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Busch Gardens, SeaWorld attendance down in 2013

Long lines greeted Cheetah Hunt at Busch Gardens when it opened in 2011. The debut of Falcon’s Fury has been delayed.
Published Jun. 10, 2014

For fans of Busch Gardens, the numbers are as disappointing as a "closed for maintenance'' sign on their favorite ride.

While the Tampa Bay area continues to shatter tourism records, attendance at its top attraction (aside from beaches) dropped 6 percent last year.

That was the steepest decline of any of the top 20 amusement parks in North America and largest annual dip since the recession in 2009.

Busch Gardens' sister parks also owned by SeaWorld Entertainment didn't fare much better. Attendance decreased 5 percent at SeaWorld in Orlando and 3 percent at SeaWorld in San Diego. Visitor traffic at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., slid 4.5 percent.

This wasn't part of some industry trend. Attendance at the top U.S. and Canadian parks rose 2.7 percent overall, according to the Themed Entertainment Association's report, considered the best independent measure of theme park attendance. Universal Studios Orlando led the pack with a 14 percent boost. Disney's Magic Kingdom, the busiest theme park in the world, saw a 6 percent rise, by far its biggest gain in years.

So what's the deal?

Brian Sands, co-author of the Global Attractions Attendance Report, blamed it on several factors that affected all the SeaWorld parks. For one, the parks increased their ticket prices to be more in line with Disney and Universal, parks with more elaborately themed, immersive experiences. Then, some of the parks got hit with bad weather during peak times.

Of course, there was stiff competition. In 2013, Disney continued rolling out Fantasyland, its biggest expansion in the park's 41-year history. Universal Studios Orlando debuted the Transformers 3D ride.

By contrast, Tampa's Busch Gardens had no major new attractions in 2013 to lure visitors to the gate. It announced the addition of Falcon's Fury, a 335-foot drop tower ride, but it was a year away (and still isn't open).

"It's not a surprise. We knew last year with the cuts happening with Summer Nights that they weren't doing too well,'' said Bill Androckitis, a Busch Gardens blogger for BGTfans.com, referring to the park's shortened hours and restaurant closures.

Even SeaWorld Orlando, with its new Antarctica section and penguin habitat, struggled to keep up.

"Regrettably, penguins are not a highly charismatic animal. They are just modestly charismatic,'' Sands said. "They aren't the same thing as a dolphin in the broadness of their appeal.''

And who can forget Blackfish? The controversial documentary movie about killer whales in captivity prompted celebrity boycotts of SeaWorld parks, including Busch Gardens, even though it doesn't have whales.

SeaWorld officials have said the movie, while it drew a lot of media attention, didn't have a huge impact on the bottom line. Sands, who co-wrote the attendance report, agrees.

"When you think about the people who are going to theme parks, it's really the middle class and families who want a day out,'' he said. "I don't think that group is as focused on animal welfare as some other people are.''

Despite the weak numbers, SeaWorld officials say the figures are just estimates and, overall, they had a strong year. The company had a successful public stock offering and revenue reached $1.5 billion, up 3 percent from 2012.

More significantly, perhaps, the company's per-guest revenue jumped 7 percent to $62.43, a sign that visitors are spending more on admission, food and merchandise in the park.

Experts expect Busch Gardens will bounce back in the 2014 report, which will reflect an attendance boost from Falcon's Fury. The drop tower ride was scheduled to open in early May but has been postponed until later this summer because of testing issues.

Still, the park faces challenges. Unlike Disney and Universal, Busch Gardens doesn't have destination hotels, shopping centers and restaurants to draw guests for multiday visits. Further delays of Falcon's Fury could cause even more people to postpone park visits.

Competitors aren't sitting on their hands, either. The centerpiece of Disney's Fantasyland, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, opened a few weeks ago. Part two of the Harry Potter phenomenon, Diagon Alley, opens soon at Universal Orlando. Huge crowds are already itching to go.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110.

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