Theme parks have more visitors than ever. It’s no surprise they have long lines, too

Florida’s theme parks saw a big jump in attendance in 2018, a fact that will come as a surprise to no one who stood in line for a roller coaster, the train to Hogwarts or a character meet-and-greet.

In Florida, which gets more theme park visitors than any country in the world or any state in the U.S., 87.5 million people visited its eight biggest parks last year, the largest number on record.

The increase in visitors was led by SeaWorld, making a comeback after years of declining attendance, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, during its first full year since the World of Avatar opened. And with only a 2 percent increase, Disney World’s Magic Kingdom remains the most popular theme park in the world, despite higher ticket prices.

Across North America, the number of people going through the gates of the 20 largest theme parks increased by 4 percent to 157 million, according to a report by the Themed Entertainment Association and the Economics Practice at AECOM, released Wednesday. Around the world, more than half a billion people visited theme parks, the biggest number in history.

In Florida, the report covers its eight biggest parks — four Disney parks, two Universal parks, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens. Legoland’s attendance is not big enough to be included.

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Hogwarts Express runs between two Harry Potter-themed areas at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. KEVIN KOLCZYNSKI UNIVERSAL ORLANDO

Magic Kingdom had 20.8 million visitors, leading its closest competitor — Disneyland in California — by more than 2 million people.

SeaWorld had 4.6 million visitors, a 16 percent increase over 2017, which was its worst year in recent history. Infinity Falls, a whitewater thrill ride, opened in October 2018 and is likely to have a bigger impact on 2019 numbers.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom jumped 10 percent in one year — 27 percent in the last two years — to 13.7 million guests, largely boosted by the opening of World of Avatar in May 2017. It’s now the second most popular park in Florida.

Florida’s other parks:

Epcot grew 2 percent to 12.4 million visitors.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios, where Toy Story Land opened in 2018, grew 5 percent to 11.2 million visitors.

Universal Studios, which opened the Supercharged: Fast and Furious ride in April 2018, had 10.7 million visitors, a 5 percent increase.

Universal’s Islands of Adventure had a 2.5 percent increase in visitors, to 9.8 million.

Busch Gardens jumped 4.5 percent to 4.1 million.

For the Disney and Universal Parks, the numbers are their largest ever. Busch Gardens and SeaWorld, both owned by the same parent company, have had higher attendance figures.

What’s driving the increases? The growth of attractions tied to intellectual properties including Harry Potter at Universal and Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom played a big role, the report said. That influence will continue with Star Wars lands opening in Disney’s Florida and California parks this year.

“We can expect that next year’s numbers will likely show massive attendance impact for Disney in North America, from the 2019 openings of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland in May and Walt Disney World in August,” the report said.

Even SeaWorld, which generally relies on animal-themed attractions, is expected to benefit from an intellectual property with its Sesame Street land, which opened this spring.

Another factor is the growth of what theme parks call immersive environments. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure doesn’t have just a single ride, it has an entire land with three rides, shops and restaurants, all based on the Harry Potter books. Toy Story Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios has three rides, a restaurant, and a shop.

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Sheriff Woody greets visitors at Toy Story Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Marjie Lambert mlambert@miamiherald.com

SeaWorld and Busch Gardens have also built immersive environments, usually animal themed. For example, at SeaWorld, the Mako roller coaster is the centerpiece of a shark-themed plaza that has a shark sculpture built of beach litter, a shark mural painted by Guy Harvey, a walk-through aquarium, some educational exhibits and Sharks Underwater Grill.

SeaWorld has a different story than the other parks. Its attendance dropped from 5.8 million in 2009 to 5.1 million in 2010, when one of its trainers was killed by an orca whale, and began a serious slide in 2014, the year after “Blackfish,” a documentary about the treatment of whales at SeaWorld parks, came out. Only 4 million people visited SeaWorld in 2017. In 2018, that number jumped to 4.6 million.

In recent years SeaWorld has aggressively promoted its rescue and rehabilitation of manatees, sea turtles and other marine creatures, lessened its emphasis on its killer whale shows, built more thrill rides and added Sesame Street land.

“SeaWorld’s good performance is creditable to investments in new rides and programming and leveraging the Sesame Street (intellectual property), in addition to working actively to change the conversation about the parks — internally and externally — and other positive changes,” the report said.

Marjie Lambert is the Miami Herald’s local government editor. She has spent most of her 40+ years in the newspaper business as a reporter and editor covering government and related news. She was the Herald’s travel editor from 2009 to 2016 and has also written eight cookbooks. She loves roller coasters.