Disney rides Everest to new popularity

Walt Disney World may be cashing in big on its $100 million Expedition Everest, riding the coaster's popularity to new attendance heights last year at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Animal Kingdom's attendance grew by 8.6 percent in 2006, the biggest increase of any major American theme park, giving the park 8.91 million visitors, according to unofficial estimates in a report released Wednesday by two tourism groups.

Now, Universal Orlando — which suffered disappointing attendance, according to the estimates — appears poised to shell out as much as $120 million to attract visitors, though just what it has planned remains a mystery.

Whatever Universal has up its sleeve, Expedition Everest will be a tough act to follow. The new ride, which opened in April 2006 and mixes a roller coaster with a story about a Yeti creature and a mountain, helped Animal Kingdom in two key ways, theme-park-industry observers said. It gave the park the "Next Big Thing" in Central Florida, and a ride that could please teenagers and young adults without scaring away their parents or younger siblings.

"It's beautiful. That's the best ride," said Lisa Smith of Philadelphia, who went to Animal Kingdom on Wednesday with her family specifically to try the ride. "The Abominable Snowman. Oh, my God. That is crazy."

Most theme-park companies try to keep their attendance figures secret, and few official numbers are ever released.

The Theme Park Attendance Report, published Wednesday by inpark Magazine and Park World magazine, replaces what had once been the industry's leading source of attendance estimates, an annual report that Economic Research Associates used to publish with Amusement Business magazine before that publication closed last year. ERA developed this latest report with TEA, an international tourism-industry organization.

While cautioning that ERA estimates have not always held up, Ady Milman, a theme-park-business professor at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida, said the latest batch appears to show that Expedition Everest provided what $100 million should buy: "a wow factor and a promotion that . . . increased attendance just from that ride."

Big spending at Universal

According to the attendance report, the only major theme park in Florida to see shrinking crowds in 2006 was Universal's Islands of Adventure, which suffered a 4.8 percent drop in attendance — its second year of decreased ticket sales. And sister park Universal Studios followed an attendance drop in 2005 with 1.2 percent growth last year.

In Universal Orlando's annual financial report, filed earlier this week with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the company foretells a new round of spending. The report says Universal Orlando intends to spend $100 million to $120 million on new projects this year, compared with $41 million last year and $30 million in 2004.

Officials there still aren't saying what they have planned, but last week they closed Back to the Future: The Ride with intentions of replacing it at Universal Studios. And spokesman Tom Schroder said it won't be the only new attraction.

"As you know, we're moving toward announcing a major new attraction for Universal Studios, and it's fair to say we've got some exciting plans for Islands of Adventure, too," Schroder said.

Universal needs to do something big, said Orlando consultant Jerry Aldrich, president of Amusement Industry Consulting. He noted that Disney's other three theme parks saw respectable attendance growth in 2006, according to Wednesday's report, as did both of Busch Entertainment's Florida parks, SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. So Animal Kingdom's big growth appears to have come at the expense of Universal's, he suggested.

"When Animal Kingdom did their big investment in Expedition Everest, they did not cannibalize their other parks," Aldrich said. "It looks like maybe those are people who would have gone to Universal."

Parks start thinking small

If Universal is poised to announce major new rides, the move would part with a trend that has been gaining momentum in the past couple of years. Despite rides such as Expedition Everest, most theme parks are getting away from spending big money on big new rides because such investments often haven't paid off, said John Robinett, senior vice president of Economic Research Associates.

Locally, Disney World, SeaWorld and Universal have been concentrating mainly on what Robinett called "softer investments" to attract crowds: new shows, smaller family-oriented rides, street entertainment, after-hours events, promotions and special ticket-discount packages.

SeaWorld has created three new shows and a handful of small children's rides in the past couple of years. Its attendance went up 2.5 percent last year.

Disney's Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney-MGM Studios added new parades and street entertainment, new shows and a couple of smaller attractions, to go along with Disney World's big "Year of a Million Dreams" promotion. Each park saw attendance go up 3 percent to 5.5 percent last year.

Overall, Robinett expects the trend to continue, rather than any theme-park rush toward big projects. So do other observers.

"It's along the same lines that a lot of the regional parks are following, as they're adding products that draw families back in with shows," said Dennis Spiegel, president of Cincinnati-based International Theme Park Services. "They're coming back to that and getting away from putting in the big roller coasters."


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