Repeat business key to Ark Encounter success: Can attraction keep people coming back?

WILLIAMSTOWN, Ky. – A life-sized Noah's Ark is bound to turn some heads. It appears to be spinning turnstiles in rural Williamstown, Kentucky, too.

The Ark Encounter, the nation's newest – and maybe most polarizing – theme park has averaged 5,000 visitors a day since its July 9 debut. But does it pack enough punch to keep the count going long term?

RELATED: Take an inside look at the Ark Encounter 

Officials behind the Ark, Answers in Genesis (AiG), the same ministry that built the Creation Museum in nearby Petersburg, are believers. They say they've been conservative in their forecasting but are confident they'll see success, even though religious-based attractions have less than stellar track records in the U.S.

So far, more than 30,000 individuals visited the Ark in its first six days of operation, events that kicked off last Tuesday, said Kristin Cole, vice president of account services for Texas-based A. Larry Ross Communications, which is acting as the park's publicist. Ark officials are hoping to attract anywhere from 1.4-2.2 million each year.

However, industry officials stress, Answers in Genesis must bank on a growing list of supplementary attractions – besides its signature 510-foot-long ark and three decks worth of exhibits, future plans do include a petting zoo, 800-seat theater/multi-purpose room, restaurant, pre-flood walled city, Tower of Babel diorama, even zip lines – to keep people coming back again and again.

The success of any theme park, Colleen Mangone said, depends on it.

The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, which represents nearly 5,000 members, doesn't specifically track the success of religious-themed attractions, but Mangone, IAAPA media relations director, said there is a key to their success.

"Regardless of the park’s theme, what is most important to bring guests back year after year is the ability to continually offer safe, new and unique experiences," Mangone told WCPO. "Those experiences include every aspect of the guest interaction – from website and social media pages to the front gate, gift shops, restaurants, shows, rides, exhibits and other attractions."

But … is it a Hard Sell?

Historically, religious theme parks prove a tougher sell – it's less mainstream; they target a more narrow audience – although a handful of related projects seem to have taken root recently.

The Museum of the Bible, for example, will feature Christian artifacts when it opens in Washington, D.C, in 2017. Televangelist Morris Cerullo said earlier this year he plans to open a new Christian park in San Diego.

But among those that have failed:

  • Heritage USA, a Christian theme park in Fort Mill, South Carolina, attracted over 6 million visitors at its peak in the mid-1980s – making it the third most-visited park in the country. But it was stripped of its tax-exempt status amid a sex scandal and closed in 1989.
  • Holy Land U.S.A. in Waterbury, Connecticut, shuttered in 1984. Its owner died soon after closing the park for renovations; it never reopened.
  • Bible Park USA, Biblical-themed amusement park, which would have been anchored by a "huge" replica of Noah’s Ark, never even got off the ground in Lebanon and Murfreesboro, Tennessee; neighbors fought the proposal in both cities, although it promised more than 1,200 jobs and 1.5 million visitors annually.

Two of the more prominent religious parks in existence in the U.S. today are situated in tourist-heavy areas: The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, whose central feature is a re-enactment of Jesus' crucifixion; and Christ in the Smokies Museum and Gardens in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

But both had rocky pasts: Christ in the Smokies opened after its former occupant, Christus Gardens, a Christian museum, closed in 2008. Trinity Broadcasting Network is purchasing the Holy Land Experience property after its former board considered selling or closing the facility.

Neither publicly boast attendance. Holy Land did set a one-day record in January 2015 when 3,825 people came through the gates for a free admission day. It recently added a miniature golf course in an effort to attract younger patrons.

Answers in Genesis itself has not shied away from its expected visitation at Ark Encounter, but the estimates also vary widely, ranging from 500,000 to 2.4 million, depending on the source.

For example, a report Kentucky tourism officials commissioned hit on the low end, saying the Ark would bring in just half a million in its first year. The comparison study said visitation would hit 650,000 by year three before settling around 400,000 a year by the end of the decade. A decline is typical for museums, aquariums and other attractions.

Answers in Genesis, meanwhile, had two studies completed, in 2008 and 2014, in which projections ranged from 1.2 million to 2.4 million yearly patrons. The ministry used America's Research Group to perform that work; AiG also used ARG to gauge attendance for its Creation Museum. The group claims its study was more in-depth than the state's, the result of 1,000 individual interviews.

“My primary research identified that the Ark Encounter would be successful due to the vast amount of Americans who believe in the Ark," ARG's Britt Beemer has said. "The number is close to four out of five.”

Answers in Genesis, by the way, split the difference from its more recent study and planned operations for 1.6 million visitors. Mike Zovath, AiG co-founder, chief action officer and Ark project director, said their basic break-even number is "well below 1.2 million," the minimum ARG predicted in 2008, a "worst-case scenario."

To compare, Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort – the most visited theme park in the world – hosts roughly 19 million visitors a year. Kings Island in Mason had an estimated 3.34 million visitors in 2015. AiG studied the likes of Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, and Dollywood in Tennessee, but realized quickly its attraction was different.

"We're really comfortable and our approach has always been conservative on the revenue (end)," Zovath added. "Interest hasn't waned. It's increased, I think, due to media exposure and just the fascination with the Noah's Ark theme. We knew it was going to be popular, but I had no idea it would be those kind of numbers."

Answers in Genesis officials hope a more than $3 million marketing budget, which includes national and local efforts, will keep that early momentum going. It's working on enhancing the visitor experience in other ways – including videos to entertain quests being queued and offering seasonal activities and/or festivals aimed at attracting new customers.

But the ability to draw return customers is certainly not lost. Overall, there's 800 acres onsite to work with. The walled city, a large retail space that will mirror Main Street Disney and include several shops, Zovath said, is most likely next in the construction plans.

ARG projects repeat visitation – those who return within three years of their first Encounter – will be 60 percent. Zovath said they'll space out the addition of new attractions over the next decade to meet that mark.

"Attractions live off repeat customers," Zovath said. "Any theme park or amusement park — its survival is based on something new happening every two or three years. Right now, we think can stretch out (future phases) over 10-12 years to do that, to bring people back, to give the people who bought bonds and lifetime passes a more valuable experience.

"We're really confident," he added. "We think it's a solid business plan."

Follow Liz on Twitter: @_LizEngel

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