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Selling roller coasters

A former marketing director at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, Joe Couceiro, was recently named corporate vice president of sales and marketing for Busch Entertainment Corp. That's brewing giant Anheuser-Busch's theme park unit that owns three Sea Worlds, Busch Gardens and adjacent water parks in Tampa and Virginia, Discovery Cove in Orlando and Sesame Place, a children's park near Philadelphia. The Cuban-born Couceiro, 52, chatted last week at Sea World in Orlando about how the theme park industry has changed, how the SheiKra dive coaster in Tampa will probably get scarier and how theme park events evolved to lure a more diverse crowd.

How has theme park marketing changed in the past fiveyears?

Dramatically. It used to be relatively simple to distribute our tickets to travel agents and corporate events. We'd advertise on broadcast TV and newspapers. We still do all that, but today you have to speak to specific audiences through multiple channels because people have far more tools to access information. For instance, we buy a huge amount of cable TV now. The Internet has become a major source of how people make travel decisions - especially our target audience, moms who influence most family travel decisions. It's amazing how many people print our tickets on home computers now.

SheiKra's dive coaster clone, Griffon, is scheduled to open at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., on Memorial Day. It will have floorless cars across so riders will feel even more exposed with their feet dangling in space. It's becoming clear you'll switch the enclosed cars on the ride in Tampa to floorless. Won't that give you a marketing lift by altering the experience of a top attendance draw?

We're considering it, yes. We look at anything that will take the best darn ride in Florida to the next level. We'll say more about it in a few months.

Walt Disney World's latest pricing strategy - which boils down to "the more days you buy, the cheaper the daily price'' - is a big reason why Disney parks were the only big ones in Central Florida parks to report increased attendance in 2005. Their rates, however, are so complex that people at the gate need a calculator to figure out the best deal for them. How did that affect what Busch does?

Not at all. We stayed with simplicity. Pay for one day and Florida residents can come back as many times as they want the rest of the year. It's part of our larger strategy to shift from discounting to more value-added events that get people, especially local residents, to come back more often.

Disney and Universal Orlando raised their base admission prices twice this year. Busch just followed, increasing daily admission to Busch Gardens to $66.29 including tax for adults. What do you say to people who question how a family can afford that much?

I pay $7 to $9 to see a movie, which is a two-hour experience. We're providing a unique, full day and evening of entertainment you cannot get elsewhere. We're not a movie, but a family bonding experience that can create memories that last a lifetime. Most of our tourists spend significantly less to visit our parks, which are a significant reason why they come here in the first place, than for the hotel that puts them up for the night.

How are Florida's overseas markets for tourism holding up?

The UK, which has been incredibly strong for us, continues to be solid. South America is not what it once was, but it has been coming back strong.

Anheuser-Busch reported that through the first nine months of 2006 revenue at its parks rose 9 percent and pretax profits were up 15 percent. Has attendance at the Busch Florida parks rebounded this year?

Without getting into numbers, it's been a very good year. By the end of December we expect Sea World and Adventure Island in Tampa will have record attendance. Busch Gardens will have attendance that exceeds 2005.

How do you use events to appeal to a more diverse audience?

We want Busch Gardens to be known as a centerpiece for entertainment in Tampa Bay. We've been layering in a series of live events from concerts in the winter to Howl-O-Scream in the fall to give different groups a reason to make another visit. We started with the big band series for seniors in the winter. But we added a Summer Nights concert series, Emerald Beat shows and the Michelob Music Festival concerts. This year we're adding Viva La Musica, a series of Hispanic pop music headliners four Sundays in March at Busch Gardens. It's been a big hit at Sea World.

How is mass marketing changing?

You must speak to more diverse audiences. Five years ago we naively thought seniors were one big market. It's about psycho-graphics, not age. There are active seniors and passive seniors; seniors into grandparenting, those more interested in enjoying life as a couple or with their children or an extended family.

Some experts think theme parks hit a plateau the last few years. How about you?

There have been a lot of changes in ownership in the amusement park business lately, but we think the future is bright for us as long as we focus on what made us successful: the uniqueness of our parks, world-class service and the best shows, rides and animal encounters. We see growth in Florida, where we have a new water park under construction at Sea World. It will be like no other in the market. It won't have animal interaction like Discovery Cove does. It will be priced like other water parks yet offer families a relaxing, uncluttered Sea World atmosphere with some big animal components.

You started out in newspaper advertising sales, thanks to an after-hours high school job at the Miami Herald. How did you get in the theme park business?

By accident. I answered an ad to be a Sea World sales rep in Miami. After a lengthy series of interviews, I decided to take it while walking through Shark Encounter, an educational exhibit that's now one of our restaurants. I looked around at all those fish and realized "this is going to be a lot of fun.'' That was 25 years ago.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727)8938252.

What's new, and what's on the way

Online ticket sales

Joe Couceiro says the biggest shift he's witnessed in the industry is in the way tickets are distributed. The old way? Through travel agents and for corporate events. Nowadays? Think cable TV advertising and the Internet. "It's amazing how many people print our tickets on home computers now," he says.

Come back for the music

Couceiro says he hopes Busch Gardens will come to be known for its entertainment offerings, not just the rides. The park started with a winter big band concert series for seniors, but is broadening its thinking. This year, the park will add Viva La Musica, a series of Hispanic pop music headliners playing four Sundays in March. The concerts have been a hit at Sea World.

A scarier SheiKra?

The dive coaster SheiKra, shown at right carrying thrill-seeking Santas for a 2005 Christmas promotion, has a sister ride at the Williamsburg, Va., park - nearly identical, but with floorless cars that leave riders' feet dangling. It seems clear that those cars will make their way here as well, giving Busch Gardens a new spin on a ride that opened last year and giving riders a little extra reason to return and ride it again. Couceiro says you should expect to hear more in coming months.

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