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Potter likely to remain biggest draw in 2011

09 January 2011 by By Jason Garcia, Orlando Sentinel

Three of Florida's Big Four theme-park resorts will add major attractions in 2011, but the one resort that isn't adding anything may very well have the biggest draw.

After exceeding most expectations in 2010, Universal Orlando's now-7-month-old Wizarding World of Harry Potter is expected to continue attracting significant traffic even as Walt Disney World, SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay unveil new additions.

The collection of Potter-themed rides, shops and eateries in Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park powered Universal to record gains in attendance, revenue and profit last year — and along the way lifted everything from Orange County hotel-tax collections to area hotel occupancy. And analysts don't think the honeymoon will end soon.

Moody's Investors Service predicts Universal will continue recording double-digit attendance gains through the first half of 2011 and only slight declines during the second half of the year (when the resort will be facing tough comparisons against last year's Potter opening crowds).

SeaWorld weighs in

Universal, which has spent nearly $400 million since 2007 building Wizarding World in Islands of Adventure and the Simpsons Ride (which opened in 2008) and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit (2009) in Universal Studios Florida, doesn't have anything significant on the drawing board in 2011. The resort's near-term focus is on continuing to tweak Wizarding World to manage the crowds.

But the other parks will share the spotlight this year. And unlike 2010 — when Universal was the only one of Orlando's parks to make attendance gains — analysts expect better things in 2011 for Disney World and SeaWorld, too.

SeaWorld, hardest-hit of the parks last year, will introduce this spring a new version of its signature killer-whale show. The as-yet unnamed show will replace "Believe," which has been running for five years.

Plans for the new show were accelerated after the February 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was battered and drowned by a six-ton killer whale named Tilikum. The tragedy forced SeaWorld to pull all trainers out of its orca pools; it's still not clear when — or even if — they will return to the water.

Although SeaWorld has yet to release any details of the new show, it will likely be markedly different than Believe, which focused on the relationships between the killer whales and their trainers and leaned heavily on in-water stunts.

In addition to the new orca show, SeaWorld's boutique sister park, Discovery Cove, will in June debut a more-than-1 million-gallon, 2.5-acre saltwater environment dubbed "Grand Reef." Activities will include wading and snorkeling with tropical fish, crossing a rope bridge over a shark-filled lagoon, and relaxing in island hammocks. But the biggest attraction will likely be an underwater walking tour called "SeaVenture" that will cost an additional $59 a person on top of Discovery Cove's regular admission price.

Meanwhile, 70 miles down Interstate 4, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment's other major Florida theme park, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, will this spring unveil the state's biggest new attraction: Cheetah Hunt, a nearly $40 million, launch-style coaster that will immediately propel riders from 0 to 60 mph and include three separate launch points around the 4,429-foot-long track.

Analysts expect an immediate boost from the additions. Moody's predicts that attendance across SeaWorld Parks will climb 3 percent in 2011, after falling roughly 6 percent Iast year.

New Star Tours

At Florida's biggest resort, this year will be another relatively modest one in terms of additions. The biggest addition expected at Disney World: a revamped Star Tours in Disney's Hollywood Studios.

That makeover, which is also being done at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., will include completely new scenes filmed by George Lucas' studio and new 3D technology. The popular simulator ride is expected back this spring, before annual Star Wars Weekends begin in late May in Hollywood Studios.

Disney World this month also is adding an immersive jungle-tour experience called "Wild Africa Trek" to Disney's Animal Kingdom. Like the underwater tour at Discovery Cove, it's an add-on experience — the Wild Africa Trek will cost as much as $189 a person, on top of basic park admission — and it's a play for theme-park visitors who are willing to pay extra for highly personalized experiences.

West Coast travelers will be able to get a glimpse of Disney World's future when Disney unveils "Ariel's Undersea Adventure" as part of an ongoing, $1.1 billion-dollar overhaul of Disney California Adventure. The Little Mermaid-themed dark ride is also being built in Orlando, though that one won't open until 2012 as part of Disney World's broad expansion of Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom.

The Walt Disney Co.'s most ambitious investments this year are occurring outside its theme parks. Chief among them: Disney Dream, the 4,000-passenger cruise ship scheduled to sail its maiden voyage out of Port Canaveral later this month; and Aulani, an 819-room hotel and time share that will serve as the first test of Disney's strategy to build stand-alone resorts in new markets far from its signature theme parks.

Analysts still expect positive trends out of Disney World in 2011, after attendance slipped slightly during its 2010 fiscal year. Estimates for Disney World's attendance this year range from "flattish" to increases of about 3 percent.


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