ORLANDO, Fla. – Attendance at North America's 50 most popular theme and amusement parks jumped almost 4 percent in 2004, the first overall increase since the 2001 terrorist attacks slowed the U.S. travel and tourism industry.
An estimated 169.1 million visitors rode thrill rides and romped around with costumed characters at the North American parks, according to an annual survey released Monday by the trade publication Amusement Business (search) and the research firm Economic Research Associates (search).
The increase was helped by a jump in international visitors at destination parks, spurred on by a weakening U.S. dollar, and a rebound in U.S. travel and tourism, industry observers say.
But 2004's figures still fell short of the pre-Sept. 11 attendance of 175 million visitors in 2000. The destination parks owned by the Walt Disney Co. (DIS), NBC Universal and Anheuser-Busch (BUD) in Florida and California suffered more than regional parks after the terrorist attacks.
"I don't think that — at least in the near future — we'll get back to those numbers," said Steve Baker, an Orlando-based theme park consultant. "It will grow annually, but it will take a while before we see those again."
Attendance at the top 50 parks around the world increased by 2.2 percent to 252.4 million visitors in 2004, according to Amusement Business. Attendance at the 10 most popular parks in Asia rose 1.1 percent to 68.8 million visitors and attendance at the top 10 European parks rose 2.8 percent to 41.2 million visitors. The top 10 parks in Latin America had a slight decrease at 15.3 million visitors.
The most-attended park in the world in 2004 was the Magic Kingdom at Orlando's Walt Disney World (search) with 15.1 million visitors. The Florida park was followed by Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., with 13.3 million visitors and Tokyo Disneyland with 13.2 million visitors.
Disney parks in the United States, France and Japan accounted for eight of the top 10 slots on the best-attended list worldwide. Disney's domestic parks, including its four Florida parks, filled the top five North American spots.
The hurricanes in Florida, which shut down the state's theme parks for several days, had little serious impact on attendance. All the major Florida parks, with the exception of Busch Gardens Tampa Ba (search)y, had attendance gains.
NBC Universal's Universal Studios (search) and Islands of Adventure parks in Orlando even had attendance increases of 14 percent and 13 percent respectively, fueled in part by the new Revenge of the Mummy ride at Universal Studios.
Twelve of Six Flags' (PKS)13 parks on the top 50 list had attendance that was either flat or declined by as much as 13 percent from last year. The stagnant figures were caused by weather problems and that Six Flags didn't roll out a lot of new rides this year, said James Zoltak, editor of Amusement Business.
"In this business, you have to regularly roll out new attractions," Zoltak said.
Debbie Nauser, vice president of public relations for Six Flags, said the Oklahoma City-based company doesn't comment on attendance figures at individual parks. In its third-quarter report, the company acknowledged that attendance at its parks for the first nine months of the year declined by 4.5 percent, or by 1.4 million visitors. The company, which dominates the regional market, owns and operates 31 parks in North America and Europe.
"We still don't know how (the researchers) get their numbers, but they certainly don't get them from us," Nauser said.
Amusement Business uses company information, annual reports and park sources to calculate its estimates. A change in methodology this year caused the trade publication to revise the North American attendance figure in 2003 from 167.9 million visitors to 162.7 million visitors.