TAMPA — Citing slow business, Busch Gardens is temporarily closing its popular Crown Colony and Garden Gate restaurants, a sign that the theme park could be feeling the competition of major new attractions at other Florida theme parks.
Busch Gardens officials confirmed the closures Wednesday but didn't give an exact closing date. They also didn't specify how long the restaurants would be closed but said they would reopen at a later date.
"We routinely adjust our park experience based on guest behavior, specific attraction penetration and seasonal considerations," park spokesman Travis Claytor said in an e-mail.
Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati, said regional theme parks nationwide are seeing flat attendance this summer, partly because of widespread rain and heat. Orlando parks, however, are doing well thanks to new attractions such as SeaWorld's Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin and Universal Orlando's Transformers 3D ride.
"Orlando is affecting Tampa this year because all the big players have launched big products," he said. "I think some of the locals might have shifted to Orlando."
Closing two big restaurants, including the park's two-story, white Crown Colony with table service and a pub, is a strong indicator that the park wants to reduce expenses, Speigel said.
The closures had been rumored for a while and are part of larger budget cuts planned for the park and its sister property in Williamsburg, Va., said Bill Androckitis, a Busch Gardens blogger for BGTfans.com.
"I don't expect the park to keep things open that aren't profitable, but to close their only sit-down restaurant is disappointing and cause for concern," he said. "I'm not worried yet, but I wonder what else could be down the road."
Androckitis said he visited Busch Gardens on July 4 and was shocked by the small crowds. The park didn't have to open the overflow parking lot, and many employees brought in to handle the holiday crowds stood idle.
A drop in attendance seems contrary to what's happening elsewhere in Tampa. Figures from Visit Tampa Bay show tourism is up so far this year compared with last, which also saw gains. Between October and March, the most recent period whose figures are available, Hillsborough County collected $10.4 million in bed taxes, a nearly 7 percent increase over the same period a year earlier.
But Androckitis said lower attendance at Busch Gardens has more to do with local visitors than tourists. Locals still leery of the economy are cutting back on visits, he said, or going to other Florida parks.
Busch Gardens debuted Madagascar Live! Operation: Vacationshow in May but hasn't added a major thrill ride since Cheetah Hunt in 2011. That will change next summer with the opening of Falcon's Fury, a 335-foot drop tower expected to draw big crowds of thrill seekers.
Busch Gardens officials said they are prohibited from talking about attendance or other business strategies because of this year's initial public offering of its parent company, SeaWorld Entertainment.
The restaurant closures come not long after Busch Gardens raised the base price of a single-day ticket to $89 for adults and $81 for children ages 3 to 9. To attract more Florida residents, it started a three-park $99 "Summer Sizzler'' deal through Labor Day with unlimited admission to Busch Gardens and weekday admission to Adventure Island water park in Tampa and SeaWorld's Aquatica in Orlando.
As part of other adjustments, it changed the closing time of its Summer Nights from 10 p.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Susan Thurston can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 225-3110.