Fueling the fun: park-eat-park competition

Walk into the giant jaws-and-teeth entrance of Gatorland - "Alligator Capital of the World" - and you find Dee Melton on the other side, welcoming you with a little advice that just might save your life.

"There are some bad boys out there," she laughs, referring to 2,700 gators and 95 crocodiles slithering across 110 acres. She tears our tickets and adds with mock seriousness: "Don't hang too far over the railing."

Fairly warned, my family and I step tentatively onto a wooden walkway suspended above green waters. We spot 10 "bad boys" sunning on a raft 15 feet from us. Golden eyes are open. Curving rows of teeth seem to smile.

This is Gatorland, a 50-year-old theme park as tough as its sharp-toothed denizens. Ms. Melton's description of her "boys" also aptly describes theme-park competition here in Orlando. And locally owned, Gatorland has made the cut. It survives constant chomping from the biggest theme-park companies in the world as a lean, tourist-drawing machine.

Maybe a little too lean. The same beefy guy that wrestles alligators has to hustle over and drive the miniature train, too. The shrubs are ragged and detours are common around construction sites where the boardwalk is being repaired. Yet none of that really matters. People come here for gators.

And they come to Orlando for theme parks.

Orlando has 13 major attractions and scores of others not quite so huge. Apparently that's not nearly enough. Two more giant theme parks, dozens of new attractions, and thousands more hotel rooms are on their way. This city has 93,000 hotel rooms today - it'll sport 113,000 by 2003.

Some say it's the constantly new and better parks that made Orlando a top vacation destination, one that for decades has brought jobs and affluence to central Florida and lured more than 35 million visitors annually since 1995.

But how many more theme parks can Orlando take?

Walt Disney Co.'s Disney World, Seagram Co.'s Universal Studios, and Anheuser Busch Co.'s Sea World operate the seven biggest Orlando theme parks. Each wants to draw millions more visitors, keep them "on site" longer - and snap up one another's market share.

Universal had a splashy opening for its new $1 billion park this month. Sea World is also building a new, billion-dollar park. And Disney is pumping 10 new attractions and its year-old Animal Kingdom park.

Still, that go-fast philosophy may be put to the test soon.

Overcapacity is a problem. It will take millions more tourists to keep these big new theme parks - and their smaller, older cousins like Gatorland - all humming. And some see a crunch coming.

"There's just a greater supply of entertainment than there are people right now," says Mark McHugh, president of Gatorland, where attendance fell about 10 percent last year from 500,000 in 1997.

Harold Vogel, a veteran Wall Street entertainment-industry analyst says, "it's not going to be easy for any of these parks for the next year or two." Smaller, older parks especially, he says, are going to have to work even harder to create a niche as the number of theme-park visitors levels off after growing rapidly most of this decade.

Tremors from this theme-park one-upsmanship are already being felt. Last fall, Marineland, the pioneer of aquatic entertainment just up the highway from Orlando, closed after 60 years. Sea World and the other parks in central Florida simply lured away its clientele, analysts say.

There was little or no growth in 1998 attendance figures at the 13 parks and a slight drop at some since 1997, according to Amusement Business Magazine. Meanwhile, marketing costs are soaring because the companies' must heavily advertise their new attractions, Mr. Vogel says.

"When you put $2 billion into the ground [to develop a theme park] you want to make sure people show up," Mr. Vogel says.

Here's why there could be trouble, he explains. Orlando drew 37 million visitors in 1997 - the most recent figure available. Yet a typical visitor stays six days. That's only enough time to spend a day at each major park - a near superhuman feat most don't attempt. So if two more giant theme parks are added it might prompt tourists to stay longer - or skip more parks.

"It's a concern," Mr. McHugh says. "It's just going to be a very aggressive environment competing for people's time. There's just more than they can see in a five- to seven-day vacation."

Other parks experienced a similar dip that analysts attribute to the addition of Disney's Animal Kingdom park last year. And with more giant parks coming, they're gearing up to meet the challenge.

Nearby Kennedy Space Center, Cypress Gardens, and Gatorland are all sprucing up operations to stay in the game. Gatorland has spent $2 million over two years on marketing and new exhibits like its petting zoo, camel ride, and "jungle croc" exhibit.

Of course, it wasn't always park-eat-park in Orlando. Walt Disney put Orlando on the fun map with the Magic Kingdom in 1971. Epcot Center arrived in 1983, then Disney-MGM Studios. Rival Universal Studios arrived in 1990.

Today Mickey Mouse is still the "big cheese" despite growing competition. Even Disney World is fighting to maintain its lead with its Animal Kingdom park that opened last year, and flashy new attractions like Cirque du Soleil that opened this spring. But analysts like Vogel say even the Animal Kingdom is drawing fewer than some had hoped.

Still, the big mouse has one huge advantage over the others: room to grow. It sprawls across 30,500 acres - enough for three more Disney parks, some analysts estimate.

Universal Studios, however, is gobbling up land fast. It bought 1,900 acres for a future expansion on the International Drive corridor in January, opened "Islands of Adventure" this month, and launches a new resort-hotel complex in the fall.

Not to be outdone, Sea World is building a new billion-dollar park next to its current facility to allow visitors closer access to sea animals.

Robert Gray couldn't be more pleased. He, his wife, Jennifer, and son, Connor, are visiting Sea World from Scotland - and hoping that Shamu the killer whale's splash will douse them as they sit on the aluminum bleachers at Sea World's auditorium.

"This is our third time [at Sea World] this trip," he exults. "It's good fun for the kids. We've already seen the Magic Kingdom, Busch Gardens, and Universal. Now we're back." They'll come back to see the new Sea World park.

A few miles away at Gatorland, Stuart Welling from Sussex, England, says he has traveled thousands of miles for the Orlando experience - and will likely do it again as soon as he can save the money.

"There's so much to take in - everything is so much and so big," he says. Standing with his children on a pier overlooking the "breeding ground," he lets his son Jamie toss a piece of frozen fish to hungry alligators that leap and slash when fish hit the water.

"It's great," Mr. Welling says. "We've got a zoo in England but we might only see one or two of these. Certainly it's nothing like this."

*E-mail comments to claytonm@csps.com

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