Southland Theme Parks Show Mixed Attendance Results


Theme parks in North America welcomed a record number of visitors this year, but Southern California’s top five attractions experienced mixed results, industry figures reported Friday.

Parks that enjoy strong regional business such as Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain saw solid increases in attendance, bolstered by popular new attractions.

But attendance drooped at Disneyland and Sea World and was flat at Universal Studios Hollywood--parks that rely more on international visitors, according to Amusement Business magazine. Asian tourism, in particular, has remained soft, the publication noted.


More than 170.5 million people visited the 50 largest theme parks in North America in 1999, a 3% increase over last year, largely the result of good weather and new rides. Attendance increased despite an unusual number of fatal accidents, the magazine noted.

The larger theme parks don’t release attendance figures, but the trade publication calculates them each year based on sources within the theme parks and information provided by visitors and convention bureaus.

Disneyland ranked No. 2 nationally behind another Walt Disney Co. park, Florida’s Magic Kingdom at Disney World, which ranked No. 1 in attendance in North America for the third year in a row.

But attendance at the Anaheim park dropped 5% to an estimated 13.4 million.

Disneyland’s problems were compounded by ongoing construction of its second Anaheim theme park, Disney’s California Adventure, which is being built on a former parking lot outside Disneyland. The new Disney park is scheduled to open in 2001.

“Disney is definitely suffering from the construction activity,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. “People just have the perception that everything is torn up all around it. But in 2001, the wraps come off Disney’s California Adventure and I think you’ll have a big bump in tourism activity then.”

Knott’s Berry Farm posted the biggest gain of any Southland theme park, as 3.6 million visitors moved through the turnstiles--up 6% over last year.


Amusement Business attributed the Buena Park attraction’s gains largely to its 300-foot free-fall ride known as Supreme Scream and to GhostRider, a huge wooden roller coaster.

Kyser said attendance should continue to increase at Knott’s Berry Farm as it tries to reinvent itself as a multiple-day vacation resort instead of just focusing on the local market. The park plans to build Perilous Plunge, an attraction billed as the “tallest and steepest” water ride anywhere. Cedar Fair, which owns Knott’s, is also building a separate water park and converting a 320-room hotel nearby into a deluxe Radisson Resort Hotel.

Tim O’Brien, an editor at Amusement Business, said Magic Mountain and 14 other amusement parks owned by Six Flags are responsible for 64% of the 5.1-million increase in attendance at North American theme parks. He said the development of themed areas for kids has been a popular attraction.

“It’s more than thrill rides; it’s the entire mix,” O’Brien said. “They have spent a lot of time and money to develop these kids’ areas.”

Magic Mountain spokesman Andy Gallardo attributed the increase in business not only to the new Bugs Bunny World for kids but to a Halloween promotion called Fright Fest Event that boosted fall attendance. He said the Feb. 11 opening of Goliath, a new roller coaster with a 250-foot drop, should help the park near Valencia get off to a strong start next year.

Universal Studios Hollywood ranked seventh overall with 5.1 million visitors, the same as last year. A new Terminator attraction helped offset a decline in Asian tourists, the magazine said.


Eleventh-ranked Sea World in San Diego had 3.6 million visitors, down 3%. The magazine attributed the decrease to less discounting, since the park experienced record earnings.

But Kyser said Sea World could also be affected by the popularity of nearby Legoland, which opened last March and has had 1.4 million visitors. The magazine said that the new Carlsbad park has had “great acceptance” by the public.

Attendance at the parks has rebounded from a worldwide slump a year ago, when the parks were hurt by El Nino and the Asian financial crisis.