World's Most-Visited Theme Parks
Four decades after opening—and transforming Orlando—the Magic Kingdom is still the No. 1 most popular theme park, working its pixie-dust charm on more than 17 million annual visitors.
Yet Mickey Mouse has some recent competition: the rising star of the theme-park industry is an English boy with round spectacles and a scar on his forehead.
The $265 million Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opened in the summer of 2010, single-handedly carried Islands of Adventure into the world's top 10 most-visited theme parks, delivering a 29 percent jump in attendance. “That's just huge growth when you're talking about the top of the rankings,” says Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider.
The takeaway? If you build it, they will come—especially if you spend a boatload of money and create an experience that's, to use the industry's favorite buzzword, immersive. The latest and greatest new theme-park attractions are designed to pull us right into the story, whether we're engaging in an epic robot battle, soaking up the retro cars culture along Route 66, or downing pints of butterbeer with Hogwarts students.
One big, exciting new attraction can get folks through the turnstiles, says Niles. “And if you look at the really huge news happening this year—it's Cars Land at Disney California Adventure, Transformers at Universal Studios Hollywood, the new Manta roller coaster at SeaWorld San Diego,” he says. “I think 2012 will be southern California's year.”
But if you're looking for even bigger growth, look even farther afield to Asia, which passed the 100-million-visitor milestone for the first time in 2011. Hong Kong's Ocean Park, No. 11, got a boost from a new rainforest adventure and aquarium-themed zone, while Nagashima Spa Land challenges visitors to brave the world's longest roller coaster, Steel Dragon 2000. With a number of major new parks planned for the world's most populous continent, Asia's slice of the theme park pie should only get bigger.
Even some traditional theme parks are getting spruced up: for its 60th anniversary in 2012, the De Efteling park south of Amsterdam has unveiled Aquanura, a fountains-and-light extravaganza.
Get the scoop on which other attractions and events are drawing crowds to the world’s most-visited theme parks, based on Themed Entertainment Association's latest attendance report (2011).
No. 1 Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, FL
Annual Visitors: 17,142,000
In 2011, more than 17 million people visited the world's favorite theme park, eager for photos by iconic Cinderella's castle and a turn on rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain. “It is what people think about when they think of Disney World,” explains Deb Wills, founder of AllEars.Net. A Disney character parade cuts through the park and heads down Main Street, USA, every afternoon, and a fireworks spectacular lights up the sky many nights. The makeover of Fantasyland is the big news for 2012.
No. 2 Disneyland Park, Anaheim, CA
Annual Visitors: 16,140,000
Disney's original theme park, opened in 1955, comes in a close second to its significantly larger counterpart in Orlando. Disneyland can boast about some of Walt's best original rides as well as the newly revamped Disney California Adventure next door—all the more reason to book an Anaheim vacation.
No. 3 Tokyo Disneyland
Annual Visitors: 13,996,000
Though closed for a full month in 2011 following the tsunami, the 126-acre Japanese Disneyland still managed to pull in 14 million visitors. “It was a little bit surprising how strong this park did in the face of literal disaster,” says Robert Niles of Theme Park Insider. But maybe locals needed that Disney magic more than ever.
No. 4 Tokyo Disney Sea
Annual Visitors: 11,930,000
Attendance dropped 6 percent at Disney's unique marine-themed park, whose seven themed areas are replicas of some of the world's most scenic ports of call. Like Tokyo Disneyland, it was closed for a month in 2011 following Japan's earthquake and tsunami.
No. 5 Disneyland, Disneyland Paris
Annual Visitors: 10,990,000
Europe's most popular theme park had a respectable 5 percent attendance bump amid a Continental recession. The park is heralding its 20th anniversary in 2012 with an elaborate nighttime light-and-sound show, a new carnival-style parade, and a meet-and-greet character train.
No. 6 Epcot, Walt Disney World, FL
Annual Visitors: 10,825,000
Disney's futuristic- and international-themed park fell one position last year as its attendance flatlined at 10.8 million visitors. Expect a surge in numbers when the feverishly anticipated major renovation of Test Track is completed this fall. Other top attractions include Soarin' and Mission: SPACE.
No. 7 Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World, FL
Annual Visitors: 9,783,000
This 500-acre homage to Africa is by far the largest of all Disney theme parks, re-creating a lush jungle area and savanna that is home to 1,700 animals from 250 species. The Expedition Everest coaster and Kilimanjaro Safaris often attract the biggest crowds.
No. 8 Hollywood Studios, Walt Disney World, FL
Annual Visitors: 9,699,000
Disney's entertainment-themed park claimed the No. 8 spot for the second year running. Much of the credit goes to favorite thrill rides Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, not to mention stunt-filled shows like “Lights, Motors, Action!”
No. 9 Universal Studios Japan, Osaka
Annual Visitors: 8,500,000
A chockablock calendar of 10th-anniversary events in 2011 helped secure the No. 9 spot for Universal's Japanese park, which mixes the best elements from its Orlando and Hollywood counterparts and features crowd-pleasing rides (Jaws) and shows (“Shrek's 4-D Adventure”). Watch for attendance to skyrocket when the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opens in 2014.
No. 10 Islands of Adventure, Universal Orlando, FL
Annual Visitors: 7,674,000
Catapulting ahead of Disney California Adventure and into the top 10 for the first time has given Universal execs newfound bragging rights. And with an expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the works, don't expect attendance to slacken anytime soon.
No. 11 Ocean Park, Hong Kong
Annual Visitors: 6,955,000
This mammoth aquatic playland—set on the coast of Hong Kong's picturesque southern shore and accessible from the city by public transit—welcomed 29 percent more visitors last year. That's what happens when more than a dozen new attractions debut, including a major aquarium-themed zone, mountaintop thrill rides, and a rainforest adventure. An Arctic Adventure zone is slated to open later in 2012.
No. 12 Everland, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea
Annual Visitors: 6,570,000
Just a few miles from the walled city of Suwon, sprawling Everland is as known for its lush landscaping as it is for its amusements. This 36-year-old park certainly has rides, but it really wows visitors with its festivals (Snow Festival, Euro Festival, Summer Splash) as well as nighttime parades and animal-themed safari tours.
No. 13 Disney's California Adventure, Anaheim
Annual Visitors: 6,341,000
Va-va-voom! Disneyland's ugly stepsister just got a classy $1.1 billion makeover. Make a beeline for Cars Land, a 12-acre real-life rendition of Radiator Springs from the Disney-Pixar Cars films that pays homage to Route 66's retro cars culture. “I would expect a double-digit jump in attendance for next year,” says Robert Niles.
No. 14 Universal Studios Florida, Universal Orlando
Annual Visitors: 6,044,000
This movie-themed park drew a respectable crowd last year, but paled in comparison to the Harry Potter mania happening at its sister park next door. New additions for Summer 2012 include a Despicable Me 3-D ride and a nighttime film celebrating 100 years of Universal movies.
No. 15 Hong Kong Disneyland
Annual Visitors: 5,900,000
Currently in the midst of a monumental, multiyear expansion, this park should start experiencing a surge in attendance. This summer we'll see the unveiling of Grizzly Gulch, a new Yellowstone-themed land with seven Wild West attractions. Coming in 2013: the long-awaited rainforest-themed land, Mystic Point.
No. 16 Nagashima Spa Land, Kuwana, Japan
Annual Visitors: 5,820,000
Home to Steel Dragon 2000, the world's longest roller coaster, this massive theme park-cum-leisure complex in Mie Prefecture was Asia's biggest mover last year with a 30 percent increase in attendance. Beyond the rides, Nagashima also offers a water park, hot spring baths, and a major outlet shopping mall.
No. 17 Lotteworld, Seoul
Annual Visitors: 5,780,000
The most popular Korean theme park is a gigantic resort comprising indoor and outdoor amusement parks, a shopping mall, hotel, and even a movie-theater complex. Last year it jumped up three positions on the list, thanks to a 36.6 percent burst in attendance following the addition of a major new indoor children's interactive play area.
No. 18 SeaWorld Florida, Orlando
Annual Visitors: 5,202,000
Here's yet another park whose savvy investing is reaping dividends. The new Turtle Trek attraction, with its 360-degree 3-D domed-screen movie and a live sea turtle exhibit, is significantly boosting attendance this year, says Robert Niles of Theme Park Insider, “and I expect an even bigger jump in 2013 when the park unveils its massive new Antarctica land.”
No. 19 Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal City, CA
Annual Visitors: 5,141,000
Not content to stay at No. 19, Universal has redefined going big or going home by spending four years and $100 million on a single ride, the brand-new Transformers: The Ride - 3D. Developed by Michael Bay and Industrial Light & Magic, the attraction takes you inside a Transformer vehicle to experience an epic robot battle that assaults your senses via 14 surrounding 3-D screens.
No. 20 Walt Disney Studios Park, Disneyland Paris
Annual Visitors: 4,710,000
The least-visited of Disney's 11 theme parks—yet still the second-most-visited park in Europe—enjoyed a 5 percent bump in attendance due to the addition of Toy Story Playland, which opened in August 2010 and “shrinks” guests to the size of a toy from the beloved Disney-Pixar series.
No. 21 Europa Park, Rust, Germany
Annual Visitors: 4,500,000
Germany's largest theme park, the third most popular in Europe, is run by the Mack family—as in Mack trucks and, less famously, Mack roller coasters. This connection explains a relative abundance of railroad-track rides, including the new Wodan Timbur Coaster, a wooden beauty that reaches speeds of 63 mph.
No. 22 SeaWorld California, San Diego
Annual Visitors: 4,294,000
Attendance rose a healthy 13 percent last year thanks to a revamped killer-whale show and new sea-turtle attraction. This year's shiny new ride is the Manta roller coaster, which launches through a 270-foot multimedia tunnel whose walls are projected with images of rays, then pulls up to four Gs through banking turns, and culminates in a thrilling 54-foot drop.
No. 23 Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, FL
Annual Visitors: 4,284,000
This 335-acre Africa-themed park is also one of America's largest zoos, With more than 2,700 animals and viewing options that range from a skyride over the expansive Serengeti Plain to an up-close look at orangutans from a rope bridge in the award-winning Jungala area. The hottest ride is Cheetah Hunt, a roller coaster that mimics a feline on the prowl, with sharp rises, plunges, and a trio of launches at speeds pushing 60 mph.
No. 24 De Efteling, Kaatsheuvel, Netherlands
Annual Visitors: 4,125,000
For its 60th anniversary, this fairy-tale-inspired theme park 50 miles south of Amsterdam has unveiled Aquanura, a fountains-and-light extravaganza that is Europe's third largest water show. The park itself opened back in 1952, three years before Disneyland in Anaheim, and remains nearly twice its size.
No. 25 Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen
Annual Visitors: 3,963,000
Danes were visiting this historic amusement park a full century before Walt Disney's vision of his SoCal utopia had blossomed. Open just six months each year, Tivoli still managed to slide into the world's top 25 for 2011. The most heart-pounding attraction is Vertigo, a flight simulator that launches passengers in the air at 60 mph.