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Did Jimmy Buffett boost Weeki Wachee Springs Park attendance?

WEEKI WACHEE

The turnstiles have been spinning this summer at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

During the past two months, several hundred more visitors each day have passed through the gates compared to a year ago, pushing attendance up 46 percent in July and August.

Officials say there likely are several reasons. But a famous Florida resident is being given at least part of the credit.

A few months before the attendance boost, people began posting videos online of the Weeki Wachee mermaids performing on a stadium-size, 54-foot screen behind Jimmy Buffett during the musician's concerts as he sang Mermaid in the Night.

Could the attention Buffett brought to thousands of his concert fans be responsible for driving waves of visitors to Weeki Wachee? A Buffett bump?

John Athanason, spokesman and publicity director for Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, isn't willing to pin the attendance increase solely on the exposure to Buffett's avid fans.

But, "it helps," Athanason acknowledged.

"Every little thing we do with media helps," he said. "I'm sure it didn't hurt. But we can't say it's just that."

In June, the state cut the park's admission price from $26 to $13, which probably contributed, too, he said.

And Buffett isn't the only celebrity exposure the venerable attraction has received.

Even back in 2004, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie were at Weeki Wachee as part of an episode of The Simple Life 2.

More recently, the Today show — just this month — aired a segment showing host Jenna Wolfe learning the ropes of mermaid performance. That program reached about 3 million viewers, Athanason said.

In August, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart did a taping for a segment that was to air during the week of the Republican National Convention in Tampa. However, Weeki Wachee only appeared for about a second during one of the show's episodes, Athanason said.

The Australian Broadcasting Corp. filmed at the attraction this month, and Telemundo, a Spanish language network, is set to record a segment in the coming months.

The exposure can amount to free advertising beyond the park's reach, such as viewers in South America who are expected to see whatever Telemundo airs.

"From a financial standpoint, we'd never be able to afford to do advertising in South America," Athanason said. "The market in South America is really big."

Whether it's celebrity and media exposure or other factors, Weeki Wachee attendance saw a surge the past two months, with 15,727 more people visiting the park in July than in July 2011 and 9,650 more in August compared to the year before.

Park attendance across Florida, though, is on the rise, said Jennifer Diaz, spokeswoman for the Florida Park Service, which took over Weeki Wachee in late 2008, making it the state's newest park.

The state's 161 parks totaled about 690,000 more visitors between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2012, than during the previous 12 months, roughly a 3 percent increase. During the same period of time, Weeki Wachee's attendance increased about 18 percent.

Like Athanason, Diaz said the recent spike in Weeki Wachee visitors can't be credited solely to Buffett's concert exposure. "You can't pinpoint one thing. We are extremely grateful to Jimmy Buffett," she said. "Weeki Wachee is one of our most unique parks."

As much as fans flocking to watch someone like Buffett or Wolfe would help attendance, no one finds out about many of the appearances until after the equipment is packed and the celebrity gone, Anathason said.

"They want to keep it quiet. We can't let people know until after they're gone," he said.

A film crew for Buffett came to Weeki Wachee in May for the video of the mermaids performing that is splashed across the screen during his concerts.

Then Buffett showed up a month later to spend several hours at the park, squeezing into a mermaid tail and taking a dip in the springs.

"He loved it so much they designed a set around the Weeki Wachee River," Athanason said.

Exposure on television or in concerts is only part of an effort to promote the state park, which is really more of a theme park. Anathason points to 18,000 "likes" Weeki Wachee has on Facebook and other social media such as YouTube as additional avenues to expose the park.

Despite the fact that Weeki Wachee has become somewhat of a media magnet, its closest state park neighbor — Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Citrus County — attracted about 100,000 more visitors than Weeki Wachee during the 2011-12 budget year.

But Weeki Wachee is closing the gap.

State Park Service figures show Homosassa's attendance lead over Weeki Wachee was about 126,000 a year earlier.

Here are the numbers that I got. Keep in mind that our year begins fiscally from July 1 - June 30.

July 1, 2008 - June 30, 2009: 151,669

July 1, 2009 - June 30, 2010: 173,472 (Increase of 14% from the previous year)

July 1, 2010 - June 30, 2011: 209,488 (Increase of 21% from the previous year)

For this year so far by month:

July 2011 (34,192)

July 2012 (49,919)

This is an increase of 46%

August 2011 (21,050)

August 2012 (30,701)

Also an increase of 46%



Weeki Wachee Springs attendance

Fiscal year* Attendance
Ending June 30, 2009 151,669
Ending June 30, 2010 173,472
Ending June 30, 2011 209,488

*The fiscal year runs July1-June 30

Month attendance
July 2011 34,192
July 2012 49,919
August 2011 21,050
August 2012 30,701

Did Jimmy Buffett boost Weeki Wachee Springs Park attendance? 09/15/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 15, 2012 1:32pm]

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