While theme parks worldwide drew bigger crowds last year, attendance at SeaWorld parks dropped as the company faced continued criticism over the treatment of its killer whales, a report released Tuesday says.
Theme park attendance worldwide jumped 5.4% in 2013 over the previous year, according to an annual estimate by Aecom, a Los Angeles engineering and consulting firm. The biggest increase in park visitors came in Asia, where middle-class families with money to spend are on the rise, the report said.
But attendance dropped 4.1% at parks run by Florida-based SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, according to the estimate. The drop came in the same year as the release of the documentary film "Blackfish," which accuses the parks of mistreating killer whales used in hugely popular marine shows.
Aecom researchers attribute the attendance drop at SeaWorld parks primarily to bad weather and a hike in entrance fees at some SeaWorld parks last year. "Weather and prices weren't helping SeaWorld last year," said John Robinett, senior vice president for economics at Aecom.
Animal rights activists say the documentary played a role in the attendance drop.
"The public is disgusted with SeaWorld's archaic captive-orca shows, and the park's plummeting ticket sales reflect that," said Ingrid Newkirk, president for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Although SeaWorld officials would not disclose attendance numbers, they questioned the accuracy of Aecom's estimates.
"Last year, SeaWorld parks generated its third consecutive year of record revenue and operating profit, based in part on strong attendance in our SeaWorld-branded parks," the company said in a statement.
Most theme parks refuse to disclose attendance numbers but concede that the estimates in Aecom's annual report are accurate. The annual report was published in partnership with the Themed Entertainment Assn., a Burbank trade group for designers and artists.
The surge in theme park attendance in Asia helped Tokyo Disneyland surpass Disneyland Resort in Anaheim as the second-most-popular theme park in the world, behind Disney's Magic Kingdom in Florida.
The Magic Kingdom drew 18.6 million visitors in 2013, a 6% increase over 2012, according to Aecom.
Attendance at Tokyo Disneyland jumped 15.9% in 2013 to 17.2 million visitors, surpassing Disneyland, with 16.2 million visitors, a 1.5% rise over the previous year, the Aecom report said.
Disneyland officials said their focus in 2013 was to continue to boost attendance at its sister park, Disney's California Adventure Park, which drew 8.5 million visitors, a 9.5% increase over 2012. The report attributed the growth at California Adventure Park to the popularity of its new Cars Land attraction, which opened in June 2012.
Overall, theme park attendance in North America grew 2.7% in 2013, compared with the previous year.
In Southern California, Universal Studios Hollywood had 6.1 million visitors, a 4% increase, the report said.
Universal Studios Hollywood president Larry Kurzweil said he expects his park to continue to draw a record number of visitors this year with the opening in April of the new Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem ride. Over the next two years, the park will open attractions based on the "Fast & Furious" movies, the "Simpsons" television series and the "Harry Potter" franchise, he said.
The most dramatic growth in attendance last year came at theme parks in Asia. In addition to the 15.9% attendance boost at Tokyo Disneyland, the report estimates an 11.3% increase in attendance at Tokyo Disney Sea, a 4.1% increase at Universal Studios Japan, a 10.4% increase at Hong Kong Disneyland and a 15.9% jump at Lotte World South Korea.
The surge in theme park visitors in Asia may explain why Walt Disney Co. and its partners in China announced in April plans to spend an extra $800 million to increase capacity of its Shanghai Disney Resort, which is scheduled to open next year with a $4-billion price tag.