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In summer ’04, a smoother ride for theme parks

Orange alerts and bad weather helped cut attendance at U.S. theme parks last year, extending a slump that began with the Sept. 11 attacks.  But a stronger economy, higher consumer confidence and cheap airfares have turnstiles turning again. By CNBC's Jerry Cobb.
/ Source: CNBC

As temperatures rise, the nation's theme parks are hoping for a rebound in summer attendance.

Orange terrorism alerts and lousy weather helped push attendance down at parks last year, extending a slump that began with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“From what I've been hearing, I think we have a real good chance of reversing that this year and getting back to some modest gains,” said James Zoltak, editor of Amusement Business.

Thanks to a stronger economy, higher consumer confidence and cheap airfares the turnstiles are turning again.

With nearly one-third of revenues coming from theme parks, the Walt Disney Company is hoping to see the biggest payoff.

“If you look at Disney's park scores for the last six quarters, there's always been something there for the bears to latch onto,” said David Miller, an industry analyst at Sanders Morris Harris. “Whether it's weak attendance, weak per-cap spending, airfares are too high, energy costs are too high, international attendance hasn't come back online. We think all that is over and Disney should report some very strong theme-park numbers in its third quarter.”

Six Flags is rolling out its first major ad campaign in seven years, counting on the dancing “Mr. Six” to help convince potential visitors to drive to one of the company's regional theme parks — despite higher gas prices.

“Whether you're talking about New York or Baltimore or Chicago or Denver or the Six Flags Magic Mountain park here in (Los Angeles), on average people are going to spend a tank of gas or spend the money correlating to one tank of gas in getting to those parks,” Miller said. “That's not going to kill them.”

Park operators feel confident enough to raise admission prices this summer — some to more than $50. But most are offering bigger bangs for the buck, such as Universal's Revenge of the Mummy-the Ride and Disney's Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, which has helped boost attendance at the company's California adventure park. (MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal).

“That’s a huge ride in terms of its stature,” Zoltak said. “It towers over the park. It’s iconic, and it was a big piece in the puzzle in giving that attraction critical mass.”

There is one big difference in the theme-park industry post-9/11. A business once thought of as recession-proof is now expected to follow the ups and downs of the global economy more closely than ever.