Image: Roller coaster, Knott's Berry Farm, Buena Park, Calif.
Knott's Berry Farms
Knott’s Berry Farm — America’s first theme park —was created in 1940 in Buena Park, Calif. With six themed lands celebrating the Wild West, Mexico and California beaches, among other areas, Knott’s Berry was also the first theme park to have an area designed specifically for young kids, Camp Snoopy, which is still one of the most popular attractions today.
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updated 5/19/2009 10:35:05 AM ET 2009-05-19T14:35:05

Despite the economy, Amusement Today magazine reports that surprisingly — or maybe not — there was an overall increase in attendance at amusement parks last summer. Chances are, many people who had planned on traveling decided it was more affordable, and maybe just as much fun, to keep things local.

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

If the promise of good times minus the burden of advance legwork is a perpetual draw, new attractions have a large role in bringing people back, too.

“With constantly evolving and improving park experiences marked by new and innovative rides, entertaining new shows, and new services like VIP programs which allow guests to move to the front of a ride line, you have multiple reasons for guests to visit over and over again,” says Sarah Gmyr, spokesperson for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

Although travel to Florida was down overall, attendance at Universal Studios in Orlando saw an increase while Disney's Magic Kingdom and Epcot parks stayed flat. This may be due to Universal Studios' '08 openings of The Simpsons Ride, an adventure that takes place in Krustyland and features a psychotic Sideshow Bob on the lam, and Disaster! A Major Motion Picture Ride which uses HD video projection to create 3-D images of participants starring in movie trailers.

The economic downturn seems not to have affected Asian parks, nearly all of which reported upticks in attendance. Even the fairly new Hong Kong Disney, which was far behind the much older Ocean Park in 2007, experienced an increase of over a quarter of a million visitors, up almost 10 percent from the previous year. Except in this case, brand recognition is the explanation for the pioneer of the modern amusement park, Disney, leading the pack in North America, Japan and Europe. In fact, numbers at Disneyland Paris raised by 688,000, bringing the total to nearly 9 million more visitors than the next biggest European attraction, Europa-Park.

The huge difference in attendance between Disneyland Paris and other European parks may be due to its location in Marne-La-Vallee, within the Parisian metropolitan area. In comparison, the location of Germany’s Europa-Park in the town of Rust seems remote with Freiburg and Strasbourg as the nearest urban centers. Other Euro amusement parks, like the venerable Tivoli Gardens, have the charm and whimsy that influenced many early theme parks but not the newest bells and whistles of Disneyland Paris.

Today there is more diversity among amusement parks than you might think. You can always count on Disney — from Orlando to Tokyo — but amusement parks in different countries can be a type cultural tourism unto itself.

“No two parks in the world are the same," Gymr says. “Each one is created to appeal to its core market, which is based on its physical location. Parks offer a different mix of attractions and rides that may at first appear to be similar, are in fact, and modified to address local customs and culture.”

In choosing the parks to tally for the list, waterparks and aquarium parks like Seaworld and Japan's huge Yokohama Hakkeijim Sea Paradise have been excluded in order to focus solely on amusement parks whose rides are the major attraction. Although Disneyworld and Disneyland comprise several parks, we used the most popular section of each — for instance the Magic Kingdom — as the watermark for overall attendance, since most visitors purchase base tickets that allow them multiple-park visits over the length of their stay.

(Note: all attendance figures are drawn from the industry-standard TEA/ERA Theme Park Attendance Report for 2008.)

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