|By Michele Himmelberg, The Orange County Register, Calif.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 6, 2005 - Mary Doll and Angelica Rios, 24-year-old buddies from Bozeman, Mont., flew to Orange County last month for a sunny, summer vacation.
They fled a job at Wal-Mart and studies at Montana State University to visit Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm and Medieval Times in Buena Park.
They stayed one night with family, then moved to the Tropicana Inn & Suites, a short walk from Disneyland, where they spent five days jostling with crowds and donning golden Mickey ears for the park's 50th anniversary.
Visitors repeated that experience over and over this summer as Orange County was one of the nation's leading tourist destinations. They came by plane, train and automobile, mostly to visit Disneyland but also to eat, shop, surf and enjoy the Pacific Ocean in one of the county's busiest summer seasons.
Summer unofficially ended Monday -- Labor Day -- for tourism operators, who are celebrating numbers like this:
Orange County ranked No. 2 in the nation in hotel occupancy in July, with nearly 87 percent of rooms booked. Only Oahu, with 92.7 percent occupancy, had busier hotels, reports Smith Travel Research.
John Wayne Airport set a one-month record with 898,521 passengers boarding or landing here in July. The summer boom puts the airport on track to break its annual passenger record of 9.27 million, set last year.
Anaheim Resort Transit, the red buses that transport visitors in the Anaheim Resort, had record ridership in the system's third year. Nearly 175,000 paying adults rode the energy-efficient buses in July, a 28 percent bump over last year, said Diana Kotler, executive director.
Enterprise Rent-a-Car outlets at John Wayne Airport and county neighborhoods posted double-digit growth over last June and July, with preliminary indications of similar demand in August. "It looks like a record number of tourists are renting from us," said Christy Conrad, an Enterprise spokeswoman.
Figures like those led CIC Research to predict that Orange County will attract a record 44.8 million visitors this year, a 3 percent increase over 2004.
The San Diego travel research firm estimates that those visitors will spend $7.85 billion, 7 percent more than 2004 and a windfall that county tourism operators were counting on this summer.
A healthy economy and consumer demand for travel pushed more "high-value" visitors to Orange County, said Skip Hull, CIC's s vice president, who tracks visitor patterns in Southern California. That includes international travelers, who often spend more than domestic travelers.
Here's a look at where our visitors opened their wallets this summer.
In the heart of Laguna Beach, valets dart back and forth across Pacific Coast Highway to La Casa del Camino, a hotel with a busy, new rooftop bar. Guests sip drinks near the rail overlooking the water and in private cabanas before dining downstairs at Savoury's.
The new bar has boosted business since opening in April, though some staff thought summer crowds would be steadier. A bartender blames the stubborn overcast that spoiled many sunsets and kept his tip jar a little too dry.
On Balboa Island, Candy Lehman manages "The Gift Box," a shop her mother-in- law started 28 years ago on Marine Avenue. It attracts many repeat customers, who come for the Byers Choice Caroler figurines and Vera Bradley purses. As of Aug. 19, sales already had matched last year's full month of sales, Lehman said.
August is the busiest month for summer rentals at the beach, but Lehman said Disney's 50th marketing also contributed to her volume.
"I chat with almost every tourist who comes in, and every one of them has said that Disneyland is part of their trip," she said.
Travelers appear to be staying longer this summer, too. The three-day weekend has stretched into five- and six-night stays at the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel, said George Munz, executive assistant manager.
"That's a sign that people are seeing Orange County as a vacation destination," he said. "They're finding out there's so much to do here, and that's a big part of our success."
The Ritz Carlton, one of 10 luxury resorts along the coast, completed a $40 million renovation in time to welcome the summer crowds. With a new oceanfront fitness center, new spa and new restaurant with ocean views, the extensive redesign makes the Ritz "the new kid on the block," Munz said. That buzz gives it an edge in attracting visitors looking for an upscale experience.
"The demand exceeded our expectations this summer," said Munz, who credited a strong economy for boosting traveler confidence.
Mary Ann Root of Corona del Mar joined five of her seven sisters at the renovated Casa Tropicana Inn & Spa in San Clemente for a summer getaway. They played poker on the terrace, enjoyed the sunsets and had so much fun they never made it to the inn's new spa.
Hotel managers are seeing more of those extended families and small groups getting together under their roofs. Rick Anderson, owner of Casa Tropicana, upgraded the inn's eight rooms and smothers guests with amenities such as free champagne to encourage repeat visits.
"The slide has stopped," said Anderson, who sits on several boards that promote California tourism. "This is the best year we've had since 2000. And it appears that cost is not a barrier. People know what they want and it's a matter of availability."
Getting a hotel room anywhere in Orange County was tougher this summer than in several years, and hotels commanded top dollar. Anaheim became the hub of activity with Disneyland's anniversary party serving as the main draw. But as rooms filled in Anaheim, travelers spread out to surrounding areas.
"Last summer was not as strong as people expected, and this summer has been better than they all expected," said Bruce Baltin, senior vice president for PKF Consulting, a lodging-industry research firm. "The 50th anniversary certainly helped, but you also have coastal Orange County maturing as a destination and gaining recognition."
For July, 87.4 percent of rooms in Orange County were occupied, up 8.2 percent over July, 2004, according to preliminary reports from PKF. Visitors paid an average of $123.25 per night, or 10.4 percent more than what they paid last July.
August won't be able to match July's big numbers, but it will be close, Baltin said.
Not everyone felt the Disney effect as much as they had expected.
"The 50th anniversary created a mushroom cloud effect, but it was all in Anaheim," said Ram Jeereddi, general manager at the Best Western. "We thought we would feel it more than we did."
Disneyland created "hundreds more jobs" to service the jumbo-sized crowds, a spokesman said, along with the 2,000 they normally employ for the summer season. The nearby Hilton Anaheim also added staff, and it's still looking for front-desk help and guest service agents, said Edd Karlan, head of sales and marketing.
Occupancy at the Hilton jumped "10 points" over July 2004, and the average length of stay stretched from two days to three, Karlan said. That extra night added $300,000 in revenue.
Across the street at the Marriott, staffers were happy to get extra hours this summer as visitor demand surged. Many visitors decided to drive in on short notice, with as many as 100 new rooms booked in one day, said Tim Price, director of sales and marketing.
"Everyone is hoping this momentum from the summer and Disney's 50th will carry over into the fall and the holidays," Price said.
To see more of The Orange County Register, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.ocregister.com.
Copyright (c) 2005, The Orange County Register, Calif.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. For information on republishing this content, contact us at (800) 661-2511 (U.S.), (213) 237-4914 (worldwide), fax (213) 237-6515, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. DIS, MAR, HLT, WMT,