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O.C. Tourism Trade Feeling the Pinch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite balmy weather and an influx of World Cup soccer fans, Orange County is having a lackluster summer for tourism.

Local hotels overall had fewer guests during the first half of 1994, and some theme parks reported sluggish attendance in the spring and early summer.

“Leisure business has been flat compared to last year,” said Patrick Hynes, director of public relations for the 1,600-room Anaheim Hilton and Towers, near the Anaheim Convention Center.

Occupancy at Orange County’s major hotels through June was about 64%, off 2% from the first six months of 1993, PKF Consulting in Los Angeles reported Thursday.

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Hotel managers were not the only ones feeling the pinch. Officials at many tourist attractions, among them Disneyland, said spring and early-summer business was slow.

“June was somewhat disappointing for us,” said John McClintock, a spokesman for Disneyland in Anaheim. The Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake, he said, may have scared away many of the park’s potential visitors.

Analysts supported that premise. Esmael Adibi, an economist and director of the Chapman University Center for Economic Research in Orange, said the drop in hotel occupancy and the declining number of theme-park visitors are linked and will probably show up in lower year-end results for the county’s $6.5-billion tourism industry.

The Anaheim area, which has 18,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of Disneyland and is the county’s top tourist and convention destination, saw its hotel occupancy rate plummet in June, dropping more than 8% from the same month last year.

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“I would say this is mainly the result of the earthquake, which was in January, when people are making travel plans,” Adibi said. “Still, Orange County is a good place to vacation and, barring any other disasters, people will forget. It could be that stronger results in July and August will make up for this.”

That appears to be the case.

“July has been much better than we expected,” Disneyland’s McClintock said, partly because of the theme park’s newest parade, the Lion King Celebration.

Greg Briggs, general manager of Wild Rivers Water Park in Irvine, said that while May and June attendance was down, visitors have been streaming in since mid-July.

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“We became very concerned,” he said, “but since about two weeks ago, we’ve gone on a tear. . . . This could be our best summer since 1992, our best year.”

At Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, spokesman Bob Ochsner said, daily attendance is up an average of 5% to 10% from last year, mostly because of the park’s new Mystery Lodge attraction, a high-tech re-creation of an ancient Canadian Indian lodge.

“Still, tourism into Southern California has not fully recovered,” he said, from recent natural disasters, including last fall’s Laguna Beach wildfires. “We’re seeing mostly Californians and other Westerners and a whole lot of locals. People are vacationing more in their back yards.”

Hotel occupancy rates in Los Angeles seemed to be making a comeback, increasing 6.9% for the first six months of the year to 65.5%, about one percentage point higher than Orange County’s rate.

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Despite the 2% decline here, though, local hotels in some areas are doing well. Lodgings near John Wayne Airport, which generally cater to traveling business people, posted a 12% rise in occupancy for the month of June.

And sunny weather meant a boost for the beachfront Surf & Sand Hotel in Laguna Beach, said Bob Van Ness, director of sales for the 157-room hotel.

“This summer is much better than last year. It’s outstanding,” he said. “The weather played a good part. And the World Cup helped fill the Southern California region. We didn’t really expect that.”

Several hotels farther away from the ocean, though, also reported gains.

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“We’ve had a great summer and a great year,” said Bonnie Best, director of marketing for the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel. The number of both corporate and leisure guests was up nearly 5% through June, she said.

At nearby South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Orange County’s best-known shopping center, customer traffic has been “strong and steady” this summer, said Werner Escher, director of travel markets for the center.

But no tourist attraction in Orange County is booming more than the 4-year-old Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda. Since the death of the former President in April, average daily attendance has more than tripled, spokesman Kevin Cartwright said.

“It’s been unbelievable. Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine this kind of response,” he said.

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More Empty Rooms at the Inns

The occupancy rate at Orange County hotels and motels was off 2% for the first half of 1994. Though business at convention hotels has held steady, leisure travelers have been much scarcer than last year. June and January-to-June occupancy by area of the county:

June Rates

Region: Anaheim

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June Rate: -8.1%

1993: 76.6%

1994: 70.4%

*

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Region: South Orange County

June Rate: +8.9%

1993: 60.6%

1994: 66.0%

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*

Region: Airport

June Rate: +12.0%

1993: 59.0%

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1994: 66.1%

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Region: North Orange County

June Rate: -7.3%

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1993: 69.7%

1994: 64.6%

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OVERALL AVERAGE

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June Rate: -3.2%

1993: 70.7%

1994: 68.5%

First-Half Rates

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Region: Anaheim

First-Half Rate: -3.4%

1993: 68.4%

1994: 66.1%

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Region: South Orange County

First-Half Rate: -4.8%

1993: 60.6%

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1994: 57.7%

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Region: Airport

First-Half Rate: +5.2% 1993: 60.6%

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1994: 63.8%

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Region: North Orange County

First-Half Rate: -6.7%

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1993: 62.9%

1994: 58.7%

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OVERALL AVERAGE

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First-Half Rate: -2.0%

1993: 65.6%

1994: 64.2%


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