Some 49.7 million tourists visited UK theme parks in 2003, up by 3% on the year before, according to the latest statistics from researcher Euromonitor.
The UK's 2,317 visitor attractions (although this category includes historic properties, zoos, wildlife parks, museums and galleries as well as theme parks) sold £663.8m of food and drink in 2003, consultancy Horizons has calculated.
A growing number of theme parks also now have hotels attached. A survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers in April 2004, found that, of 29 theme parks in Europe, 14 offered accommodation, totalling 29 hotels and 10,015 rooms.
In the UK, Euromonitor puts Blackpool Pleasure Beach at the top of the tree, with 14.3% of the total market, and seven million visitors a year.
Other key players include Alton Towers, Legoland, Thorpe Park, Chessington World of Adventures and Madame Tussauds, although new arrivals such as Cornwall's Eden Project are also rapidly gaining ground.
Financially, Tussauds Group, owner of Madame Tussauds, the London Eye, Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, Chessington and Warwick Castle, dominates the landscape, with some 15 million customers visiting its attractions.
Its last financial results showed it had turnover of £178.5m in 2002, up by 30% on 2001, although it still turned in a £5.7m pre-tax loss for the year.
Tussauds Group remains in the red (although losses are narrowing) and Lego, the Danish owner of Legoland, said in April 2005 that it planned to sell all four of its theme parks (in Demark, Germany, the UK and USA), after losses doubled last year to £174.9m.
The vagaries of the British weather, the rise of budget airlines making it easier to visit competitors in continental Europe and elsewhere, and the slow recovery in tourist number since 9/11 have all played a part.
Financially, the sector has seen some new money coming in in recent years, some of it from overseas, particularly from the Middle East, says Colin Dawson, chief executive of the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions (BALPPA).
The growth of budget airlines has also made it easier for overseas tourists to come to the UK, so it works both ways, he stresses.
"It has become much easier to become more competitive. But competition is increasing from all sorts of directions, and people are always looking for alternative ways to spend their leisure time," he says.
From the hospitality perspective, there have been two key trends of note: the focus on quality and service when it comes to food and the growing importance of on-site or near-site hotel offerings.
On the food side, many UK attractions remain dogged with a low-quality, poor-service, stuck-in-a-time-warp image.
The Consumers' Association, for instance, in July last year strongly attacked the sector for offering a limited range of healthy options, arguing that fast-food outlets were the main-stay of many theme parks.
Despite these criticisms, one of the biggest changes of the past decade has been a significant improvement in food quality at many theme parks, argues BALPPA's Dawson.
"Things have definitely improved. There are now many more franchised or specialist caterers operating, and there is a recognition that people cannot be expected to be experts in all the fields in which they operate," he explains.
Customer expectations have increased, particularly in the demand for healthier alternatives and more, lighter snacks.
"Food is one of the things that people look for in a day out. There is now a much broader range of food options available, and operators are trying to provide food that is healthier," adds Dawson.
For hotels, there has been a growing recognition that, by adding hotels, theme parks can effectively turn themselves into short-break destinations, argues PWC's Julie Clark.
Alton Towers, for instance, has had hotels on-site since 1996 and now operates two themed hotels.
Blackpool Pleasure Beach, too, has the three-star 116-bedroom Big Blue Hotel, part of the Best Western Consortium.
The average length of stay at theme park hotels was 2.8 days, and accommodation helped 33% of those surveyed extend their operating season, said PWC. Average occupancy was 89% in the high season and about 54% in the winter.
The changing population demographic of Europe, with more older people visiting with grandchildren, will also have an effect that outdoor attractions and theme parks will need to address, predicts BALPPA's Dawson.
"They are trying to increase the spread of the season, and get away from traditional patterns of visiting. It is no longer just during the school holidays," he suggests.
How parks position themselves in terms of customer profile - family, teen, adult-orientated and so on - is also likely to be an issue.
With overseas destinations increasingly cheap and accessible, the problem for theme parks will be how to differentiate themselves from the competition and attract as wide a base of customers as possible.
Levels of service are likely to become ever more important, with customers increasingly demanding, and expecting, the sort of service they get in a high-street restaurant.
As for the catering sector as a whole, future problems are likely to include skills shortages and wage costs. The sector is also concerned that the cheaper labour markets created by new European Union members may dry up.
Similarly, how to fill hotels in the quieter periods remains an issue, argues PWC's Clark.
Year-round break packages and increasingly tapping into the corporate and conference market out of season are seen as vital elements of developing a year-round hotel offer.
The appetite for such theme park hotels is also likely to grow. The PWC survey found that, in 2003 alone, more than 2,000 rooms were added in seven hotels. While 15 parks had no accommodation, a third said they planned to add hotels over the next five years.
In a crowded, highly competitive market, being able to "sweat" assets, whether food, hotels or other attractions, is likely to remain the key to gaining a competitive edge and generating new revenue streams, argues PWC's Clark.
|Key facts: - Blackpool Pleasure Beach was the leading theme park in 2003, with about 14.3% of the total market share and seven million visitors - Target audience is children, but as adults are required to accompany them, 35-44 is the most common age group - The market is forecast to have grown by 14.9% by 2008 to reach a volume of 57.1 million visitors Source: Euromonitor|