ORLANDO — Business at Florida's three theme park giants is soft but steadily improving, thanks to an economic outlook top park executives think will get better through this winter's tourist season.
That's the buzz at the annual International Association of Amusement Parks and Attraction convention. Third only to the weather and the beach among top reasons people vacation in Florida, theme park performance is a key driver of the Sunshine State's tourist industry. Advance bookings, consumer research and the popularity of new park attractions all point to modest gains in 2010.
"Many people are still hurting nationally, but we've found plenty willing to spend for the right product," said Tom Williams, chairman and chief executive of Universal Parks and Resorts. "We're optimistic about this winter at our parks both in Florida and California."
Indeed, attendance at Universal Orlando leaped 36 percent in the first quarter after the park opened its dazzlingly detailed version of the Harry Potter book and movie franchise June 18. Walt Disney World reported attendance inched up 1 percent year to date through September, while per capita patron spending rose 6 percent and hotel room revenue increased 5 percent, thanks to less discounting. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is running ahead of 2009 attendance. But its corporate sibling SeaWorld, still recovering from the Feb. 24 shock of a veteran trainer killed by the park's biggest whale, lags behind 2009 attendance.
"We're gradually improving, but see this winter turning positive," said Dan Brown, chief operating officer of SeaWorld parks.
In addition to slow gains in the nation's economic recovery, park officials are relieved crowds drawn to Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction reaffirmed a core theme park formula Walt Disney discovered in the 1960s: invest heavily and often in new draws.
"New attractions are more important than anything you do in marketing or pricing to get more people to visit a park," said Pieter Cornelis, a Dutch marketing professor. His research concluded $10 million to $30 million spent on the right new attraction will boost attendance by 10 percent for two years and indirectly be influential for years.
That's why most Florida parks are building new drawing cards for the spring. In May, Busch Gardens opens Cheetah Hunt, a heavily themed animal habitat and the park's first launch coaster. SeaWorld is adding a coral reef so patrons can swim with more fish at its Discovery Cove park. In the spring, SeaWorld will replace its "Believe" killer whale show, which cost about $10 million in new hardware when it debuted four years ago. The park needs a year to train its orcas new behaviors for the show, but has not said if trainers will swim with the whales again.
By signing up Potter, the biggest grossing movie franchise in history, Universal also rewrote Disney's theme park formula by spending a record $300 million on three rides, restaurants and Potter shops. That means it will take longer to pay for itself and need more revenue sources.
"The big parks are now spending what it once cost to build a theme park to add a new section rather than just one attraction," said John Robinette, senior vice president of AECOM, a Los Angeles industry consultant.
Universal has hit a home run with Potter so far. During the first quarter, ticket revenue at Universal Orlando soared 59 percent to $190 million. Thanks to more than 600 licensed Potter products, merchandise sales doubled to $104 million. Universal raised admission prices more than once.
The Potter success prodded Disney World to pony up more than $300 million for its major expansion of Fantasyland that opens in 2013.
"I have a new best friend in Harry Potter," said Universal's Williams. "It's a close friendship that should last for years."
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.