Theme parks pick up speed

The Baltimore Sun

New rides and attractions - plus efforts to lure families instead of just teenagers - will continue to drive increased spending and attendance at theme parks worldwide, a new study forecasts.

After a sluggish 2006, spending at U.S. theme parks is expected to grow 4.3 percent this year to more than $12 billion, thanks in part to increased ticket prices and the weak dollar, which is spurring visits by international tourists, according to a report released yesterday by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Asia is the fastest-growing market, with theme park spending expected to increase more than 5 percent a year through 2011. By then, spending is expected to reach $8.1 billion, up from $6.2 billion in 2006.

Hong Kong Disneyland, which opened in late 2005, and new parks in China and India are expected to boost attendance and spending. Universal plans to open a Singapore theme park in 2010 and several other projects are under way.

"The growth is continuing," said Robert Canton, a director of PricewaterhouseCoopers' entertainment and media practice. "We're seeing anything from 3 [percent] to 5 percent."

Last year, Disney was the first to break the $60 barrier by raising tickets from $59.75 to $63 in January at its Florida parks, then to $67 in August. Universal then raised its Florida ticket prices to match Disney. Ticket prices at Disneyland rose from $59 to $63 in September.

Canton said most destination parks, such as Walt Disney World and Disneyland, are able to command higher prices without diminishing attendance. Regional parks, though, continue to offer coupons or other discounts to offset their ticket prices, while charging more for concessions.

"It's two ways of approaching the same thing," said Jeff Putz, editor of, a Web site devoted to amusement park industry news.

Putz said he's heard "more noise" about inside-the-park increases from coaster enthusiasts. "They're not happy with the food pricing and souvenirs versus the ticket pricing," he said.

Parks have realized that one of the best ways to increase per-person spending is to attract families, because they spend more money on food and souvenirs than do thrill-seeking teenagers, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The best example is Six Flags Inc., which has rolled out an aggressive campaign to reinvent itself. In 2006, it banned smoking except in designated areas. This year, it initiated a code of conduct for its guests to crack down on unacceptable attire, inappropriate language, line-cutting and unruly behavior.

At the same time, Six Flags instituted more family-friendly offerings - increasing the number of costumed characters roaming its parks and adding attractions appealing to younger children.

Wiggles World is being introduced this year at three Six Flags parks in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Chicago. Designed for children ages 2 to 6, the themed areas include rides and entertainment.

The Wiggles are part of a trend of amusement parks increasingly relying on licensed movies and television characters to market rides, attractions and roller coasters. Six Flags also has a licensing pact with DC Comics, and this week inked a deal with dick clark productions, which is behind shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and the American Music Awards.

Last month, Universal announced a deal with Warner Bros. to create "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" at its Orlando, Fla., park, Islands of Adventure.

The $200 million-plus project, set to open in late 2009, is likely to drive tourists and Harry Potter fans in droves to the park, which has suffered from declining attendance over the past two years, according to the report.

"Generally speaking, the licensing deals are a good idea provided that there is a certain timelessness to them," Putz said. "Obviously if something gets outdated, you're going to have to change them."

At Universal parks in Orlando and Hollywood, Calif., a ride based on The Simpsons will replace "Back to the Future: The Ride" next year.

Kimi Yoshino writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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