Business

Amusement parks see dollar signs in themed dining

Krusty Burgers are some of the themed food sold in Universal Orlando. Theme parks are scrambling to create more-immersive restaurants and shops after the success of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter products.
Krusty Burgers are some of the themed food sold in Universal Orlando. Theme parks are scrambling to create more-immersive restaurants and shops after the success of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter products. MCT

ORLANDO, Fla. — At Universal Orlando, visitors can buy mugs of butterbeer pulled straight from the pages of the Harry Potter books — or eat Krusty Burgers made infamous by The Simpsons television show.

At Walt Disney World, they can sample LeFou's Brew or The Grey Stuff, a drink and a dessert inspired by the animated film Beauty and the Beast.

And now, at SeaWorld Orlando, they can sip on South Pole Chill amid the glaciers of Antarctica.

It's the latest attractions arms race. Though Orlando's theme parks have for years tried to top one another with sophisticated rides and shows, the battlefield today extends to food and merchandise, too. Comcast Corp., Walt Disney Co. and SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. are all investing in more-immersive restaurants and shops.

As Comcast's Universal proved with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter — which has made drinking a butterbeer as much a must-do for Orlando tourists as riding Space Mountain — finding the right formula can lead to big gains in guest spending.

That's vital for a maturing U.S. theme-park industry, where boosting attendance and extending vacations becomes more challenging every year.

"While overall theme-park attendance is growing, the rate remains in the low single digits. So to grow faster than inflation without big capital spending, you need to get more out of the customers you have," said Bob Boyd, a leisure analyst with Pacific Asset Management.

The industry's emphasis on theme-based retail is a shift from just a few years ago. Throughout much of the 2000s, theme parks culled, rather than expanded, their product lines, the better to improve their purchasing power and wring savings out of suppliers.

Then came the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal's Islands of Adventure. In addition to the obligatory rides and shows, Universal built a collection of intricately detailed shops and eateries, all based on locations from the Potter books and movies — and all selling custom-designed items based on the same material, from chocolate frogs to golden snitches.

The results stunned the industry. When Wizarding World opened in June 2010, the lines to get into the stores often surpassed the queues for the rides. Per-visitor spending on food and souvenirs at Universal Orlando jumped nearly 30 percent in just the first year, from less than $20 to almost $26.

Per-guest ticket sales, by contrast, rose 11 percent to $57.

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