A leading theme park industry association released its annual attendance report last week. Disney’s theme parks, as usual, led the way, with Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom topping the global rankings with Disneyland in second place.
Down the list, the numbers offer some interesting lessons about what works, and doesn’t, in drawing fans to theme parks. Want to move up the rankings fast? Build a new ride based on a popular entertainment franchise. Or better yet, give away a lot of free beer.
In the United States, the two biggest movers last year were SeaWorld theme parks, which welcomed a 16% increase in visitors in Orlando and an astonishing 20 percent more in San Diego, according to the Themed Entertainment Association/AECOM Theme Index report. That propelled the Orlando park back into the nation’s top 10 most-visited theme parks and moved the San Diego park up from 19th to 14th.
How did SeaWorld do it? The return of free beer. Back when the parks were owned by Anheuser-Busch, they were known as much for their free beer as they were their marine mammal shows. The parks stopped offering the free drinks after Belgian brewer InBev bought Anheuser-Busch and spun off the parks to investment bankers 10 years ago. But last year, the SeaWorld parks, including Busch Gardens, brought back free beer in series of promotions. Throw in some aggressive discounts and a nifty triple-launch roller coaster in San Diego, and the crowds came back.
Behind the SeaWorld parks, the next biggest movers were Walt Disney World’s Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which jumped 10%, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Universal Studios Florida, which each saw a 5% increase. Those parks, along with the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks, were the only ones to attract an above-average attendance gain among the top 20 theme parks in North America last year.
Beyond the free beer, new rides from big franchises drove the attendance gains. Animal Kingdom enjoyed the first full year of operation for its new “Avatar”-themed land, while Hollywood Studios added a new Toy Story Land. Universal scored by opening a stand-alone version of the Fast & Furious: Supercharged encounter that first appeared on Universal Studios Hollywood’s Studio Tour.
Yet Disney California Adventure saw only a 3% increase in attendance with its Pixar Pier debut last year, showing that a popular theme won’t drive big attendance gains when it’s not paired with new rides. California Adventure drew only 53% of Disneyland’s attendance in 2018 — the worst performance by a second gate among the multi-gate theme park resorts in the TEA report. That gap likely will increase this year with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opening at Disneyland. Will a new Marvel-themed land at DCA in 2020 fix that?
But at least California Adventure did better than Six Flags Magic Mountain. The Valencia park opened a 72-foot giant pendulum ride but got only a 2.6 percent increase in attendance in return — and that’s with expanding to every-day operation in 2018. Being open for more days does not help much if you don’t offer enough new stuff that people really want to see.