|By Christopher Boyd and Scott Powers, The
Orlando Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jan. 2, 2008 --The nation's economic jitters that contributed to lackluster holiday retail sales in December seemingly failed to make a serious dent in year-end travel to Central Florida as theme parks filled and hotels had few vacancies.
Large hotels in Central Florida's core tourist areas say they had no problem filling rooms during the final two weeks of December. Theme park parking lots swelled past capacity, and pedestrian concourses at Walt Disney World, SeaWorld Orlando and Universal Orlando resembled Manhattan sidewalks during rush hour.
The outpouring of tourists belied consumer concerns about an economy facing a significant housing industry slump, tightening credit markets and volatile financial markets. Hoteliers acknowledged the concerns, but those catering to the higher end of the market said they haven't seen a pullback.
"We haven't seen much of an impact from the economy," said Alan Villaverde, general manager of the Peabody Orlando hotel near the Orange County Convention Center. "We were pretty much sold out from Christmas Eve on, so I would say it was a good period at the Peabody."
Not all hotels were as fortunate. The La Quinta Inn International Drive North said December started slowly and room reservations didn't rise until the hotel cut rates $30 a night.
"We were way under last year for December," said David Miller, the La Quinta front office manager. "We managed to recover during the last seven to 10 days of the month, but we were way under budget."
Miller said his hotel, where rooms go for about $100 a night, caters to middle-income travelers, who are worried about the economy.
"I think it has a lot to do with what has happened to the mortgage industry, with people getting houses foreclosed on," Miller said. "Higher gas prices and the possibility of layoffs coming in 2008 also are having an effect."
But traffic at the theme parks suggested that people are still adamant about getting away during the holidays.
The theme parks have experienced almost all the business they can handle through the peak of the holiday season, the past week.
Both Walt Disney World and SeaWorld Orlando have had to close parks or parking lots after reaching capacity in the days between Christmas and New Year's, traditionally the busiest time of the year.
At Disney World, Magic Kingdom's gates were closed for a few hours Monday, at least the third time in a week that was necessary, said spokeswoman Kim Prunty.
Visitors staying at Disney's resort hotels and those with annual passes were still allowed into Magic Kingdom during the closures, but other visitors were redirected to Disney's Animal Kingdom, Disney-MGM Studios or Epcot, Prunty said. There also had been a couple of occasions in the past week when some visitors to those parks had to be detoured to remote parking lots, but the parks themselves never reached capacity, she said.
At SeaWorld, traffic had to be diverted to overflow parking lots across the street on four consecutive days -- Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Monday's daytime crowd may have been buffered a bit because the park was to remain open past midnight for the New Year's celebration, spreading out the stream of visitors, said spokeswoman Diane Centeno.
"For us, the flow is coming in normally for our New Year's Eve events; typically the crowds start coming in a little later in the afternoon," Centeno said.
SeaWorld's sister park, Discovery Cove, operates on a reservations-only basis, so it cannot experience overflow crowds.
Attendance at Universal Orlando's two theme parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, "has been in line with our expectations," said spokesman Tom Schroder. "We're pleased."
The tourist industry gives part of the credit to a major Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau's promotional campaign, which began early last year with a television advertising blitz and continues through 2008.
"We think the CVB campaign has really been contributing," said Ron McAnaugh, manager of the Orlando World Center Marriott. "Our post-Christmas week was stronger than last year."
And McAnaugh said the weak dollar might be contributing to increased international traffic.
"Walking around, we heard a lot more people from England," McAnaugh said. "There were a lot more of those voices than last year."
Christopher Boyd can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5723. Scott Powers can be reached at 407-420-5441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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