(WASHINGTON-AFP) – Free-spending US tourists shrugged off economic worries to overwhelm Disney World and other top Florida theme parks this week, forcing them to temporarily shut the gates, officials said Thursday.
Some visitors to Legoland, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and three Disney destinations found parking lots and entryways shut for short periods Wednesday and Thursday as the Orlando area enjoys record numbers of tourists for the Christmas-New Year holidays.
“We are having yet again another very busy day,” Legoland spokeswoman Jackie Wallace said as she explained why the park had to limit entrances for the second day running.
Just two months old, Legoland has been a huge hit even though it launched amid worries that the US economy was not recovering from the 2008-2009 recession.
Three of Disney’s four Orlando parks — the Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom — all had to freeze entry for day ticket holders for around 90 minutes on Wednesday to “ensure guests had a memorable experience,” according to a Disney official.
People staying at Disney’s own hotels and on Disney packages could get in but those who just came for the day were put off, the official said — adding that those turned away at the gates could have waited.
And Disney is stretching out the hours for park openings, from 7:00 am to 1:00 am, to accommodate the demand.
The story was the same at the 18-month-old Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a part of Universal Orlando resort’s Islands of Adventure Park, said spokeswoman Alyson Lundell.
“Yesterday, Islands of Adventure reached capacity,” though traffic improved on Thursday, she told AFP. “Anyone who wanted to wait could do so, and as people left, we let others come in.”
The flood of visitors to central Florida is a real sign that many Americans are beginning to open their wallets and put the economic gloom of the past three years behind them.
The Orlando area has at least 10 major theme parks and scores of other holiday attractions, and all are full, according to industry officials.
None of the parks would give attendance numbers, but Brian Martin of regional tourism promotion board Visit Orlando estimated occupancy for the region’s 115,000 hotel rooms at 95 percent, better than a year ago.
That was partly helped, too, by two major college football games scheduled in Orlando this week that bring in as many as 100,000 people.
“But even without that, you would still see a high occupancy,” said Martin.
Orlando will register some 53.5 million visitors for 2011, according to Martin, more than two million more than came last year. Hotel rates are moving up, though still not to the pre-crash levels of 2008.
“With the economy improving, it has helped people decide to take vacation,” he said.
“And we saw a jump in international travel, especially from Brazil… And Canada has also been big for us.”
Parks monitor queue lengths at their most popular rides, knowing that overly long wait times can anger people who pay the $75 or more per person that it costs to get in the gates for a day.
At Universal’s multi-theme Islands park, rates are $85 a day for adults and $79 for children, but that has not appeared to temper enthusiasm.
“Definitely, we know that people are still traveling… They’re not willing to sacrifice their vacations,” said Lundell.
Since opening the Harry Potter section of the park, more than seven million people have gone on the most popular Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, she said.
The park has also sold over two million “butter beers,” a favorite drink of HarryPotter and his friends in the hit book series that tastes like butterscotch and shortbread cookies, with a creamy topping.
“It’s a kind of dessert drink,” Lundell said.