It's one of the most anticipated data drops in all of theme park nerd-dom... Every year, a consulting firm called AECOM partners with the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) to release an annual report on the ups and downs of theme parks, waterparks, museums, and more from the year prior. The annual Global Attractions Attendance Report is a fascinating document that theme park fans should dive into in depth. It's filled with the highs and lows, global contexts, and stories that permeated theme park news in the year prior.
But most importantly... it also contains a review of theme park attendance. To be clear, most theme park operators do not disclose their parks' attendance, and even if they speak in broad generalities or percentages at investor calls, they almost never divulge specific attendance figures for specific parks... However, it's known that many operators do work with AECOM to come up with fairly accurate figures since it's in the best interest of their share price and financial disclosures to be vague, but honest.
At first glance, 2022's ranking is pretty expected. There's the always-first Magic Kingdom. Then Disneyland (which only surpassed Tokyo Disneyland for the number two spot just before the pandemic). Then Japan's ever-popular-and-packed parks, then Animal Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, etc., with Shanghai Disneyland following, then Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, with California Adventure coming in at number 13, followed by Disneyland Paris at 14, then Universal Studios Hollywood at 15.
But wait just a second... take a careful look at 2022's AECOM estimates and you'll notice that the ranking of parks doesn't align to their attendance. That makes sense. Different national and regional reactions to COVID-19 have seen parks return to full operations in varied timelines and with new attendance policies. As a result, while AECOM's estimated attendance numbers have been updated for 2022, but their ranking of parks remains locked in the order in which these parks fell in 2019.
So what happens if you actually re-order the 2022 ranking to align with attendance?
The Updated 2022 Attendance Ranking
1. Magic Kingdom (17.1 million)
2. Disneyland (16.88 million)
3. Universal Studios Japan (12.35 million)
4. Tokyo Disneyland (12 million)
5. Universal Islands of Adventure (11.02 million)
6. Disney's Hollywood Studios (10.9 million)
7. Universal Studios Florida (10.75 million)
8. Tokyo DisneySea (10.1 million)
9. EPCOT (10 million)
10. Disneyland Paris (9.93 million)
11. Disney's Animal Kingdom (9.02 million)
12. Disney California Adventure (9 million)
13. Universal Studios Hollywood (8.4 million)
14. Shanghai Disneyland (5.3 million)
Which brings us to some very interesting findings...
1. Disneyland inches ever-closer to Magic Kingdom
Considering that Magic Kingdom was literally built to be a larger version of Disneyland that would appeal to massive, international audiences, it's surprising to see that the tiny little California park continues its climb toward Magic Kingdom's attendance numbers. (In 2019, Disneyland was 2.2 million behind; now, it's only 320,000 behind.)
It could be that Magic Kingdom will wildly rebound in 2023, and especially after park reservations become included in multi-day tickets in 2024... but Disneyland has always been "the little engine that could," and as frustrations with Walt Disney World's low capacity and ever-rising prices increase, it could be that most people will finally make the trek to Anaheim – something they definitely should thanks to several very enviable Disneyland exclusives.
2. Shanghai Disneyland's very rough year
For Disney's recently-reappointed CEO Bob Iger, it must be a major frustration that two big buys he expected to cement his legacy with the company – the opening of Shanghai Disneyland and the purchase of 20th Century Fox – have both become significant albatrosses post-2020. While park fans get to help chip in to support the $72 billion Disney spent on Fox through new ticket fees, Genie+, and more, Shanghai Disneyland has so far been less of a golden goose than once dreamed.
Iger worked for decades to forge a relationship with China, where an emerging middle class and a cautiously permissive government was willing to let Disney into an entire, untapped market and a new, emerging "middle class" with leisure time and income to spare. But many of those doors have slammed shut now, with Iger suggesting in 2021 that "some of my optimism on China has eroded."
That's no doubt in part thanks to the country's now-ended "zero-COVID" policy, which saw Shanghai Disneyland close for no less than three separate periods in 2022 (including an embarrassing shutdown in October which saw visitors kept inside the park). In any case, the Chinese government's COVID policies certainly led to Shanghai's massive drop-off in attendance in 2022, and without a doubt, the park's visitorship will rebound. (Pre-COVID, 11.2 million visitors attended.) The question is, will Disney's relationship with China rebound? Or are things about to get awkward for Disney's first mainland China park?
3. Hollywood Studios vaults ahead... for now
Though Magic Kingdom perennially resides atop theme park attendance figures, Walt Disney World's other three parks tend to hover several slots down beneath global "Castle Parks". They also tend to change their rankings on a dime. In 2019, the order went Animal Kingdom (13.8 million), EPCOT (12.4 million), and Hollywood Studios (11.5 million).
That order today is completely reversed, with Hollywood Studios serving as the highest performer of Walt Disney World's non-Castle Parks, and Animal Kingdom as the lowest. Maybe that's not surprising. Those three parks are basically in a continuous dance with the one that got the newest thing taking the lead. Right now, that's Hollywood Studios thanks to Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge (which opened very late in 2019).
EPCOT is in the midst of a refresh, but the biggest part of it – Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind – opened halfway through 2022, almost certainly suggesting that when 2023's AECOM report is published, EPCOT will launch ahead instead. And as its last-place finish shows, Animal Kingdom is almost certainly next in the rotation to get something big. (Its last headliner was 2017's Pandora – The World of Avatar.) That only further fuels the belief that Zootopia and Moana are coming to Animal Kingdom, like it or not.
But that's just the beginning. We'll dig into some of the most shocking discoveries from 2022's attendance report on the next page... Read on...