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Cities from Anaheim to Laguna Beach, Rife with New Resorts, Look to Grab Summer Business; Sunnier Outlook Ahead for Summer Travel Season
By Sandi Cain, May 2004

Tourism officials have a sunnier outlook ahead of the summer travel season.

After more than two years of worry about the tourism market, things finally are looking up for Orange County, California. And this time the uptick looks to be more than temporary.

“We had a terrific first quarter,” said Charles Ahlers, president of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau. “Hotel occupancy is up and people are optimistic.”

Anaheim’s occupancy was 67.2% in the first two months of the year—an 11% improvement versus the same period a year earlier.

Other parts of OC didn’t get as big a bump, but overall county occupancy sits around 65%, while the national average as of March was 56%, according to Hendersonville, Tenn.-based Smith Travel Research.

According to a recent survey by Orlando, Fla.-based tourism marketer Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell LLP, 36% of leisure travelers say they want to visit the Golden State in the next two years.

So cities from Anaheim to Laguna Beach—rife with new resorts and activities—hope to get their share.

Though OC welcomed 42.7 million visitors in 2003—and the $6.8 billion they spent—leisure travel was spotty, with results strong one month and weak the next as the travel industry suffered the fallout from a lackluster economy, the war in Iraq, a fear of SARS and other deterrents.

But 2004 is different. Industry analysts expect U.S. leisure travel to be up as much as 3.2% and spending to increase by 4.4% to $568 billion across the board.

Several things about OC could help win some of that business.

With vacationers traveling shorter distances for their vacations, and with 86% of California’s tourists coming from other parts of the state, OC’s position midway between Los Angeles and San Diego could be a plus.

“We try to increase their length of stay and get them to consider Anaheim/Orange County as their base for other day trips,” Ahlers said.

A Travel Industry Association study found that 54% of all U.S. travel is for two nights or less. So to encourage those travelers to stay and play in OC without driving around in circles, the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau published its first driving guide early this year with day-trip suggestions—and local maps—for a dozen OC cities.

Last month, the bureau paired the driving guide with a classic model “woodie wagon” in a meetings promotion touting OC’s weather and beach lifestyle. The heading: “Wooden it be nice to be at the Anaheim Resort?”

For those who don’t want to drive around the Anaheim resort area, the Anaheim Resort Transit has expanded its service to Garden Grove and Orange. Riders also can buy tickets online or at kiosks placed at eight hotels.

OC’s 42 miles of beaches could be a big lure. The Travel Industry Association said 12% of all travelers choose beach destinations. They tend to take longer trips and bring their kids.

That’s exactly the kind of traveler OC is looking for—even if they only come seeking the stars of Fox TV’s “The O.C.”

“We’re seeing an uptick in the economy,” said Marta Hayden, executive director of the Newport Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau. “We’re very optimistic about summer.”

Although more travelers are arriving by car, passenger traffic at John Wayne Airport continues to climb. It was up 15% in March to 759,365 passengers; in February the airport handled 16.6% more air travelers than in 2003.

Through March, the airport has seen more than 2.1 million passengers pass through. In all, the county’s airport offers about 300 daily arrivals and departures to 25 nonstop U.S. destinations.

But tourism promoters need to let travelers know there’s something new here. Otherwise OC could suffer from a “been there, done that” attitude. According to a National Leisure Travel Monitor report, 81% of travelers prefer new destinations.

So what makes OC new this year?

Turns out there’s plenty of buzz, from the Disneyland Resort to coastal resorts.

“The coastal resorts shine a light on the area,” said Hayden of the Newport Beach bureau. “Coastal cities compete with each other, but we complement each other, too.”

Newport Beach often partners with Anaheim to bring groups staying near Disneyland to events at the beach.

This summer the spillover from new Disney attractions might reach new heights.

“We’re adding more kiosks at the beach to support visitor needs,” Hayden said.

At the Disneyland Resort, the big news was last week’s opening of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror thrill ride, which is expected to drive additional visitors to Disney’s California Adventure park.

“Whenever Disney opens a new attraction, we get a big spike in visitors,” Ahlers said.

Last year the park had 5.3 million visitors—about 40% of Disneyland’s draw.

Disneyland Park has added a new live show, “Snow White—an Enchanting Musical” and a petting zoo and already has spruced up City Hall and other public areas ahead of next year’s anniversary celebration.

Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel just completed a total renovation. The hotel makeover includes a beach and boardwalk theme that blends with the boardwalk section of California Adventure that the hotel overlooks. There are room changes, such as terry-covered sofa beds, and a new pool slide that looks like a wooden roller coaster. A palm tree rains buckets of water on pool-goers.

Renovations at the Disneyland Hotel include conceptual art in the rooms from the original Disney rides, the Sleeping Beauty Castle etched into headboards and maps of the park on TV cabinets. Pixie dust trim on the walls glows after dark.

Downtown Disney has a new restaurant in its central courtyard. Tortilla Jo’s opened in April, bringing a Mexican theme and fresh margaritas made from 100 tequilas to the dining and entertainment area.

Meanwhile, Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park plans to open two new attractions of its own this summer: Lucy’s Tugboat in the Camp Snoopy section of the park and RipTide, a spinning thrill ride at the boardwalk section.

On Christmas Eve, Knott’s will debut its newest coaster—the Silver Bullet—that features suspended cars and six loops. Knott’s draws about 3 million visitors each year.

Shopping is a top activity for vacationers and OC has its share of destinations. Recent store openings at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa include Baby Unique and Tadashi—a store focused on designer chiffon gowns. An Aveda Lifestyle Salon is coming soon, as is Brooks Brothers and Restoration Hardware.

Irvine Spectrum Center will add a California Pizza Kitchen eatery and Javier’s restaurant this summer. Nordstrom comes in next year.

At Newport Beach’s Fashion Island, visitors will find the county’s only Neiman-Marcus store; specialty foods store Olivier’s and jeweler Charlotte are set to debut in coming months.

The Block at Orange has added a 25,000-square-foot bowling lounge. Called Lucky Strike, it’s trendy bowling with a bar, lounge and restaurant.

The Costa Mesa Conference & Visitors Bureau is offering a summer promotion called “Fly and dine” in some markets. Airline travelers checking into a participating Costa Mesa hotel get a $30 rebate on airfare; visitors driving to Costa Mesa will receive $30 toward gasoline; and guests get $30 per night dining certificates good at 15 Costa Mesa restaurants.

Coastal Draw

A string of new coastal resorts has debuted from Huntington Beach to Dana Point.

In the past year, resorts and full-service hotels have outperformed other sectors of the hotel industry—a trend likely to continue through the year.

The American Express Leisure Travel Index released at the end of 2003 revealed that 11% of U.S. travelers planned to spend more than $5,000 on vacations this year, with the average traveler spending $3,000—up 37% from last year.

Still, coastal towns rely to some degree on festivals to add a local flavor to summer activities.

“The festivals are a big part of what we do,” Hayden said.

This year, Newport’s Food & Wine Festival is slated for June at the Balboa Bay Club & Resort, one of OC’s new waterfront resorts.

The summer jazz series returns to the Hyatt Newporter in June and Fashion Island’s summer concert series begins in July.

In September, the city will host a Sandcastle Contest at Corona del Mar State Beach and the annual Taste of Newport that brings about 75,000 people to Fashion Island.

Huntington Beach isn’t called “Surf City” for nothing. Each summer, 100,000 or so people gather for the U.S. Open of Surfing, while thousands of others converge for AVP Pro Volleyball and the edgier BMX bike tournaments and ESPN X Games of Surfing.

“Sixty percent of local businesses say they see an increase in business when these events come to town,” said Doug Traub, Huntington Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau chief executive and president.

The city also hosts one of the oldest and largest Fourth of July parades in the country. This year, Huntington Beach celebrates its 100th birthday and is planning additional activities sure to draw bigger crowds.

“Every Fourth is a sellout,” Traub said. “But this has the potential to bring in people from all over.”

Almost half of leisure travelers attend performing arts events or visit a museum while traveling.

Those visitors often head to Laguna Beach, home to three summer arts festivals. Its one-of-a-kind Pageant of the Masters, done in tableaux vivant—living pictures—has been bringing visitors to this coastal enclave since the 1930s.

The Pageant’s 2,600-seat amphitheater is packed during the six-week performance and the companion Festival of Arts brings an additional 20,000 or so people to the grounds.

Laguna Beach also has drawn attention thanks to the 1-year-old Montage Resort & Spa. Recently, the resort’s owners bought the nearby Aliso Creek Inn and its nine-hole golf course along with another hillside parcel.

Resort officials say there are no firm plans for either parcel at this time, though there is local speculation that another nine holes of golf could be in the mix.

In Dana Point, the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort & Spa has added a surfing program, more activities for kids and Martini Mondays.

Across the street at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, guests now can take part in cooking classes or book packages for the Pageant of the Masters, while young guests get their own summer buffet.

At the opposite end of the county, the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace, a museum and event spot in Yorba Linda, is nearing completion of the Katherine B. Loker Center.

The center will include a 47,000-square-foot replica of the White House East Room and a 4,100-square-foot exhibit gallery, as well as a new entrance court.


Sandi Cain is a freelance writer and contributor to the Orange County Business Journal and meetings industry publications. She specializes in hospitality, tourism and travel. Cain holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Kent State University in Ohio, where she majored in social studies. A former high school teacher, she has written for niche-market sports publications in the U.S., England and Australia and formerly worked in both the printing and high-tech industries. A Cleveland, Ohio native, Cain hasbeen a resident of Laguna Beach since the late ’70s. She enjoys travel, gardening, reading and spoiling her three cats.


Sandi Cain
Laguna Beach CA

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Orange County’s $6 billion Annual Tourism Industry Shaking off the Downturn / Sandi Cain / May 2002
The Orange Riviera - New Luxury Hotels and Renovation Projects Transforming OC’s Coast / Sandi Cain / May 2001 
Orange County Hoteliers Hope for a Solid Summer Season to Regain Momentum / May 2002 / Sandi Cain
Hotel Brokers: From Sales to Consultants / Sandi Cain / Jan 2002 
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Orange County Travel Agencies Bear Brunt Last Week, Waiting For Fallout / Sandi Cain / Sept 2001 
St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort & Spa Opening Adds to Competition in South Orange County California / Sandi Cain / Aug 2001 
The Orange Riviera - New Luxury Hotels and Renovation Projects Transforming OC’s Coast / Sandi Cain / May 2001 
Ayres Hotel Group Expands, Rebrands / Sandi Cain / March 2001
Orange County’s Hoteliers Relieved as Anaheim Convention Center Expansion Boosted Occupancy and Rates During Past Year / Sandi Cain / May 2001
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