The Average Theme Park Guest Isn’t Who You Think it Is…


While we still have a little longer to go before the official TEA/AECOM theme park attendance report is released, we already know thanks to Disney’s own financial documents that attendance in 2016 missed the mark by a pretty substantial margin, causing last minute budget cuts, staff reductions and more. And now, new data released earlier this month shows more trends that could be concerning, not just for Walt Disney World, but for the larger theme park industry as well.

Earlier this month, PGAV Destinations released its second annual Voice of the Visitor: 2017 Annual Outlook on the Attractions Industry, and some of the findings of this report seem to indicate that there could be trouble ahead for theme park giants like Universal Orlando Resort and Walt Disney World. Here’s what they found:

1. Growth across the entire theme park industry is essentially stagnant

Magic Kingdom at night

Image: Disney  

While the PGAV Destinations report did not provide specific attendance figures for theme parks in 2016, across all theme parks in the United States, growth was only at 2% for the year, with 37% of survey respondents saying they had visited a theme park in the past year, compared with 35% for the previous year. And perhaps even more troublingly, theme park attendance is only forecasted to rise 4% in 2017, which is especially concerning for big parks like Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort because of another trend uncovered by this report…

2. The majority of today’s theme park tourists are locals

Image: Disney

One of the big reasons why Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort can post massive attendance gains year over year while other theme parks like Carrowinds, King’s Dominion and Cedar Point see attendance more or less stay stable is because the former put considerable resources into attracting international guests, while the latter focus primarily on locals and annual passholders. However, that strategy may falter in the coming years if recent trends continue to develop.

In 2016, only 52% of those surveyed by PGAV Destinations traveled more than 50 miles to visit a theme park, which is down 9% from the previous year. Guests simply aren’t wanting to travel far to visit attractions anymore, and while the tendency for theme park tourists to continue to visit local attractions is good for regional parks like Six Flags and Busch Gardens, international attractions simply can’t just rely on locals if they want to see the kind of growth they are looking for year over year.

Cedar Point entrance

Image: Cedar Point

Interestingly, the report also mentioned that annual passholders for theme parks across the country are also becoming more of a rarity, as less than a quarter of survey respondents used a season pass to go to a theme park in 2016, down from nearly a third in the previous year.

So, to recap, guests are traveling less, not visiting for long, and not looking to make many return visits. Which certainly sounds quite dire. But there are some bright spots for the theme park industry to be found in this report as well…

3. Young people are flocking to theme parks in increasing numbers

Image: Disney

While overall theme park attendance seems to be in a bit of a holding pattern, there’s one group that is flocking to theme parks in massive numbers: Millennials. According to the report, Millennial attendance leaped nearly 10% in 2016, with 42% of survey respondents in this age group saying that they had visited a theme park last year, up from just a third in 2015. Millenials also make up the single-largest demographic of overall theme park visitors, with 50% of visitors in 2016 being between the ages of 18 and 34.

4. The average theme park tourist is probably making more money than you think

Walt Disney World has gotten a lot of blowback in recent years for raising prices and introducing specialty upcharge events intended for only the wealthiest guests to take part in. However, new information reveals that, despite fan outcry, this strategy may actually be a good one, as the average theme park tourist has an average household income that is far higher than you might expect.

According to the most recent US Census data, the median annual household income for the United States is currently around $55,775. However, the average theme park visitor seems to have a lot more disposable income, with the average annual household income for guests at theme parks coming in just under $90,000. While that still probably isn’t enough for a Club 33 membership, that is still significantly above the national average, and solidifies the idea that theme park visits are rapidly becoming more and more of a luxury. And speaking of changing demographics…

5. Families no longer make up the majority of theme park guests

Image: Disney

When you close your eyes and think of the types of people who visit a theme park, do you think of moms with Minnie Mouse ears, dads with strollers, and kids asking to ride their favorite ride over and over again? Well it looks like that image might actually be a little outdated, as only 42% of theme park guests visited with children under the age of 18, down 6 percent from the previous year. Increasingly, couples and single people are visiting theme parks in larger numbers which is another shift that is certainly worth paying attention to.

Theme parks have been around for quite a long time, and were originally thought of as cheap entertainment for middle and lower class people. However, a lot has changed since Walt Disney changed the game when he opened Disneyland in 1955. And now, more than 60 years later, trends seem to indicate that theme park guests are increasingly young, have no children, and upper middle class.

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