The global theme park industry takes its fun seriously.
Last year around the world more than 328 million people visited amusement parks. They ate overpriced meat products, sipped sodas, rode roller coasters, bought T-shirts and, according to accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, spent approximately $20 billion. Even more thrilling, for the industry at least: that number is expected to grow 25% to $24.7 billion by 2008.
And, according to Beth Robertson, vice president of communication services at the Alexandria, Va.-based International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, that number has the potential to grow much larger.
"In 2005 alone, more than 100 new attractions have opened or been announced to open worldwide. The amusement industry is strong and growing at a steady rate," she explains. "What limits what is created for the industry is just two things. One: physics. Two: the imagination of the designers and engineers."
How much imagination? In New Jersey, Six Flags Great Adventure recently debuted the 456-foot high Kingda Ka, which is billed as the world's fastest and tallest roller coaster. Its hydraulic launch propels the train out of the gates at 128 miles per hour and then through a 270-degree loop, making passengers feel weightless. The roller coaster has a dual-loading station that allows four trains to simultaneously load and unload on two separate tracks, a peak horsepower of 7,400 and can accommodate 1,400 people per hour.
Like everything else in the leisure travel industry, the recent boom in the amusement park segment comes after a depressed period. Road blocks in the form of the war in Iraq, SARS, a stagnant economy and rising oil prices have made for a rocky ride since Sept. 11. "The energy crisis and currency rates have impacted manufacturers and suppliers around the world," says Robertson.
John Robinett of Economic Research Associates (ERA), a research economics firm in Los Angeles that did the original planning work for several of The Walt Disney Co.'s (nyse: DIS - news - people ) attractions, has been studying the effects of international disasters on tourism for years. "The impact of 9/11 has been almost identical to the other incidents that we've studied: Tiananmen Square in China, civil war in Fiji, the riots in Los Angeles," he says. "After an incident of civil unrest, natural disaster or terrorism, there is an immediate 30% downward spike in the perception of safety in those places. Theme park attendance and revenue are sensitive to this. Tourism pops back up after two-to-three years, at which point it resumes the natural growth rate."
As the fast-approaching Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer and roller coasters worldwide begin to lurch back into action, Forbes.com has once again compiled a list of the world's most fun amusement parks. The parks on our list have unique attractions or historic sites; they aren't necessarily the ones with the most rides or the highest annual profits.
In general, park profits are a closely kept secret: Disney, for example, doesn't break out its theme park financials in annual earnings reports. But to get an idea of how successful a park can be, Tivoli Gardens, the Copenhagen park on our list which was said to have inspired Walt Disney to create Disneyland, revealed that in 2004 it earned profits of 404.2 million DKK, or about $68.2 million.
ERA estimates that Disneyland Park in Anaheim, Calif., which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, had over 13.3 million visitors in 2004, while Tivoli Gardens brought in just over four million. (Click here to see the list of the top ten most-attended amusement parks in the world, compiled by ERA.) Analysts believe that annual profits correspond roughly with annual attendance rankings. (Keep in mind that major theme parks like Disneyland are open year-round, while many others, including Tivoli Gardens, close during the cold months.)
As the number of amusement park visitors continues to rise (at an annual rate of 2%, according to Robertson), so, no doubt, will the number of park-related accidents. While the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported only 78 ride-related injuries requiring overnight hospitalization in 2003 (the last year for which data was available), insuring these parks is a pricey proposition.
Ryan Wilkerson, president and CEO of Hans & Wilkerson Insurance, won't reveal just how pricey, but does say that premiums are dependent upon factors like revenue, number of rides and previous loss experience at a particular park. Hans & Wilkerson has been working as an exclusive agent to ACE Limited (nyse: ACE - news - people ) since 1939, providing over thirty small U.S. amusement parks with insurance. "Amusement parks are covered by general liability insurance, which includes everything from a slip and fall to a ride malfunction," Wilkerson says. "But because of liability exposure, very few companies are willing to underwrite these risks."
Good thing some companies take the gamble. It wouldn't feel like summer without a mouthful of sugar, that Ferris-wheel view or leaving your stomach behind on Kingda Ka.