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SeaWorld attendance sinks while other theme parks rise in 2015

Disneyland crowds swell during the park’s 60th anniversary celebration.
A large Disneyland crowd in June 2015 during the Anaheim park’s 60th Anniversary Diamond Jubilee.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The 60th anniversary celebration at Disneyland helped push attendance at the park up by 9% last year, while SeaWorld San Diego continued to struggle amid animal rights controversies, with attendance falling 7%.

New attractions and celebrations helped lure more visitors to every major theme park in North America other than SeaWorld San Diego, according to estimates from an annual attendance study by Los Angeles-based consulting firm Aecom.

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“Over the last couple years, the aggregate increase of the 20 top performing theme parks in North America was between 2% and 3.5% — good, steady, moderate growth. But it positively leapt beyond that in 2015 to an impressive 5.9%,” said Brian Sands, a vice president with Aecom, which produces the annual attendance report with the Themed Entertainment Assn., a trade group for theme park designers and producers. 

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The report didn’t speculate why SeaWorld lost ground last year, bringing in 3.5 million visitors, but the marine park has acknowledged that it has foundered in its efforts to improve its image in the face of criticism from animal rights groups.

Attendance numbers at the marine-themed park have been flagging since the release of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which accused the park of neglecting and abusing its captive orcas.

SeaWorld Entertainment, the parent company of the San Diego park, has tried to rebound from the criticism by replacing its chief executive, revamping its Shamu show and ending its controversial orca breeding program. In 2014, the park posted a 12% decline in attendance, according to Aecom.

As for Disneyland, the jump in attendance is likely the result of the park’s 60th anniversary celebration, which included a new nighttime fireworks show and a remade street parade, plus overhauls to several existing attractions, such as the Matterhorn ride and Sleeping Beauty’s castle, the Aecom report said. Disneyland drew in 18.3 million visitors last year, coming in second to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Florida, which brought in 20.5 million visitors last year, up 6% from 2014.

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Universal Studios Hollywood had 7.1 million visitors last year, up 4%, the report said. As part of a $1.6-billion upgrade, the park launched Fast and Furious: Supercharged last year as well as Springfield, a city block of eateries inspired by the fictional town in the TV show “The Simpsons.” 

The modest attendance improvement at Universal Studios Hollywood is likely to widen in 2016 thanks to the opening in April of a six-acre Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction at the park.

An attraction that opened in 2014 based on the popular Harry Potter books and movies was attributed to a 16% surge in attendance at Universal Studios Orlando — the biggest attendance jump of any major theme park in North America in 2015, according to the Aecom study.

Universal Orlando’s neighboring park, Islands of Adventure, had an 8% increase in attendance last year, the report said, attributing the improvement to a Harry Potter attraction that opened in 2010.

Lori Weisberg of the San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this article.

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hugo.martin@latimes.com

For more tourism news, follow Hugo Martin on Twitter: @hugomartin


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