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Local Theme Parks Hit by Slump

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A worldwide theme park slump struck Southern California hard in 1998, with attendance off as much as 9% because of El Nino, the Asian financial crisis, heavy construction in Anaheim and changing demographics.

Knott’s Berry Farm was the only Southland amusement park not to post a decline this year. With help from two new thrill rides, the Buena Park amusement park was flat at 3.4 million visitors under new owner Cedar Fair LLP, according to figures released Friday by Amusement Business, a trade publication.

Disneyland, No. 2 nationally behind another Walt Disney Co. park, Florida’s Magic Kingdom, saw attendance fall 4% to 13.68 million, Amusement Business said. Strong local attendance helped offset a decline in Asian guests, as the Anaheim park again was the most-visited Southland attraction.

At Seagram Co.'s Universal Studios Hollywood, local visits also were strong but foreign woes contributed to a 5% attendance decline, to 5.1 million. And in San Diego, attendance at Anheuser-Busch Co.'s SeaWorld California was down 7% to 3.7 million because of El Nino and no major new attractions.

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A 9% hit was reported at Premier Parks Inc.'s Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia. Amusement Business said the park never recovered from winter downpours, logging 3.1 million visitors. A spokeswoman disputed the estimate, saying a new roller coaster, Riddler’s Revenge, and a strong Halloween limited the decline to 4%.

Jack A. Kyser, economist for the Economic Development Council of Los Angeles County, said theme parks are in a “period of transition” as changing recreational choices by aging baby boomers compound various problems.

“Take Disneyland, with the second park and the Anaheim Convention Center construction underway,” Kyser said. “A lot of people hear the submarines are shut down, the Main Street Electrical Parade is no longer there and the I-5 is ripped to shreds. And they decide to wait until later to visit.

“And then you just have to say demographics,” Kyser said. “The baby boomers are over 50; they don’t have kids at home anymore. And some of them want to go somewhere other than theme parks.”

That would help explain why hotel occupancy rose slightly in Los Angeles County this year even as theme park visits fell, Kyser said.

He predicted that Disney’s California Adventure, an Anaheim park that will open in 2001, will help attract older tourists along with Brentwood’s new Getty Center and the redeveloping areas of downtown Los Angeles, Long Beach and Hollywood.

Big theme park operators don’t give exact figures to Amusement Business, which uses interviews to establish an industry consensus. The estimates have drawn occasional criticism from Disney, whose new chairman for theme parks, Judson Green, on Friday again questioned their reliability.

Green and others also noted that the figures don’t reflect promotions such as price cuts and extra-day packages. Bonnie Rabjohn, a Six Flags spokeswoman in Valencia, said the real prize is revenue. She said her park reached record levels by that gauge despite the attendance decline.

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Overall, Amusement Business said, attendance was down about 1% nationally and off 6% at European and Asian theme parks.

Tim O’Brien, who compiled the report for Amusement Business, noted that a trend toward higher attendance at small theme parks continued this year. Attendance declined at the 11 top parks but was up or flat at the parks ranked 39 through 50, he said.

Animal Kingdom, a new Disney park that opened in Florida in April, debuted in the No. 6 spot nationally with 6 million guests. That was a big factor in attendance declines of 8% to 10% at Disney’s three other Florida parks--more than the company had hoped, O’Brien said.

Green noted that Disney was coming off a successful 25th anniversary promotion in Florida last year. Considering fires in Florida, rain in California and global economic troubles, Disney was satisfied with results on both coasts, he said.

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Another vote of confidence came from Richard L. Kinzel, chief executive of Knott’s parent company, Ohio-based Cedar Fair.

Kinzel said he is “extremely pleased” with Knott’s recovery from an El Nino-devastated first quarter. He praised Knott’s General Manager Jack Falfas for pushing to open the new wooden roller coaster GhostRider this month instead of next spring, as originally scheduled.

Following the new Supreme Scream drop ride and a strong Halloween, GhostRider provided a final push to get Knott’s even with last year’s attendance, Kinzel said.

The company wants attendance to rise 18%, to 4 million a year. It has bought the Buena Park Hotel and Convention Center and plans to open a small water park to attract more visitors.

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Smaller Crowds

Attendance at most Southland amusement parks fell in 1998. Nationwide, the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World was No. 1 with 15.64 million visitors. Here’s a list of estimated attendance:

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Rank Attendance Park ’98/'97 (millions) % Change Disneyland 2/2 13.7 -4% Universal Studios 7/6 5.1 -5% SeaWorld California 10/9 3.7 -7% Knott’s Berry Farm 12/11 3.4 unchanged Six Flags Magic Mtn. 15/12 3.1 -9%

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Disney Visitors

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Walt Disney Co. parks topped the attendance lists for 1998. Here’s how they rank, in millions of visitors:

Tokyo Disneyland in Japan: 16.69

The Magic Kingdom in Florida: 15.64

Disneyland in Anaheim: 13.68

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Disneyland Paris in France: 12.50

Source: Amusement Business magazine


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