WASHINGTON — Free-spending US tourists shrugged off economic worries to overwhelm Disney World and other top Florida theme parks this week, forcing them to temporarily shut the gates, local officials said Thursday.
Some visitors to Legoland, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and three Disney destinations found parking lots and entryways shut for short periods Wednesday and Thursday as the Orlando area enjoys record numbers of tourists for the Christmas-New Year holiday.
"We are having yet again another very busy day," Legoland spokeswoman Jackie Wallace said as she explained why the park had to limit entrances for the second day running.
Just two months old, Legoland has been a huge hit even though it started up amid worries that the US economy was not recovering from the 2008-2009 recession.
Three of Disney's four Orlando parks, the Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom, all had to freeze entry for around 90 minutes on Wednesday to "ensure guests had a memorable experience," according to a Disney official.
People staying at Disney's own hotels and on Disney packages could get in but those who just came for the day were put off, the official said -- adding that they could have waited, and that the tickets are good for a long time.
The story was the same at the 18-month-old Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a part of Universal Orlando resort's Islands of Adventure Park, said spokeswoman Alyson Lundell.
"Yesterday Islands of Adventure reached capacity," though today was better, she told AFP. "Anyone who wanted to wait could do so, and as people left, we let others come in," she added.
The flood of visitors to central Florida is a real sign that many Americans are beginning to open their wallets and put the economic gloom of the past three years behind them.
The Orlando area has at least 10 major theme parks and scores of other holiday attractions, and all are full, according to industry officials.
None of the parks would give attendance numbers, but Brian Martin of Visit Orlando, the regional tourism promotion board, estimated occupancy for the region's 115,000 hotel rooms at 95 percent, better than a year ago.
That was partly helped, too, by two major college football games scheduled in Orlando this week, which bring in as many as 100,000 people, he said.
"But even without that, you would still see a high occupancy."
Orlando will register some 53.5 million visitors for 2011, according to Martin, more than two million more than came last year. Hotel rates are moving up, though still not to the pre-crash levels of 2008.
"With the economy improving, it has helped people decide to take vacation," Martin said.
"And we saw a jump in international travel, especially from Brazil... And Canada has also been big for us."
Theme park officials stressed that they closed the doors "to ensure guests have a memorable experience," as the Disney official said.
Parks monitor queue lengths at their most popular rides, knowing that overly long wait times can anger people who pay the $75 or more per person that it costs to get in the gates for a day.
At Universal's multi-theme Islands park, rates are $85 a day for adults and $79 for children, but that has not appeared to temper enthusiasm.
"Definitely we know that people are still traveling... They're not willing to sacrifice their vacations," said Lundell.
Since opening the Harry Potter section of the park, more than seven million people have gone on the most popular Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, she said.
"And we have sold more than two million 'butter beers,'" a favorite drink of Harry Potter and his friends in the hit book series.
She described it as tasting like butterscotch and shortbread cookies, with creamy topping.
"It's a kind of dessert drink," she said.