Theme parks expect new rides to send merchandise sales soaring

The Legoland theme park in San Diego County is preparing to launch its newest attraction — an area featuring “Star Wars” movie scenes built with Lego bricks — to boost attendance this spring and summer.

But the attraction, opening Thursday, also is expected to boost profit with another important moneymaker for the park: souvenir sales.

Adjacent to the new Star Wars “miniland,” the Carlsbad park plans to open a store called the Empire Emporium to sell hats, T-shirts and, of course, Lego kits to build Star Wars spaceships and characters.

“We are definitely merchandizing toward more Lego products for the Star Wars attraction,” Legoland spokeswoman Julie Estrada said.


Merchandise sales typically generate about 20% of theme park revenue, but that percentage spikes when a park offers new souvenirs, clothes and hats that are tied to the opening of a new attraction or holiday celebration, according to theme park industry experts.

“Once a new attraction opens, they have a short period — one to two years — to capitalize on it,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a Cincinnati consulting firm. “They get an immediate hit and then the champagne effect as sales go flat.”

As theme parks try to recover from the recession, many are looking for ways to boost income without raising admission prices. And with five of Southern California’s largest theme parks planning to launch new attractions over the next year and a half, growing merchandise sales should help.

The Legoland Star Wars attraction will open first, followed in June by a spinning Green Lantern roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

Also this summer, Disney’s California Adventure plans to open an indoor ride based on the 1989 movie “The Little Mermaid.” Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park also plans to launch a gondola ride dubbed Windseeker before July 4. Universal Studios Hollywood plans to open a 3-D ride next year based on the 2007 blockbuster “Transformers.”

With the opening of Knott’s Berry Farm’s new ride, the park plans to sell new T-shirts, hats, coffee mugs, wrist bands and key chains emblazoned with the ride’s name.

“We get coaster enthusiasts and they love to collect that sort of stuff,” park spokeswoman Jennifer Blazey said.

In the drive to increase sales of merchandise, some theme parks also capitalize on their legions of devoted fans, such as Al and Joyce Kessel of Anthem, Ariz., who travel to Disneyland four or five times a year.

Not only do the Kessels each own a premium annual pass to the park, priced at about $460 per person, but over the last three years, they have also amassed about 600 collectable Disney pins, which sell for $9 to $11 each.

“We don’t do a lot of other things with our money,” said Al Kessel, who works as an administrator at Western International University in Phoenix. “We go to Disneyland because we know we are going to splurge.”

Al Kessel said he buys Mickey Mouse ears and his wife loves Disney-themed Dooney & Bourke purses. “It’s just a hobby for us that we enjoy doing,” he said.

The spike in merchandise sales can be dramatic, particularly if the new attractions celebrate a popular television or movie character.

When Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., opened its Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction last June, park attendance jumped 36% and merchandise revenue doubled from the previous year, to $48.7 million for the three months that ended Sept. 26, according to a report filed by Universal City Development Partners, which owns and operates the theme park.

The merchandise at the Harry Potter attraction includes souvenir magic wands, Slytherin scarves, Dumbledore steins and Voldemort key chains, among other items based on the blockbuster movie series.

“New rides and attractions provide a great opportunity to create fun and unique products that are complementary,” said Eileen Strotz, corporate director for merchandising at Six Flags, which plans to offer new clothes, toys and collectables with the opening of the new Green Lantern roller coaster.

Theme parks also capitalize on special holiday events.

During Halloween, Disneyland routinely unveils a collection of new items such as Mickey Mouse ears decorated with Frankenstein bolts, Tinker Bell costumes and lanterns and candy decorated with Disney characters.

Sales of Halloween merchandise at Disneyland jumped 20% from 2006 to 2009, said John Kirkham, operations manager for merchandising at the resort. Halloween ranks behind only Christmas for merchandise sales, he added.

At Christmastime, Universal Studios Hollywood decorates areas of the theme park to resemble Whoville from the 2000 movie “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Throughout the park, the shops sell fuzzy Grinch hats and long-fingered Grinch gloves, among other Grinch-related souvenirs.

Even the relaunch of an existing ride can boost sales of merchandise. Six Flags Magic Mountain recently relaunched its Superman rollercoaster, turning the passenger seats around so that riders face backward while they fly 415 feet in the air at 100 mph.

After riding the coaster, park visitors can load up on Superman hats, T-shirts, coffee mugs and magnets. Park officials said the most popular souvenir may be the $10 Superman capes with a built-in electronic device that plays the theme song from the 1978 “Superman” movie.