TAMPA — Jungala won international design awards, but the state-of-the-art tiger and orangutan habitat didn't turn the turnstiles fast enough for Busch Gardens Africa to post an attendance gain in 2008.
Park attendance slipped 2 percent to 4.4 million during a recession year. Theme park attendance nationally stagnated for the third consecutive year. This year, attendance at all the big parks is headed down, underscoring why summer discounts will be deep and parks with something new to promote will have an edge.
Walt Disney World already opened its American Idol stage show at Disney's Hollywood Studios. On May 22, SeaWorld unveils Manta, a looping coaster that skims prone riders close enough over a lake that its metal wings throw off a rooster tail. Universal Studios Florida has yet to say when the zero-to-65-mph Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit coaster will open.
Attendance at the 20 top parks in North America was flat at 122.7 million in 2008 and has grown only 3.9 percent since 2005. Attendance at the 25 largest parks in the world — eight of which are in Central Florida — slipped 0.3 percent in 2008.
"The recent industrywide decline looks as though it will last the majority of 2009, with some possibility of recovery by the end of the year or early 2010," said Edward Shaw, a senior research associate at Economics Research Associates, the Los Angeles firm that compiled the theme park industry's official annual attendance report.
That's made all parks more reliant on deeper discounts to get people in the gate, then coaxing them to spend more once inside.
Creators of Jungala, touted as the biggest investment Busch ever made in a single park improvement, knew going in that nothing perks up attendance like a new thrill ride. But they stuck with a plan to refresh 16 acres into a lush garden setting with rides for pre-teens to bolster the park's balance of activities for all age groups and enhance its reputation as a world-class zoo.
The Tampa park's parent, Busch Entertainment Corp., labeled the attendance estimates, widely used by the financial community, as wrong. Busch has consistently refused to supply figures it considers proprietary, leaving ERA, which has done feasibility studies for most of the Busch, Disney and Universal Studios parks, to use other industry sources.
This time Busch said attendance at all 10 of its parks was 25.4 million, 10 percent more than the 23 million ERA estimated. Busch prefers to concentrate on the combined draw of all of its Florida parks because ticketing among them is interwoven.
"We've been happy with our attendance at Busch Gardens and so far are encouraged by what's happening in 2009," said Fred Jacobs, spokesman for Busch Entertainment.
Among water parks, Busch's Aquatica attracted 950,000 during its inaugural season, good enough to be the fourth in the country behind Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach at Disney and Wet n' Wild. Busch's Adventure Island in Tampa was seventh nationally at 603,000.