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Although overall theme park attendance grew 3.6 percent in 2012, the visitor boom at Disney’s Adventure Park is the direct result of Cars Land and the all-or-nothing $1.1 billion makeover last year.

Cars Land has put the pedal to the metal on attendance numbers at Disney’s California Adventure Park.

The once-struggling theme park adjacent to Disneyland in Anaheim drew 7.8 million visitors in 2012, a 22.6% increase over the previous year, according to an attendance estimate released Tuesday by the engineering and consulting firm Aecom and Burbank-based Themed Entertainment Assn., a trade group for designers of theme parks, casinos, restaurants and zoos.

Theme park experts attribute the attendance surge to Disney’s $1.1-billion makeover last year of California Adventure, including the addition of the 12-acre Cars Land, the biggest expansion since the park opened in 2001.

“It was worth every penny,” said longtime Disney watcher Dave Koenig, author of “Mouse Tales,” a book on the park’s history. “I’m only surprised that the numbers were not bigger, considering how crowded it is there.”

California’s most popular park, Disneyland, welcomed nearly 16 million guests, a 1.1% drop from the previous year, according to the Aecom estimate. Disney and most other theme park operators don’t release annual attendance numbers.

The report comes only days after Disney announced a boost in single-day adult ticket prices to $92, up from $87 — a jump of nearly 6%. The entertainment giant also raised the price of annual passes, with the Deluxe Annual Passport jumping to $499 from $469. The Premium Annual Passport, which has no blackout dates, now costs $669, an increase of $20.

Disney officials declined to comment on the attendance estimate. But during a conference call with analysts last month, Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger said attendance between Disneyland and California Adventure has become more evenly split, which he called “a strategic goal of our investment in that expansion.”

A big investment also helped boost attendance at Universal Studios Hollywood. The park spent an estimated $100 million for last summer’s launch of “Transformers: The Ride 3D,” an indoor attraction with high-definition 3-D images, special effects and animatronics.

Attendance at Universal Studios Hollywood jumped to 5.9 million visitors, up 15% from 5.14 million in 2011, according to the annual estimate.

“Universal Studios Hollywood enjoyed an outstanding year in 2012, our best attendance ever in our 48-year history,” said Larry Kurzweil, president of Universal Studios Hollywood. “This achievement is due in large part to the back-to-back success and popularity of our two newest thrill rides, ‘King Kong: 360 3D’ followed by ‘Transformers: The Ride 3D.'”

For all of North America, the report estimated that attendance at the 20 biggest theme parks grew 3.6% in 2012. Walt Disney World in Florida had an estimated 2.3% increase in attendance last year.

“It is our view that, given the economic conditions, theme parks have done a good job this year in maintaining single-digit growth in major markets,” the Aecom report said. “The market in North America was, this year as last year, driven by major reinvestment at major operators’ parks.”

Since it opened more than a decade ago, California Adventure Park has struggled to draw less than half of the visitors of its iconic neighbor Disneyland.

In an all-or-nothing move to boost attendance last year, Disney expanded California Adventure, adding Cars Land, a section based on the hit animated “Cars” movies made by Disney’s Pixar studio. Disney also renovated the park’s main street and entrance, adding a 1920s theme, including Red Car trolleys.

But the featured attraction has been Cars Land, including a racing convertible ride, square-dancing tractors and lots of pit stops where visitors can load up on themed merchandise.

Since Cars Land opened, visitors to California Adventure have reported waiting times of two to three hours for attractions. But that has not deterred longtime fans like Pamela Wycliffe, a Web designer from Novato, Calif., who has visited the park three times in the last year.

Despite the crowds and long lines, she said she was impressed by the expansion. The Disney Imagineers “did a fantastic job making you feel you are part of it all,” Wycliffe said.

Craig Barton, a system administrator from Avondale, Ariz., who has visited California Adventure several times since Cars Land was added, said the crowds have become more manageable in the last few months.

“I though the upgrades were fantastic — something the park sorely needed,” he said.

Aecom generates the annual estimates based an analysis of various statistics collected from theme park operators, financial reports and data provided by investment banks and tourism organizations.

The report shows mixed results at other Southern California theme parks. Attendance at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park dropped 4%, but SeaWorld San Diego had a 3.5% increase. Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia had 4% more visitors, according to the report.

(c)2013 the Los Angeles Times. Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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Tags: california, theme parks

Photo credit: A father and son on Luigi's Tire Ride at Cars Land in Disney's California Adventure Park. Ashley Fitting / Flickr

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