -7%


Source: Amusement Business, a trade publication

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