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Theme Parks See Turnstile Decrease

December 29, 1998

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ The animals roaming through Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World’s newest theme park, may be taking a bite out of something more than the lush vegetation: they’re eating into attendance at Florida’s other parks.

And it’s not just Florida that’s seeing fewer theme park visitors. For the first time since 1991, overall attendance at North America’s top theme parks decreased.

The larger theme parks don’t release attendance figures, but the trade publication Amusement Business calculates them each year based on sources within the theme parks and information provide by visitors and convention bureaus. The numbers were released in Monday’s edition.

Attendance at the 50 largest theme parks was estimated at 165.3 million people, almost 2 million fewer than in 1997. The decline was due to a combination of bad weather nationwide and weak marketing that failed to draw visitors into the parks to try new rides, said Tim O’Brien, southeast editor of Amusement Business. A drop in tourism from Asia didn’t help matters either.

The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Orlando saw an 8 percent reduction in visitors, but the 15.6 million people who passed through its turnstiles were enough for it to retain its spot as the top-drawing theme park in North America. (Tokyo Disneyland was the most popular theme park in the world with 16.7 million visitors, down about 3.4 percent from last year.)

Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., was No. 2 in North America with 13.7 million visitors, down 4 percent. The decrease would have been steeper because of a drop in Asian tourists, but local visitors largely made up any shortfall.

Rounding out the top five in North America were Epcot at Walt Disney World with 10.6 million visitors, down 10 percent; Disney-MGM Studios at Walt Disney World with 9.4 million visitors, down 10 percent; and Universal Studios Florida, with had 8.9 million visitors, about even with last year.

Meeting its projected forecast, Animal Kingdom came in at No. 6 with an estimated 6 million visitors.

Because of the number of people attracted to Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World appears set to have a record year overall, but each park got a smaller piece of the attendance pie since the number of parks increased from three to four. Animal Kingdom’s opening in April cut into attendance at the three existing parks, which had 3.6 million fewer visitors than last year.

Disney spokesman Duncan Wardle said some crossover had been expected, and that Disney has been ``very pleased″ with attendance.

Animal Kingdom also appeared to draw crowds away from Sea World Florida in Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. The two parks, owned by Anheuser-Busch, are also animal-themed parks, and saw attendance this year stay at 4.9 million and 4.2 million respectively _ even with last year’s record attendance.

Anheuser-Busch has four other theme parks in the top 50, and attendance was either flat or down slightly at each of them.

Premier Parks, which purchased the Six Flags chain in April to become the largest regional park chain in the world, claimed 15 of the top 50 parks, but had a mixed year overall.

While some of the parks, such as Six Flags Marine World in Vallejo, Calif., boosted attendance by 66 percent from last year to 1.8 million visitors, others such as Six Flags St. Louis saw a drop of 25 percent to 1.5 million people. Amusement Business credited the success of the California park to $40 million in new attractions. The trade magazine blamed the decrease at the Missouri park on poor marketing that failed to lure visitors past the turnstiles.

The biggest segment growth in theme park attendance came from smaller parks in the top 50 such as Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Mo., which had 1.2 million visitors, up 9 percent. Park officials credit that to its new Mamba roller coaster ride, which is 205-feet tall, a mile long and reaches speeds of up to 75 miles per hour.

``It has put Worlds of Fun in a special class of roller coaster parks,″ said park spokeswoman Whitney Howland.