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UK Merlin park attendance over the years

Matt N

CF Legend
Hi guys. During the coaster consultations in 2021, Merlin released an attendance graph showing all their parks' attendance figures since the early 1980s. I had some time on my hands this evening and decided to try and extrapolate some slightly more precise guest figures for each park from this graph to try and determine the precise(ish) attendance trajectory of each UK Merlin park from the earliest year listed here (1984 for Alton Towers and Chessington, 1983 for Thorpe Park, 1987 for Windsor Safari Park and 1997 for Legoland Windsor).

For some idea, this is the original graph I was working with: https://www.cwoa-consultation.com/proposals?lightbox=dataItem-komw1163

To make things easier for myself, I divided each million on the graph into 8 rows (thus leaving ~125,000 guests per row, as my rather crude MS Paint annotation indicates):
UK-Merlin-Theme-Park-Attendance-Graph-Edited.png


As such, I then decided to extrapolate a precise(ish) figure from the graph by looking at what row each park's figure fell within. All of these figures are rounded to the nearest 31,250; I know that sounds oddly specific, but it's 1/32 of a million, and a quarter of one of these rows, so it's the most precise figure that remains easy to determine by eye. It also keeps the margin of error to only 1 or 2 percent in most cases.

The precise(ish) trajectories that I managed to extrapolate for each park, including percentage increases and decreases for each year, were as follows:
Alton Towers - opened 1980, first year on graph 1984
  • 1984: 1,843,750 (first year, #1/3 on graph)
  • 1985: 1,812,500 (-1.7%, #1/3 on graph)
  • 1986: 2,250,000 (+24.1%, #1/3 on graph)
  • 1987: 2,312,500 (+2.8%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 1988: 2,875,000 (+24.3%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 1989: 2,412,500 (-16.1%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 1990: 1,912,500 (-20.7%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 1991: 1,843,750 (-3.6%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 1992: 2,625,000 (+42.4%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 1993: 2,843,750 (+8.3%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 1994: 3,312,500 (+16.5%, #1/3 on graph)
  • 1995: 2,843,750 (-14.2%, #1/3 on graph)
  • 1996: 2,875,000 (+1.1%, #1/3 on graph)
  • 1997: 2,875,000 (0.0%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 1998: 2,906,250 (+1.1%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 1999: 2,593,750 (-10.8%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2000: 2,412,500 (-7.0%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2001: 2,187,500 (-9.3%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2002: 2,687,500 (+22.9%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2003: 2,562,500 (-4.7%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2004: 2,125,000 (-17.1%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2005: 2,187,500 (+2.9%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2006: 2,218,750 (+1.4%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2007: 2,250,000 (+1.4%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2008: 2,593,750 (+15.3%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2009: 2,687,500 (+3.6%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2010: 3,062,500 (+14.0%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2011: 2,687,500 (-12.2%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2012: 2,406,250 (-10.5%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2013: 2,593,750 (+7.8%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2014: 2,312,500 (-10.8%, joint #2/4 on graph)
  • 2015: 1,937,500 (-16.2%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2016: 1,750,000 (-9.7%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2017: 1,875,000 (+7.1%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2018: 2,218,750 (+18.3%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2019: 2,500,000 (+12.7%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2020: 912,500 (-63.5%, #1/4 on graph)
All-Time Peak: 3,312,500 (1994)
All-Time Low (excluding 2020): 1,750,000 (2016)
Peak Within Merlin Era (2008 and later): 3,062,500 (2010)
Low Within Merlin Era (2008 and later, excluding 2020): 1,750,000 (2016)

Chessington World of Adventures/Chessington Zoo - opened 1931, first year on graph 1984, first year as CWOA 1987

  • 1984: 625,000 (first year, #3/3 on graph)
  • 1985: 562,500 (-10.0%, #3/3 on graph)
  • 1986: 500,000 (-11.1%, #3/3 on graph)
  • 1987: 875,000 (+75.0%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 1988: 1,187,500 (+35.7%, joint #3/4 on graph)
  • 1989: 1,250,000 (+5.3%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 1990: 1,062,500 (-15.0%, joint #3/4 on graph)
  • 1991: 1,437,500 (+35.3%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 1992: 1,218,750 (-15.2%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 1993: 1,531,250 (+25.6%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 1994: 1,687,500 (+10.2%, #2/3 on graph)
  • 1995: 1,875,000 (+11.1%, #2/3 on graph)
  • 1996: 1,812,500 (-3.3%, #2/3 on graph)
  • 1997: 1,843,750 (+1.7%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 1998: 1,843,750 (0.0%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 1999: 1,656,250 (-10.2%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2000: 1,562,500 (-5.7%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2001: 1,531,250 (-2.0%, joint #3/4 on graph)
  • 2002: 1,281,250 (-16.3%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2003: 1,312,500 (+2.4%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2004: 1,250,000 (-4.8%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2005: 1,093,750 (-12.5%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2006: 1,000,000 (-8.6%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2007: 968,750 (-3.1%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2008: 1,281,250 (+32.3%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2009: 1,343,750 (+4.9%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2010: 1,437,500 (+7.0%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2011: 1,500,000 (+4.3%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2012: 1,406,250 (-6.2%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2013: 1,531,250 (+8.9%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2014: 1,562,500 (+2.0%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2015: 1,437,500 (-8.0%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2016: 1,468,750 (+2.2%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2017: 1,500,000 (+2.1%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2018: 1,593,750 (+6.3%, joint #4/4 on graph)
  • 2019: 1,687,500 (+5.9%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2020: 500,000 (-70.4%, joint #4/4 on graph)
All-Time Peak: 1,875,000 (1995)
All-Time Low (excluding 2020, including pre-CWOA years): 500,000 (1986)
All-Time Low (excluding 2020 and pre-CWOA years): 875,000 (1987)
Peak Within Merlin Era (2008 and later): 1,687,500 (2019)
Low Within Merlin Era (2008 and later, excluding 2020): 1,281,250 (2008)

Legoland Windsor/Windsor Safari Park - opened 1970, first year on graph 1987, first year as Legoland Windsor 1996

  • 1987: 812,500 (first year, #4/4 on graph)
  • 1988: 875,000 (+7.7%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 1989: 968,750 (+10.7%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 1990: 1,062,500 (+9.7%, joint #3/4 on graph)
  • 1991: 1,031,250 (-2.9%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 1992: 968,750 (-6.1%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 1993: 937,500 (-3.2%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 1994: N/A (-100.0%, N/A on graph)
  • 1995: N/A (0.0%, N/A on graph)
  • 1996: N/A (0.0%, N/A on graph)
  • 1997: 1,468,750 (first year as LLW, #3/4 on graph)
  • 1998: 1,312,500 (-10.6%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 1999: 1,500,000 (+14.3%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2000: 1,687,500 (+12.5%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2001: 1,531,250 (-9.3%, joint #3/4 on graph)
  • 2002: 1,593,750 (+4.1%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2003: 1,437,500 (-9.8%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2004: 1,437,500 (0.0%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2005: 1,500,000 (+4.3%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2006: 1,625,000 (+8.3%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2007: 1,500,000 (-7.8%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2008: 1,875,000 (+25.0%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2009: 1,906,250 (+1.7%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2010: 1,906,250 (0.0%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2011: 1,906,250 (0.0%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2012: 2,031,250 (+6.6%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2013: 2,312,500 (+13.8%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2014: 2,312,500 (0.0%, joint #2/4 on graph)
  • 2015: 2,343,750 (+1.4%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2016: 2,187,500 (-6.6%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2017: 2,312,500 (+5.7%, #1/4 on graph)
  • 2018: 2,125,000 (-8.1%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2019: 2,062,500 (-2.9%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2020: 656,250 (-68.2%, #2/4 on graph)
All-Time Peak: 2,343,750 (2015)
All-Time Low (excluding 2020, including pre-LLW years): 812,500 (1987)
All-Time Low (excluding 2020 and pre-LLW years): 1,312,500 (1998)
Peak Within Merlin Era (2006 and later): 2,343,750 (2015)
Low Within Merlin Era (2006 and later, excluding 2020): 1,500,000 (2007)

Thorpe Park - opened 1979, first year on graph 1983

  • 1983: 843,750 (first year, #1/1 on graph)
  • 1984: 1,031,250 (+22.2%, #2/3 on graph)
  • 1985: 1,093,750 (+6.1%, #2/3 on graph)
  • 1986: 1,093,750 (0.0%, #2/3 on graph)
  • 1987: 1,093,750 (0.0%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 1988: 1,187,500 (+8.6%, joint #3/4 on graph)
  • 1989: 1,343,750 (+13.2%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 1990: 1,000,000 (-25.6%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 1991: 968,750 (-3.1%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 1992: 1,093,750 (+12.9%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 1993: 1,281,250 (+17.1%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 1994: 1,218,750 (-4.9%, #3/3 on graph)
  • 1995: 1,125,000 (-7.7%, #3/3 on graph)
  • 1996: 1,187,500 (+5.6%, #3/3 on graph)
  • 1997: 968,750 (-18.4%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 1998: 875,000 (-9.7%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 1999: 906,250 (+3.6%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2000: 937,500 (+3.4%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2001: 1,187,500 (+26.7%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2002: 1,437,500 (+21.1%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2003: 1,531,250 (+6.5%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2004: 1,468,750 (-4.1%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2005: 1,562,500 (+6.4%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2006: 1,812,500 (+16.0%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2007: 1,843,750 (+1.7%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2008: 1,843,750 (0.0%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2009: 2,125,000 (+15.3%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2010: 2,187,500 (+2.9%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2011: 2,125,000 (-2.9%, #2/4 on graph)
  • 2012: 1,843,750 (-13.2%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2013: 1,786,250 (-3.1%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2014: 1,843,750 (+3.2%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2015: 1,531,250 (-17.0%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2016: 1,625,000 (+6.1%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2017: 1,562,500 (-3.9%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2018: 1,593,750 (+2.0%, #3/4 on graph)
  • 2019: 1,500,000 (-5.9%, #4/4 on graph)
  • 2020: 500,000 (-66.6%, joint #4/4 on graph)
All-Time Peak: 2,187,500 (2010)
All-Time Low (excluding 2020): 843,750 (1983)
Peak Within Merlin Era (2008 and later): 2,187,500 (2010)
Low Within Merlin Era (2008 and later, excluding 2020): 1,500,000 (2019)

To sum up each park's trajectory:
  • Alton Towers may have been top dog for the bulk of the years since 1984, but it has also had the most volatile guest figures. It has had peaks as high as 3.3 million in 1994, but also troughs of only slightly above 2 million in the mid-2000s or even slightly below in the early 1990s and mid-2010s, with a nadir of 1.75 million being reached in 2016. At that point, it was well away from #1 and almost rubbing shoulder to shoulder with #3 park Thorpe. Interestingly, its peak was early, in 1994, and only 2010 has ever come close to that since. Merlin have attained fair growth at Alton Towers; between 2007 and 2019, attendance grew by 11.1%.
  • Chessington World of Adventures started off fairly well, attaining steady growth from 1987 up until 1994, where it stayed at its peak until about 1997. However, attendance dropped through the floor from 1998 onwards, hitting a low of under 1 million in 2007, so it's fair to say that Chessington's trajectory has been far from uniform, although things improved notably under Merlin. Interestingly, Chessington is the park that has thrived most under Merlin, with attendance having grown by 74.1% between 2007 and 2019. Nonetheless, the high water mark was hit quite early on at Chessington, with that near 2 million peak guest figure being all the way back in 1995, and no year post-1997 has yet come close to it.
  • Legoland Windsor has had the most consistent growth trajectory of all the parks. With its low back near opening in 1998, its peak in 2015 and no particularly catastrophic attendance drops (COVID aside), it's grown fairly consistently over the years. It's also a park that has thrived pretty well under Merlin; between 2005 and 2019, attendance grew by 37.5%.
  • Thorpe Park has had a bit of a roller coaster of a growth trajectory. The 80s and 90s were a little bit choppy at Thorpe Park, with peaks of close to 1.5 million and lows of under 1 million. The park really hit its stride from 2001 onwards, maintaining a near perfect growth trajectory right up to the park's 2.2 million peak in 2010. However, things have been a bit of a struggle since then, with guest figures having almost consistently declined since 2011 right back to a low of 1.5 million in 2019. The park has comparatively struggled under Merlin, with attendance having fallen by 18.6% between 2007 and 2019.
I hope you find this interesting! If you don't agree with something I've done or notice any errors, however, don't be afraid to flag them to me.
EDIT: Apologies; I realised this morning that I forgot to colour code increases and decreases…
 
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Heth

Mega Poster
This is fascinating, well done for digesting all of this. I do hope you're going into a career in statistics or numbers in some form!
 

Matt N

CF Legend
This is fascinating, well done for digesting all of this. I do hope you're going into a career in statistics or numbers in some form!
Thank you very much; I’m glad you like it!

Believe me, the possibility of a career in data analysis has not passed me by! I’m currently studying a Computer Science degree, and I’ve picked the optional module on Data Analytics, so that is certainly a path I’ve considered!
 

Furiustobaco

Mega Poster
This is awesome!

I do believe that some of this data explains some of the investments- like how Chessington has been steadily growing primarily over the last 10 years or so, and also to why Merlin seem interested in it (hence the new B&M Wing). It certainly is delivering for being such a small lowkey park

Thorpe’s constant climb downwards also makes sense with the non existent investments and Merlin kind of sidelining it.

Alton and Legoland are both very profitable due to their resorts/merchandise so the gate numbers probably are only half the story, both generally have the highest numbers in the chain anyway, hence why both tend to get favourable investments.


Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
 

Nicky Borrill

Strata Poster
Excellent work Matt, but the 2020 data is pointless as it’s incomplete, being only a partial year up to summer, it seems. So I’m pleased you didn’t use it in any analysis.

Would be interesting to see the data for ten years or so before Merlin. As I’d love to know if Thorpe was on a trajectory to match their investment.
 

Matt N

CF Legend
Excellent work Matt, but the 2020 data is pointless as it’s incomplete, being only a partial year up to summer, it seems. So I’m pleased you didn’t use it in any analysis.

Would be interesting to see the data for ten years or so before Merlin. As I’d love to know if Thorpe was on a trajectory to match their investment.
I purposely didn’t use the 2020 data in any of the analysis because let’s face it, 2020 had a pretty artificial attendance cap caused by lockdowns not letting the parks open until July and numbers having to be capped compared to previous years (although I’m admittedly not sure how much effect the COVID cap actually had seeing as it was based upon full capacity, which the parks very rarely hit anyway). On the basis of it only being a partial season alone, I didn’t think it was fair to include 2020 in my analysis, as you would have done very well to have less than a 60% attendance decrease in 2020! I’m assuming Merlin did log the whole of 2020’s figures in this graph, seeing as its first outing was in May 2021 and also seeing as the decreases I logged roughly lined up with those reported by other parks, but I’m not sure why they didn’t just have the line running all the way to the end of 2020 as opposed to stopping it in the middle…

I can definitely tell you if Thorpe was on a trajectory to match their investment in under Tussauds, as the graph figures for Thorpe, as well as the figures I extrapolated, actually go all the way back to 1983!

Between 1998 (the year Tussauds bought the park) and 2007 (the year it was sold to Merlin), Tussauds actually gained incredible growth from Thorpe Park, with figures growing by 110.7%! The park’s 1998 figure was a mere 875,000, while the 2007 figure was 1.84 million, so attendance more than doubled due to Tussauds’ huge investment into thrill at the park! Interestingly, this spike didn’t really start until 2001 when the 3 thrilling flats were built, but once it started, it practically didn’t stop!

The park actually rode this wave of success for a good few years into the Merlin era. The park’s attendance shot up by another 300,000, or 15%, with the addition of Saw in 2009, and then stayed at a peak of around 2.1-2.2 million right through until 2011. If I look at the total growth between Tussauds’ initial purchase in 1998 and peak attendance in 2010 (2.19 million), then it provides an even better picture, with attendance having grown by exactly 150.0% between 1998 and 2010!
 

Nicky Borrill

Strata Poster
I purposely didn’t use the 2020 data in any of the analysis because let’s face it, 2020 had a pretty artificial attendance cap caused by lockdowns not letting the parks open until July and numbers having to be capped compared to previous years (although I’m admittedly not sure how much effect the COVID cap actually had seeing as it was based upon full capacity, which the parks very rarely hit anyway). On the basis of it only being a partial season alone, I didn’t think it was fair to include 2020 in my analysis, as you would have done very well to have less than a 60% attendance decrease in 2020! I’m assuming Merlin did log the whole of 2020’s figures in this graph, seeing as its first outing was in May 2021 and also seeing as the decreases I logged roughly lined up with those reported by other parks, but I’m not sure why they didn’t just have the line running all the way to the end of 2020 as opposed to stopping it in the middle…

I can definitely tell you if Thorpe was on a trajectory to match their investment in under Tussauds, as the graph figures for Thorpe, as well as the figures I extrapolated, actually go all the way back to 1983!

Between 1998 (the year Tussauds bought the park) and 2007 (the year it was sold to Merlin), Tussauds actually gained incredible growth from Thorpe Park, with figures growing by 110.7%! The park’s 1998 figure was a mere 875,000, while the 2007 figure was 1.84 million, so attendance more than doubled due to Tussauds’ huge investment into thrill at the park! Interestingly, this spike didn’t really start until 2001 when the 3 thrilling flats were built, but once it started, it practically didn’t stop!

The park actually rode this wave of success for a good few years into the Merlin era. The park’s attendance shot up by another 300,000, or 15%, with the addition of Saw in 2009, and then stayed at a peak of around 2.1-2.2 million right through until 2011. If I look at the total growth between Tussauds’ initial purchase in 1998 and peak attendance in 2010 (2.19 million), then it provides an even better picture, with attendance having grown by exactly 150.0% between 1998 and 2010!
Fairly certain it was stated at the consultation that the 2020 figures did not cover up until the end of 2020, charts also seem to indicate as much. Not that it matters, crap year anyway, like you said.

Wowzer, 110% wonder what made them change tactic. 🤷🏻‍♂️
 

Matt N

CF Legend
Wowzer, 110% wonder what made them change tactic. 🤷🏻‍♂️
I think guest figures decreasing in 2012 when Swarm was added gave them cold feet about that strategy. Even though I would have argued that many extenuating circumstances of the year contributed to that (extremely rainy summer, Olympics), something clearly gave them cold feet when Swarm didn’t raise guest figures.
 

JoshC.

Strata Poster
Excellent work Matt, but the 2020 data is pointless as it’s incomplete, being only a partial year up to summer, it seems. So I’m pleased you didn’t use it in any analysis.
Fairly certain it was stated at the consultation that the 2020 figures did not cover up until the end of 2020, charts also seem to indicate as much. Not that it matters, crap year anyway, like you said.
As I understand it, those numbers are the full 2020 numbers. They certainly wouldn't be up until summer; the parks basically opened in July (bar maybe a couple of days in March), and certainly wouldn't have hit those numbers in a month or two.

I think guest figures decreasing in 2012 when Swarm was added gave them cold feet about that strategy. Even though I would have argued that many extenuating circumstances of the year contributed to that (extremely rainy summer, Olympics), something clearly gave them cold feet when Swarm didn’t raise guest figures.

Thorpe Park 2012, with its attendance figures, the changes it bought to the philosophy of investments and everything else is an interesting story which could fill a book to be honest.

The attendance the park received 2009-2011 was simply not sustainable. The park doesn't have a wide enough appeal, a wide enough target market and a big enough revisit appeal to have kept those numbers up for so long. 2009 and 2010 worked so well because of the success of Saw as a brand. 2011 continued to ride on that, and was buoyed by an increase in domestic travel. I'd argue that 2011's successes were unexpected.

Thorpe/Merlin have expectations with new investments and, crudely speaking, these will revolve around raw numbers like attendance and profit. With these unsustainable visitor numbers, the park was bound to hit a rough patch soon, and unfortunately 2012 was that year. The Olympics and poor weather certainly contributed too, as people were less interested in theme parks generally.

So Swarm wasn't the instant success it had to be. It seems weird that a company as big as Merlin didn't take it on the chin that external factors caused issues (I'm sure they're aware of it), but they did also look to see what they could have done differently. A marketing campaign that overhyped the ride (one of the key complaints from guests was it wasn't as intense as expected) and a lack of recognisable brand meant they felt the urge in future to go bigger and intense, and also lean on IPs. These were, of course, two of the big contributing factors to Saw's success too.
 
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