NAPLES, FLA. — Florida is basking in the best tourism year it has ever seen.
For the first time, the number of out-of-state visitors is expected to cross the 42 million mark in 1996 - and forecasters are calling for an equally strong 1997.
A combination of factors is attracting wayfarers to the Sunshine State: a strong US economy, low unemployment, an increasing number of foreign visitors opting for Florida over California, Walt Disney World's heavily marketed 25th anniversary, new statewide attractions, and wicked winter weather across much of the country.
"Florida is still considered a premier vacation destination," says Dee Ann Smith, vice president of marketing for the Florida Tourism Industry Marketing Corporation in Tallahassee.
The agency expects tourism to be up about 2.5 percent in 1996 over 1995 - an indication that the industry has rebounded from the lackluster 1992 and '93 seasons, when murderous attacks on visitors turned tourists away. And that's good news for a state taking in $35 billion a year from sun worshippers and golfers.
Nearly everyone is profiting.
At the Ritz Carlton in Naples, where tourists bask in the sun at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, bookings are up about 7 percent over 1995. And the 463-room hotel is expecting a record winter season.
At the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Fla., near Miami, bookings increased 10 to 12 percent in 1996 over 1995. And room occupancies during the usually lackluster summer months were up.
The theme parks have been packing them in, as well. Walt Disney World in Orlando, which kicked off its 25th anniversary celebration in October, has had "gangbuster" results, says spokesman Rick Sylvain. (Disney does not release attendance figures.) During Christmas week, the parking lots were full by noon. Bookings at Disney's resort hotels have also been "very, very, very strong," he adds.
Busch Gardens in Tampa also broke records. For the first time in the park's 36-year history, it passed the 4 million visitor mark in 1996. Part of the draw has been its May introduction of Montu, America's largest inverted steel roller coaster. A growing number of Latin American tourists are also helping to boost attendance, says Thom Stork, vice president of marketing.
Florida is the likely destination of choice for 47 percent of winter travelers this year, up from 40 percent last year, according to a recent survey by the Travel Industry Association in Washington.
And in a similar survey by the American Automobile Association, travelers ranked Orlando and Tampa Bay as two of the nation's hottest markets for winter tourism besides Hawaii, Las Vegas, and the Caribbean.
New attractions throughout the state are likely to keep visitors coming. Disney will open its Coronado Springs convention resort in fall 1997, Universal Studios will double in size starting in 1998, Busch Gardens will open Edge of Africa, and Sea World plans major renovations.
"Florida is a no-brainer," says Ginny Nissenbaum, president of Touraine Travel Service Inc. in Boston. The price is right and people tend to have relatives there, she says. "Disney has been a real big sell."
And with warmer-than-usual temperatures in much of the state over the past week, and a snowier than normal December in the Northwest, snowbirds are likely to head for the nearest airport - and quick.
"Anyone who stuck it out last year in the snow, will likely be here this year," says Thomas Monahan, director of the Florida Tourism Association in Orlando.
"One snow storm is all it takes," adds Ms. Nissenbaum. "We do our snow dance here in the office. Bum, bum, bum, bum, and then it snows, and bing, the phone starts ringing, and the next thing you know it's April."