Make us your home page

Fla. theme park attendance rises, led by Wizarding World of Harry Potter

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 or (727) 893-8252.

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter boosted attendance 36 percent in its first quarter.


up 1 percent through September.

BUSCH GARDENS: Attendance reported ahead of 2009's numbers.

Fla. theme park attendance rises, led by Wizarding World of Harry Potter 11/17/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 18, 2010 8:58am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Memorial Day sales not enough to draw shoppers to Tampa Bay malls


    TAMPA — Memorial Day sales at Tampa Bay area malls were not enough to compete with the beach and backyard barbecues this holiday weekend.

    Memorial Day sales weren't enough to draw shoppers to Tampa Bay area malls over the long weekend. 
  2. Austin software company acquires second Tampa business


    Austin, Tex.-based Asure Software acquired Tampa's Compass HRM Inc. late last week for $6 million. Compass focuses on HR and payroll.

    [Company photo]
  3. Hackers hide cyberattacks in social media posts


    SAN FRANCISCO — It took only one attempt for Russian hackers to make their way into the computer of a Pentagon official. But the attack didn't come through an email or a file buried within a seemingly innocuous document.

    Jay Kaplan and Mark Kuhr, former NSA employees and co-founders of Synack, a cybersecurity company, in their office in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2013. While last year's hacking of senior Democratic Party officials raised awareness of the damage caused if just a handful of employees click on the wrong emails, few people realize that a message on Twitter or Facebook could give an attacker similar access to their system. 
[New York Times file photo]
  4. Big rents and changing tastes drive dives off St. Pete's 600 block

    Music & Concerts

    ST. PETERSBURG — Kendra Marolf was behind the lobby bar of the State Theatre, pouring vodka sodas for a weeknight crowd packed tight for Bishop Briggs, the latest alternative artist to sell out her club.

    Sam Picciano, 25, left, of Tampa and Molly Cord 24, Palm Harbor shop for record albums for a friend at Daddy Kool Records located on the 600 block of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, Florida on Saturday, May 20, 2017. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times
  5. How Hollywood is giving its biggest stars digital facelifts


    LOS ANGELES — Johnny Depp is 53 years old but he doesn't look a day over 26 in the new "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie — at least for a few moments. There was no plastic surgeon involved, heavy makeup or archival footage used to take the actor back to his boyish "Cry Baby" face, however. It's all …

    This combination of photos released by Disney, shows the character Jack Sparrow at two stages of his life in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales."  Johnny Depp, who portrays the character, is the latest mega-star to get the drastic de-aging treatment on screen
[Disney via Associated Press]