The summer travel season in Central Florida is cooking, and the Fourth of July looks to be even hotter, with more travelers than ever hitting the road and jamming airports across the country.
A record 40.3 million Americans will venture 50 miles or more from home this holiday nationwide, up 2.8 percent from last year, AAA predicted Wednesday.
That not only would be the most heavily traveled Fourth of July in history but also would top Thanksgiving, the granddaddy of holiday-travel weekends nationally, said Sandra Hughes, travel vice president for AAA at its headquarters in Heathrow near Lake Mary.
Summer is the busiest time for Central Florida's tourism industry, and the Fourth of July is traditionally a big travel holiday.
Attraction operators said the strong AAA forecast backs what they are seeing and hearing at local parks and hotels.
"June has been fantastic for us," said Trevor Thompson, vice president of operations for SkyVenture, a wind-tunnel skydiving attraction off International Drive in south Orlando.
"Attendance is up 25 percent from our previous record of two years ago. In my mind, we're back," Thompson said.
Rainy weather in early June dampened attendance a bit at SeaWorld Orlando, but the park is "still ahead of last year" in total attendance since Memorial Day, the unofficial summer kickoff, said Joe Couceiro, vice president of marketing.
Couceiro said local hotel bookings look strong for July and early August, supporting AAA's bullish forecast for the Fourth of July.
AAA said stubbornly high gasoline prices don't seem to be deterring people this year, based on the travel association's national survey, and Central Florida hospitality specialists agreed.
"It takes a lot for people to stop traveling," said Tim Hemphill, executive director of the Kissimmee Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando also are enjoying strong summers, fueled in part by advertising for specials and new shows such as Disney's Happiest Celebration on Earth and Universal's launch of its Fear Factor Live attraction.
"The Fourth of July is traditionally strong for us," Universal spokesman Tom Schrodersaid, and this one is shaping up to be a sizzler. "The [AAA] forecast for record travel is really good news," he said.
Weather is always the wild card, especially for highway travel and for water parks such as Water Mania in Kissimmee, said Lisa Murphy, the attraction's spokeswoman. .
"If the weather cooperates, that makes all the difference," Murphy said.
People are still making last-minute travel plans, but more people are beginning to book further in advance to get first-choice hotel accommodations, said Nina Meyer, president of the South Florida chapter of the American Society of Travel Agents.
Meyer said Walt Disney World's new ticket-pricing strategy, launched earlier this year, is definitely prompting longer vacations for many heading to the Disney parks. The flexible pricing makes Disney tickets cheaper on a per-day basis the longer the stay.
"Where it used to be one to two nights, it's now three to five," Meyer said of many Disney-area bookings, although visitors within about a three-hour drive of Orlando are still opting for shorter stays.
The trend for increased family and group travel also remains strong, Meyer said. She said she recently booked a cruise for 14, for example, and often books vacations for two and three generations.
Todd May, president of Identity Travel in Hollywood, near Fort Lauderdale, said pent-up demand for travel is still a factor. "People have put off vacations for a long time," May said.
AAA, the nation's largest motoring and leisure-travel organization, predicts 33.9 million Americans will travel by automobile this Fourth of July, up 2.6 percent from a year ago. Another 4.6 million plan to travel by air, up 4.2 percent from a year ago.
Jerry W. Jackson can be reachedat email@example.com 407-420-5721. Adrian G. Uribarri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 407-420-5240. Steve J. Collins of the Sentinel Staff contributed to this report.