Orlando remains a battleground for the world's largest theme park operators, but attendance is growing around the world — and the biggest companies are trying to win audiences all over.
During the same week last year, Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando Resort opened new additions meant to draw bigger crowds to their theme park complexes.
A new report out Thursday indicates the openings did the trick. The 2017 TEA/AECOM Theme Index showed strong gains at both theme park companies. The index is compiled by the Themed Entertainment Association and the economics practice at engineering firm AECOM,
The results came in a year when attendance at the top 25 parks worldwide increased 4.7 percent to nearly 244 million. That’s a stark difference from 2016, when attendance at the top 25 parks dropped 1.1 percent.
“The industry resumed its historic pace of growth in 2017,” John Robinett, senior vice president for the Americas at AECOM, said in a statement. “Major theme park operators had an outstanding year with significant overall growth led largely by properties in China.”
The report is based on figures obtained by AECOM from operators, financial statements, tourism organizations, professional estimates, and other sources. Most theme park operators do not release park-by-park attendance numbers, and some shy away from releasing numbers publicly altogether.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which unveiled Pandora — The World of Avatar in late May, saw attendance increase by more than 15 percent to 12.5 million in 2017, according to the report. That moved the park up a spot to No. 6 on a list of the world’s top theme parks.
Globally, attendance at Disney’s parks grew 6.8 percent to more than 150 million, fueled also by growth at Shanghai Disneyland in 2017, the first full year it was open. Attendance there grew 96 percent to 11 million.
Universal Parks & Resorts overall grew 4.4 percent to more than 49 million. The operator opened Volcano Bay, what it describes as a “water theme park,” in May of 2017. According to the report, the park drew 1.5 million people.
“The 2017 numbers for North America, a mature themed entertainment market, demonstrate a classic wisdom: the need for continual reinvestment as the basis of growth and success, year after year and decade after decade,” the report said. “This is clearly shown in the performance of the two top U.S. operators, Disney and Universal.”
Unlike 2016, when all of Disney’s parks that had been opened the prior year showed a decrease, most of the company’s properties around the world saw growth. The only exception was Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida, where construction for two big additions has been ongoing. That park dropped by about 54,000 guests to slightly more than 10.7 million, but a new Toy Story-themed land opening in June should boost attendance in 2018, followed by a Star Wars land next year.
“Disney is leveraging the power of compelling intellectual property with Pandora — and new Star Wars lands on the horizon — as did Universal with the Harry Potter attractions, and both set a leading example for the industry,” Brian Sands, AECOM’s vice president for the Americas, said in a statement.
Universal’s Orlando theme parks each saw just 2 percent growth. Islands of Adventure, which opened the first Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2010, topped 9.5 million. Universal Studios Orlando, which added a Harry Potter addition in 2014, reached nearly 10.2 million. But Universal Studios Hollywood, which added the Harry Potter area in 2016, jumped 12 percent to more than 9 million. Universal Studios Japan has the highest attendance for the operator; it grew 3 percent to nearly 15 million.
Universal has a Beijing park in the works, and that development plus the success of Shanghai Disney Resort and other operators in the country such as Chimelong Group have observers predicting continued gains in China.
“We have forecast for several years that China would become the largest theme park market in the world by 2020,” the report said. “That forecast is still on track.”
China’s growth notwithstanding, Orlando is still theme park central. The destination announced last week that about 72 million people visited last year. And that number is only expected to grow.
“Based on the new attractions that are coming online over the next two years, I think we’ll hit 75 million,” said Dennis Speigel, president of consulting firm International Theme Park Services.
“There’s $8 to $10 billion coming on over the next five years,” Speigel said of new attractions in Orlando. “And some things that haven’t even been announced yet.”
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Photo credit: Pandora — The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom is shown in this promotional photo. Disney opened the new land in 2017, and attendance at the park jumped more than 15 percent, a new report shows. David Roark / Walt Disney World Resort