Splendid China's end is part of Darwinian shakeout in theme parks

Published: Sunday, January 18, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 18, 2004 at 12:02 a.m.
ORLANDO - While Florida Splendid China closed on the last day of 2003 after struggling for 10 years to find a moneymaking niche, other local theme parks had no such troubles. A crowded Walt Disney World claimed record attendance over the Christmas holidays, and Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando felt healthy enough to increase ticket prices by $2.
The contrast in fortunes marked the latest in a Darwinian shakeout in central Florida's tourism market where only the biggest and strongest have survived two years of stagnant growth since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Other properties that have closed their doors recently include the Hyatt Orlando and decades-old Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, although a Georgia theme park owner is negotiating to buy Cypress Gardens. Florida Splendid China's owners hope to find another buyer.
"If the market grows, everybody gets their share," said Steve Baker, a theme park consultant.
The problem for the 76-acre Florida Splendid China was that the market wasn't growing for the past two years. On good days, the theme park, indirectly-owned by the Chinese government, averaged 400 visitors who came to see the park's miniature replicas of Chinese landmarks and watch its acrobatic performers.
By contrast, parks at Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando average tens of thousands of people each day.
Visitors to Florida Splendid China on its last day lamented its closing but were quick to point out the reasons.
Shinji Motoyama, 26, a financial analyst from Miami, noted that the park hadn't been well-maintained. Dirt was encased on Buddha statues and some speaker boxes offering prerecorded narrations of the miniatures weren't working
"It's not so good, the preservation," said Motoyama, who was visiting with his parents. "It seems old and broken in some places."
Serge Huot, a businessman from Quebec visiting with his parents, said Florida Splendid China offered no breathtaking rides or flashy shows like the other theme parks.
"People love more explosions than culture," Huot said. "The big problem - it's not against the American people - but culture in the United States is hard to sell."
Victor Trinh, a computer scientist from Washington who was visiting the park while in Orlando for a family reunion, said Florida Splendid China most likely outlived its usefulness as a pro-China propaganda tool. A holding company of China Travel Service, which is a Chinese government travel agency, owns the park.
Although the park is only indirectly owned by the Chinese government, it was regularly picketed by Tibetan-rights activists who objected to the inclusion of exhibits on ethnic minorities they say are oppressed by the Chinese government, such as those from Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, which the Muslim minority there calls Eastern Turkestan.
Alva and Joe Gibney, retirees, noted that the park hardly advertised.
"Look how much the others spend on advertising," Alva Gibney said.
News of Florida Splendid's closing caused a boost in attendance on its last day. The park had about 750 visitors, about three times its normal attendance.
But that hardly kept up with the larger theme parks at Disney, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando.
Two Disney parks, the Magic Kingdom, which can hold around 50,000 people, and Animal Kingdom, which can hold between 25,000 and 30,000 visitors, were so crowded visitors were turned away during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. Another Disney park, Epcot, had record attendance.
Officials at the Florida parks owned by Anheuser-Busch, SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens in Tampa, were so confident about the prospects for 2004 that they rung in the new year by raising ticket prices by $2. A ticket at the parks now costs $57.46 for adults and $47.78 for children, making them the most expensive in Florida for the time being.
On Jan. 9, Universal Orlando also raised single-day ticket prices by $2, increasing its admission to $57.33 for adults and $47.75 for children.
The price of a Fun Card, which allows Florida residents unlimited entrances into the Busch parks, will increase $8 to $63.85 for adults and $53.20 for kids.
The price increases were justified because of plans for new shows, shopping and dining in 2004, said Joe Couceiro, vice president of marketing.
"The parks have a tremendous amount of options and we're going to be expanding them," Couceiro said.
When a theme park in Orlando increases ticket prices, the other parks usually follow. But an official at Walt Disney World wouldn't say if the resort planned to increase its prices of $55.38 for adults and $44.73 for children.

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