Tourism Industry Expecting Many Happy Returns

Times Staff Writer

It will never top the charts in Variety, but "Return of the Tourist" is about to become a smash hit in Orange County.

Following last year's Olympic bummer of a summer, when visitors stayed away from the Southland in droves, early indications are that the Summer of '85 could be a near record-breaker for tourism in the county. The upbeat forecast is bringing a collective wave of relief to the one in 10 area workers employed in the tourism industry.

All signs show dramatic improvement in local tourism, from the bookings already on hotel registers to the unusually long lines at area amusement parks. An estimated 30 million visitors are expected to spend more than $4 billion in Orange County this year, up considerably from last year, according to a study by the Anaheim Area Visitor and Convention Bureau.

The year got off to an auspicious start with the number of Orange County visitors in January, traditionally the area's slowest tourism month, rising 8% compared to January, 1984, the bureau said.

Folks who operate local attractions and hotels commonly wait until after Memorial Day to assess the summer market. But already--four weeks before summer officially begins--many in the tourist industry say a bang-up summer is in the making.

Six key reasons have been repeatedly cited:

- Disneyland's 30th anniversary celebration is generating unusual visitor interest.

- Low air fares--and recent airline promotions such as free flights for children--are luring tourists.

- A pent-up demand to see California is bringing many visitors who stayed away last summer, fearing large Olympic crowds and inflated prices.

- Televised coverage of last year's Summer Games showed the Los Angeles area in an unusually good light, prompting large numbers of vacationers to plan trips here this summer.

- A new $5-million advertising campaign by the California Office of Tourism is creating even more interest and is expected to result in $200 million in additional travel expenditures to the $26 billion-plus that tourists will spend statewide this year.

- The economy has remained generally strong over the past year.

"Instead of stashing money in their savings accounts, people seem to be a little more willing to spend it on travel," said Michael Casinelli, vice president of marketing research at CIC Research Inc., a San Diego consulting firm that does tourism studies for the City of Anaheim.

Indeed, travel bookings this year are up 100% at Walt Disney Travel Inc., said Harry Takeno, western regional manager for the subsidiary of Walt Disney Productions. "You can't help but wonder how long this kind of pace can keep up," he said.

Disneyland, which posted record Easter week attendance this spring, expects to exceed its all-time attendance mark of 11.5 million visitors this year, said Bob Roth, a Disney spokesman. And Knott's Berry Farm also reports double-digit percentage increases in attendance over last year.

Despite the addition of nearly 3,000 hotel rooms since last year, hotel occupancy in the city of Anaheim is now at rates comparable to those of 1984, said William Snyder, president of the convention bureau. "That's remarkable when you consider all the additional rooms," he said. Occupancy is now running about 68%, he said.

"Business looks as good as I've seen it in 26 years," said Ernie Badalian, owner of the 136-room Tropicana and the 32-room Sands motel in Anaheim. Last summer, room occupancy often fell below 50% at his motels. But this summer, he said, "I expect to be near 100% most nights."

Back in January, normally their slowest month, Disneyland Hotel officials already suspected a big year was in the works. Occupancy at the hotel adjacent to the Magic Kingdom jumped to 77%, much better than the 50% occupancy of January, 1984, said Judi Cabrera, the hotel's vice president of advertising. She anticipates that July occupancy at the hotel will hit 95%, compared to 71% during July of 1984.

"The year has been incredible," Cabrera said. To accommodate the unexpected wave of reservations, the hotel, owned by Wrather Corp. of Beverly Hills, has installed a new $500,000 computerized reservation system and added six reservation clerks.

At the 1,600-room Anaheim Hilton, officials generally credit Disneyland's 30th birthday bash with not only boosting occupancy, but changing the very face of the hotel's summer customer. "We're packed with children," said Paula Neisen, a Hilton spokeswoman. Because of the year-old hotel's proximity to the Anaheim Convention Center, it more commonly attracts executive guests. Now the hotel is so overflowing with children that it has just initiated a special summer activities program for kids, Neisen said.

Tourists who arrive at the Hilton are greeted by bellman, desk clerks and even maids wearing buttons that say, "Anaheim Visitors." More than 10,000 of these buttons were distributed last week to hotel and restaurant workers by the city's visitor bureau, said Bonnie Cook, the bureau's director of tourism.

"It's our way of trying to get everyone into the spirit," she said.

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