By Jason Garcia, Orlando Sentinel
6:06 PM EST, January 21, 2011
Universal Orlando ended 2010 with its best fourth quarter on record and its highest annual attendance since 2004, thanks to the success of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Attendance at the resort's two theme parks skyrocketed 46 percent during the final three months of the year, according to a report filed Friday with federal regulators. The combined fourth-quarter head count jumped from 2.3 million in 2009 to 3.3 million.
Universal disclosed its attendance results after its corporate parent, General Electric Co., announced that its entire theme-park business had a record year in 2010.
"We are pleased with our results and with the enthusiasm our guests continue to show for everything Universal Orlando Resort has to offer," Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said Friday. The resort will report more detailed results for 2010 in the coming weeks.
The big gain in year-end attendance capped a banner year for Universal Orlando, which on Thursday handed out bonus checks to thousands of employees to celebrate Wizarding World's success.
Since debuting June 18, the more-than-$200 million collection of rides, shops and eateries based on the wildly successful Harry Potter books and films has drawn enormous crowds to Universal and fueled massive souvenir sales — more than 1 million mugs of butterbeer alone. The themed area and its centerpiece ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, have also won multiple industry awards.
Attendance at Universal Orlando for all of 2010 totaled approximately 11.2 million people, up 20 percent from 9.3 million the year before.
GE executives, in reporting year-end earnings for the Connecticut-based industrial conglomerate, said attendance and per-capita guest spending were both up double-digit percentages for Universal Parks & Resorts, which benefited from the opening of big-ticket capital projects last June at its two domestic resorts — Wizarding World in Orlando and a King Kong attraction in Universal Studios Hollywood.
The "parks continued their strong performance, driven by both Potter and King Kong," GE Vice Chairman Keith Sherin said during a conference call with analysts.
GE said its parks and film businesses, which together make up one of the main segments of the NBC Universal media-and-entertainment unit, posted revenue growth of 9 percent and operating profit growth of more than 80 percent.
GE is about to sell a controlling interest in NBC Universal to Comcast Corp. The sale, which just won approval from federal antitrust regulators, is expected to close before the end of the month.
Wizarding World's success has spilled beyond Universal Orlando's gates: A report released earlier this week showed that Orlando-area hotels recorded their best December in more than a decade last month, as occupancy rose 11.9 percent and average room rates climbed 10.2 percent from the same month a year ago.
Hotels near and along International Drive — those closest to Universal — performed best, with occupancy rising 15.4 percent and room rates leaping 21 percent. The December results continued a string of monthly gains for local hotels that began in June — the same month Wizarding World opened.
What's more, Orlando International Airport announced earlier this week that its November passenger traffic rose more than 8 percent from a year earlier to 2.9 million travelers. It was the seventh straight month of traffic gains at the airport and its biggest single-month gain since February 2008.
Year-to-date traffic at OIA was up 3.3 percent through November to 31.9 million passengers.