Grim news kept people away from Disney, Universal and other theme parks, analysts say

Grim news kept people away from Disney, Universal and other attractions, analysts say, but hope remains for Halloween.
Published August 19 2016
Updated August 24 2016

ORLANDO — It's 9:01 a.m. and a stream of sweaty tourists is pressing through the entrance gates and hoofing it to the back of the park at Universal's Islands of Adventure. At this moment in early August, it's a 45-minute wait for the behemoth ride called Skull Island: Reign of Kong, which opened July 14. The wait will grow to more than 80 minutes for the rest of the day.

That may seem long. But the wait times actually belie a slower-than-usual summer at Florida theme parks. Experts expect the final tally to show a slight fizzle to the state's previously sizzling attendance figures. Now, they are looking ahead to the horrors of Halloween for some hope.

Heading into this summer, all signs were pointing to another banner year for Florida's attractions after five straight years of record-setting attendance and revenue leaps. Gas prices were dropping and new roller coasters and attractions were coming online.

But it has been a cruel summer, especially for Orlando.

Within the course of seven days in June, Orlando was stunned by the shooting death of Voice singer Christina Grimmie at a local venue, a massacre at the Pulse nightclub and a fatal alligator attack on a child at Disney World. Soft economies in Latin America, especially Brazil, and concerns about Brexit may have taken a hit on international tourism. Add to that mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus, and the typical summer vacation crowds appear to be lighter this year, analysts say.

"We have a Florida problem, not a SeaWorld Orlando problem," SeaWorld Entertainment CEO Joel Manby said during an earnings call with investors Aug. 2. SeaWorld saw a drop in Orlando attendance this summer, but increased attendance at attractions in California and Texas.

Theme parks don't release attendance or sales figures. But in a possible sign of slow attendance, Universal in July announced it had lifted all its blackout dates for the remainder of the summer, meaning holders of the lowest tier of annual pass at Universal Orlando could get into the park when they would normally be locked out at the height of vacation season. Other parks are also offering unusually robust discounts and deals for busy periods.

Walt Disney World confirmed to analysts last week that theme park attendance had declined in its third quarter, which it blamed on the timing of Easter vacations. But Disney leaders said revenue had still increased, meaning people spent more once they got there.

Last spring, when theme park expert Dennis Speigel looked ahead for the summer, the president of consulting firm International Theme Park Services predicted a 3- to 5-percent increase in attendance and revenues.

Disney had a new Frozen attraction coming to Epcot. Universal's new King Kong attraction and Sapphire Falls hotel were opening, as were Busch Gardens' new Cobra's Curse spinning coaster and SeaWorld's Mako, Orlando's first hypercoaster.

But then, one grim news story after another pummeled the state.

"I'm thinking right now if everything remains where it is, it will be flat to maybe up a little bit at best," Speigel said.

One thing may not make a difference, he said. But it all added up to too much this year.

"I think all these events really put people into a mode of, 'Hey, we don't know those markets. Let's stay closer to home,' " Speigel said.

Mark Bonn, a professor who researches tourism at Florida State University's School of Hospitality, said visitors likely didn't notice if there was a slight downturn as they waited two hours to see Elsa and Anna at Epcot. The state is coming off five straight years of record tourism, with 105 million visitors in 2015.

"Is being flat in a state where you are at capacity a bad thing?" Bonn said.

For the last few years, Bonn has cautioned about the negative consequences of growth for its own sake. There are diminishing returns in breaking attendance records, he said. It's the old Yogi Berra joke: Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.

"We have to decide how big we want to get."

Bonn expects July's numbers to show a slowdown because of the Zika virus and the unprecedented toxic algae blooms in some of southern Florida's beaches and waterways.

None of this summer's shocking headlines soured Kathleen James of Cocoa Beach from planning a getaway to Orlando with her 13-year-old, she said. "But I wouldn't go to Miami," James said after she read about reports of Zika.

Bonn studied the effects of the BP oil spill on tourism and thinks this summer's tough news, especially the Zika virus, had a stronger effect overseas.

"The farther away the consumer was from the epicenter of the BP damage, the more fear they had that seafood was unsafe," Bonn said of a study he published on the impacts of the BP spill. "I guarantee you that the same hypothesis is true here. The farther away the consumer is, such as in the UK or Canada, the higher the fear is about traveling to Florida."

As she planned her summer, Suzanna Vanderver, a pharmacist from Charleston, S.C., once again mapped out a week in Florida before school started for her three kids, 5, 10 and 11. Last year it was Disney. This year they were looking at Universal's Portofino Bay Hotel.

They decided to go anyway, weighing bad news against their need for a break. The shootings and the Zika virus didn't affect their plans, Vanderver said, as she corralled the kids in the hotel atrium overlooking a faux cobblestoned Italian-style piazza.

"That alligator attack, though," she said. "We did talk about that."

Her husband, Jason, nodded.

"Maybe a hurricane will be next?" he said, picking up a Minions backpack off the Portofino's shiny pink marble floor.

To restore a cadre of confident crowds in the fall, there may be a savior, and it's toting a chainsaw. Speigel said the newly profitable Halloween season may make up for the summer slack. And signs are good that horror is just what the happiest place on Earth needs.

Even annual pass holders have to pay extra for special happenings like Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, coming Sept. 2 on select nights through Halloween. After the Magic Kingdom closes, costumed Disney fans pay $72-$105 for the family-friendly party with special fireworks, parades and treat stations.

And adults will be shelling out $129 per person for an open bar and buffet on Friday and Saturday nights Sept. 2-Oct. 31 in Disney's Hollywood Studios when Club Villain opens. Socializing with Maleficient, the Queen of Hearts and Cruella De Vil was such a hit during a trial run of Club Villain in January, it was extended through May.

Over at Universal, a murderers row of horror icons are lined up for Halloween Horror Nights. The Exorcist, The Walking Dead, Freddy vs. Jason, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween 2 and American Horror Story are among the A-list shocks the park will scare up starting Sept. 16. Gore fans will pay $56-104.99 for entry and many will hand over another $79.99 and more for line-skipping passes. Experts expect 650,000 people to attend that event.

Busch Gardens in Tampa doesn't have the Hollywood cachet of Disney or Universal, but experts expect 200,000 to 300,000 visitors for Howl-O-Scream starting Sept. 23. Visitors will pay $45-$70 to ride coasters in the dark and visit haunted houses.

"It's our single largest event in the industry," Speigel said of Halloween. "The operators know what it means to the bottom line, and they are going to try to pick it up there to make up for anything lost in summer."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at Follow @SharonKWn.