Long before gasoline jumped above $2 per gallon, owners of L.A.-area theme parks had invested heavily on sprucing up, adding rides and developing new attractions, all with the expectation that the improvements would draw hordes of visitors this summer.

Now, even with all those new and improved attractions, theme parks are likely to see flat attendance this summer, according to analysts' projections, as high gas prices and the lagging economy keep nervous job-holders at home during the vacation months.

Those deciding to venture forth, however, will find three new roller coasters at Six Flags Magic Mountain; two new kids' attractions, Nickelodeon Blast Zone and Animal Planet Live, at Universal Studios, which launched them to balance its traditional shows and rides; and a $100 million upgrade just completed at Knott's Berry Farm, including a new roller coaster and water park.

And then there's the Walt Disney Co., which opened its California Adventure theme park in February.

For Disney, even a new theme park may not bring in the numbers that the company anticipated. Park-goers have given California Adventure less-than-sparkling reviews, and daily attendance figures have been thousands short of projections.

If there is a bright spot on the summer horizon for Disney, it is that many out-of-town vacationers plan their trips months in advance.

"It will take six months before (the softening economy) translates into lower attendance to the Disney theme parks because people book vacations six months in advance," said Kathy Styponias, an entertainment industry analyst at Prudential Securities Inc.

But that's not to say the summer outlook is sunny for Disney and other local park operators.

"In general, we lowered our expectations for theme parks, in terms of attendance, owing to the softness of the economy," said Styponias.

Prudential originally projected a 1 to 2 percent growth in attendance for Disney theme parks this year, compared to more than 3 percent growth last year.

Styponias is now forecasting no growth for this year, despite a strong start. "The December quarter was not a bad quarter for parks, and neither was the March quarter. Our assumption is, as third and fourth quarters look weaker, that averages out (to zero growth for the year)," she said.

As for California Adventure, analyst David Miller of Sutro & Co. pointed out that the new park was expected to bring in 5.5 million visitors this year, or about 15,000 visitors a day. Instead, it has been averaging 12,000 or so a day, he said.


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