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Theme Park Expansions Make a Splash For the US Tourism Industry

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The world market for theme parks will reach $29.5 billion by 2015. (Photo: Stock.xchng)
The world market for theme parks will reach $29.5 billion by 2015. (Photo: Stock.xchng)


  • Sea World Orlando announces biggest expansion in its 40-year history
  • Tourism observers question continued popularity of theme parks
  • Affordable entertainment with family appeal should lead to continued popularity of theme parks

In the wake of Universal Studio’s instantly successful Harry Potter attraction, Sea World Orlando has announced the biggest expansion in its almost 40-year history. But as Orlando solidifies its status as the world’s No. 1 destination for theme parks, some observers question whether there is smooth sailing ahead.

Sea World announced two major parks to open this year with an even more ambitious project set to open in 2013. This year’s new openings include:

  • Freshwater Oasis in Discovery Cove lets guests wade through ankle to waist-deep water with playful live marmosets in a lush rain forest. Discovery Cove is the park’s $199-a-day experience that allows guests to encounter live dolphins and other creatures in the sea.
  • Turtle Trek is a first-of-its-kind computer-generated animation project. Standing guests wearing 3-D glasses will view a six-minute film recounting the story of a sea turtle from its birth through a 22-year trek around the ocean before becoming one of the 20,000 sea creatures involved in SeaWorld’s rescue programs.
  • An even larger project announced by Sea World is “Antarctica – Empire of the Penguin,” set to open in the spring of 2013. The park, said to be Sea World’s first attempt to add a new realm to the park since Universal Orlando opened its themed Harry Potter attraction two years ago, will be modeled after a windswept and barren Antarctic settlement. It will include special effects, a conservationist theme and a collection of food vendors. The main attraction will be a ride officials called a “thrilling family adventure” for all age groups.

"We're taking stories and experiences only SeaWorld can do and taking them to a new level," said Sea World President Terry Prather.

Announcement Shows Theme Park Owners Commitment

No price tag was released for the new additions, but some observers say the move is part of a commitment by new owners to remain competitive in the theme park market. "It’s also more evidence that Blackstone Advisors, the private equity firm that bought the 10 SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks in 2009, stands willing to bankroll top-tier attractions to ensure repeat visitors to the parks,” wrote the St. Petersburg Times.

The park’s announcement raises questions whether theme parks will continue their recent popularity despite the continued sluggish economy. Recent evidence is that park owners need not worry. “Although the world economy suffers a great slowdown, especially in the United States, the country's amusement parks are still a popular destination among both Americans and tourists,” writes Amusement Today magazine.

A major reason is that they offer more affordable entertainment compared to traveling to Europe, for example. “Besides, it would be more fun,” says the trade magazine.

"It has always been the case that, even in tough times, people will still spend money to get out of the house. Amusement parks offer that escape at a price that many people can justify," Tracy Sarris, president of the International Association for the Leisure and Entertainment Industry, told the magazine.

In some ways following the example set by the king of theme parks Walt Disney World, theme parks everywhere have regularly introduced new attractions and rides. They have also improved services by such moves as VIP programs that shorten waiting lines.

Such moves have paid off as Orlando last year welcomed 51.5 million visitors, becoming the first US destination to exceed the 50 million number.

And what about the long-acknowledged father of all theme parks, Walt Disney World? It turned 40 this year and the Orlando-area version has not had a new theme park in 13 years. So some say it is overdue.

Theme park fans will probably not be disappointed if they expect some Mickey Mouse style news in the near future.

Key Statistics – Global Amusement & Theme Park Market

  • The world market for theme parks will reach $29.5 billion by 2015. (source: Global Industry Analysts).
  • Some 50% of Americans say they plan to visit an amusement park within the next year, while 28% visited one last year. (source: International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions)
  • The fastest growth worldwide will come to Asia-Pacific theme parks which should grow at an annual rate of 6.1% until 2015. (source: Global Industry Analysts).

By David Wilkening for
David Wilkening is a former newspaperman who worked in Chicago, Detroit and Orlando. He now specializes in travel and real-estate business writing.

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