Saturday, September 04, 1999

Tourism outlasts heat wave

New attractions drew visitors

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Despite a heat wave that cooled midsummer traffic, operators of Greater Cincinnati tourist attractions say business has been as good or better than last year as they head into the season's Labor Day finale.

        “The hot weather in July did affect our business, but as soon as the weather broke, business went gang-busters again,” said Vic Nolting, president of Park River West, which owns Coney Island in Anderson Township and Americana Amusement Park in Butler County.

        That echoed a trend across the state. The sweltering heat this summer hurt tourist business, but pleasant weather earlier in the year and cooler temperatures since might offset losses, the head of Ohio's Travel and Tourism Division said.

        “What we've seen in the past is if it's a long-planned trip, then they're likely going to do it,” Jim Epperson, Ohio travel and tourism director, said. “If you're just an hour away, then you can hold off.”

        On the other hand, business has been booming this summer for some of Cincinnati's newer attractions that aren't dependent on weather.

        Oceanic Adventures Newport Aquarium expects summer attendance to surpass 700,000 this weekend. Officials had projected summer attendance of about 500,000 when it opened in May.

        Visits to the Cincinnati Museum Center in Union Terminal are 74 percent ahead of last year, thanks in part to the “Mysteries of Egypt” exhibit, which runs through Oct. 15, and the Children's Museum, which wasn't open last summer, spokesman Roger Pille said.

        From June through August, museum center visitors totaled 425,733, up from 244,838 a year ago.

        “We've had an excellent summer,” Mr. Pille said.

        The Greater Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureau said hotel room rentals — thanks to attractions such as the aquarium, the manatee exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo and the midsummer Coors Light music festival — are well ahead of projections.

        The bureau projected 237,000 room-nights would be booked this year, but through the end of July, area motels and hotels had already booked 185,000 room-nights, more than three-quarters of the way to the goal and almost matching the 189,144 booked for all of 1998, spokeswoman Gayle Harden-Renfro said.

        Mr. Nolting declined to reveal figures but said attendance at Americana Amusement Park was up 10 percent compared with last year, while attendance at Coney Island was up 8 percent.

        At Paramount's Kings Is land in Mason, attendance “is tracking down slightly to this point, but we're hoping for a big (Labor Day) weekend and a good fall season,” spokesman David Mandt said. The park is open weekends through October.

        Last year, Kings Island drew about 3.4 million visitors. Record attendance was 3.6 million in 1996.

        Mr. Mandt said a couple of factors besides the July heat have held down park attendance this year.

        First, a number of schools had classes later in June to make up snow days and the park had an extra attraction last summer that wasn't around this year: “Titanic: the Movie on Tour” drew 300,000 visitors.

        The heat also took a bite out of attendance at area state parks, including East Fork in Clermont County and Hueston Woods in Butler County, park managers said.

        But a drier spring and good weather in August have allowed them to make up the difference, officials said.

        “Campers tend to have so many stays in mind,” said Charles Clark, manager at East Fork. “We had a lot of visitors early in the summer. Then things slowed down in July, but the last few weeks have been busy.”

        July's string of 90-plus-degree days would seem to be nothing but a plus for a water park, and Margaret Drexel, marketing director at The Beach Water Park, across Interstate 71 from Kings Island, said that was generally the case.

        Still, she said, The Beach expects to exceed last year's attendance. It doesn't disclose figures but is considered a large park by industry standards, drawing upwards of 350,000 annually.

        “Overall, I think you'll find the tourism business is off a little bit this year,” she said. “People are really busy, and there are so many things they can spend their time on.”

        But Mr. Nolting said new attractions such as the Newport Aquarium haven't had much effect on his business.

        “All of us are fighting for the same leisure dollar,” he said. “But a trip to the aquarium or to the zoo is a separate decision from coming to Coney Island or Americana.”

        Across Ohio, officials expect the tourist business to match that of last year, despite the hot spell.

        Last year, the number of tourists in Ohio slipped to 63.7 million from 66 million in 1997, according to a study for the state tourism division.

        Colleen May, division research manager, said Ohio appears to be losing market share to neighboring states that are spending more on tourism promotion, such as Michigan.

        Ohio's travel and tourism budget has been unchanged at $6.25 million the last two years, down from $6.5 million three years ago, and ranking the Buckeye state 31st among the 50 states, she said.


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