Ken Ham posts a picture and comment almost daily on Twitter about the thousands or of visitors that are flocking to the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum each day. I would expect nothing less from any leader responsible for the success of a 100 million dollar theme park. The very existence of the Ark Encounter owes itself to his ambition and desire to have it built. A large part of his job is promotion and he is doing it to the best of his ability.
Ken Ham is rightly proud that his vision has come to reality. I am sure he believes it will be a success at multiple levels. He is confident in his mission and believes he is doing God’s work. But should he be worried? Will it succeed?
Success for the Ark Encounter could come in many forms. I would like to address the real measure of success – the evangelistic goals – at a later time. For now I will limit my comments to a far simpler measure of success; financial success or simply the ability to keep the doors open. Of course, some measure of financial success must be achieved so that the more important measures of success, by Ken Ham’s definition, can be achieved.
Should Ken Ham be worried about the near-term and long-term solvency of his theme park? He would know best. All we can do is look in from the outside and compare stated expectations with the present reality. I don’t know what the accountants have told him are the minimum numbers of visitors there must be to remain viable long-term but I have to think if he is not worried about finances he must at least be very disappointed. The worry may come later as it will take some time to really gauge the long-term interest level in the park. In the short-term, the doors are in no danger of being slammed shut. You can purchase your tickets for next summer without much fear of them being useless.
But for Ken Ham there has to be some disappointment in the reception to the Ark Encounter. This has been a huge undertaking. Finding the resources to build the 100 million dollar theme attraction is an amazing accomplishment. After such an undertaking, surely he and his staff dreamed of – and prepared for – a massive opening with widespread accolades from the Christian community. Neither has come to fruition thus far.
Earlier this year you could see just how excited he was about the people who would be blessed by this ministry. Nearly every morning for a year he posted on Twitter pictures of the building construction progress and the exhibits. Many times he proudly spoke of the “immense” 4000-spot parking lot, frequently showing panoramic pictures of it before and after it was completed.
Among the other AiG staff, the energy level early this year was very high. Multiple staff members posted reports of their activities and excitement about seeing the ark completed. The announcement that tickets were now on sale came on January 20th (2016). Finally, people could start buying tickets and the fruits of their labors could be seen in the families that would be making their pilgrimage to the ark in July.
The full announcement can be found here. This is how their expectations were expressed at the time:
While the Ark Encounter can accommodate about 16,000 guests per day, research has shown that more could be expected during the first few weeks of opening, especially during the summer time frame. This was the reason for establishing daytime entry tickets and nighttime tickets for the first 40 days.
In the following months, a huge advertising campaign was put in place. In April even more advertising was put into place. Looking back, I have to wonder if the huge sums of money spent on second and third rounds of advertising was a reaction to the pace of ticket sales. Surely by late April it must have been apparent that their “research” had led them astray. On Twitter and Facebook, other than Ken Ham, the energy level of other staff was noticeably more muted. It was becoming clear that more than 16,000 visitors would not be arriving for the opening or any day or likely any day after the opening. In fact, they would be opening the doors to far fewer than 50% of their projected and hoped-for attendance.
Now that the actual opening on July 7th is behind us, all the evidence available would lead to the conclusion that the first 40 days will not be nearly as successful as hoped. I have seen no panoramic views of the parking lot since the opening. Instead I see short-range images of cars parked in one section. Instead of the entire ticketing area, only a portion of the ticketing area with lines is shown. Now that I have spent nearly an entire day – the third Friday after opening –at the Ark Encounter I have a new perspective on these photographs. When I pulled in only 50% of the parking lot was even available for parking and the spaces in the available area were at best 50% full later in the day.
Ken Ham is correct that thousands are visiting the ark daily. However, he needs 4000 people to visit every day of the year to reach the lower range of his projected attendance for the first year. It is not even clear if the opening day resulted in more than 4000 visitors. Ken Ham mentioned on Twitter that the second Saturday after opening the Ark had 6000 visitors. That would appear to be the high-water mark thus far though I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few bigger weekends before the end of the summer.
I attended on a Friday. When I arrived at 9:50 am I counted 260 cars, vans and buses in the parking lot. I had expected this time to be popular so I was quite shocked. Many cars arrived as I waited for a friend and there were probably 75 people in the ticketing area when we moved through just after 10 am. Only five of the 15 ticketing booths were open. My colleague and I only had to wait a few minutes to get to the window and get our wristbands and then we jumped right on a bus which was waiting to be filled.
At the Ark Encounter I noticed that about noon there were more people coming into the first deck than when we had entered at 10:30. But after leaving the ark to get food at 1pm, we then had to go back to the line under the Ark to re-enter. By this time – 1:30 pm – there were only 25 people in a staging area designed to entertain at least 400 people waiting to enter. For the rest of the day it did not appear that there was any significant line to enter the Ark.
When I returned to the parking lot it was apparent that more area had been used since I left with about 20 % of the spaces in the areas where I had parked now empty. I did a quick count and came up with just over 600 cars. Assuming that all the empty spaces between vehicles were once filled, that could account for as many as 900 vehicles in the lot at one time. I saw a few vehicles – about one per minute – arriving while I hung out for 30 minutes. Since many of these new arrivals were filling in empty spots instead of expanding the parking area used, there was some double use of some parking spaces. Putting all those observations together, I am fairly comfortable projecting that as many as 1000 vehicles may have used the lot during the day.
A bit over half of the visitors I counted were couples. There were many larger families as you would expect. And there were a few large vans and church buses. I think a reasonable estimate would be an average of 3 persons per vehicle. So that would put the attendance at 3000 with a max of 4000 if there were 4 people per vehicle. The Ark Encounter would still be open until midnight but the attendant at the bus told me that if I wanted to return in the evening that there would be hardly anyone there and some of those would be people who returned to get a night-time picture rather than new visitors.
Three to four thousands visitors is “multi-thousands” just as Ken Ham has reported. I am sure that every day since it has opened there have been thousands. That is a lot of people but it is clearly not what Ken Ham, and his investors, dreamed would happen when the Ark Encounter opened for business. He believed that the whole world would be waiting at the front gates. Would 4000 parking spaces be enough? That is a question I am sure the planners asked themselves many times.
For the first 40 days the Ark will be open until midnight. Part of the purpose of this promotion is to allow people to have a unique night-time experience at the ark but initially Ken Ham said it would be open to allow all those that want to come the chance to see it. His optimism extended to the initial ticketing phase in which advance tickets were being sold with specific boarding times presumably to accommodate all the visitors most efficiently. Such optimism must have worn off fairly quickly, though, as it became apparent that 16,000 or more were not going to be showing up at the doors on the 7th of July. Below is a picture of the program/map that was provided at the ticket booth the day I visited. This program says that “During 40 Days and 40 Nights, tickets are valid only for daytime admission or evening admission.” But this was not the case, tickets were good all day and there was no break between 4 and 5 pm when everyone had to leave and the evening ticket holders would be let in. The programs must have been printed in the hundreds of thousands well in advance of the park opening before it was apparent that there would not be enough attendees to merit two separate visitation periods.
If 3000 people visited every day the Ark Encounter would attract just over 1 million visitors. That is probably an economically viable number allowing for some future expansion and I would call that a success even if it isn’t the 1.4 to 2.1 million they were predicting. But to reach this number they would have to average more than 3000 visitors each day. There were probably more there the next day – a Saturday – but on Facebook Ken Ham has told people asking about avoiding crowds that “midweek is not quite as busy” as you would expect so there were probably fewer attendees the days before I came.
My personal data collection only represents one day though I have similar reports from friends. It may have been a down Friday. It does seem that the first week after opening there were more there and so 5000/day might have been possible. Whether there have been 3000 or 5000 per day these numbers are not what was anticipated or hoped for. Come the cold months of November through March, there are certainly not going to be anywhere near 3000 visitors per day so the summer months are when they need to bring in the masses. I had anticipated at least 10,000 per day on the weekends and in excess of 5000 on weekdays through the end of August making lower yearly goal of 1.4 million visitors achievable.
Millions and millions of dollars have been spent promoting the opening the Ark. Advertisements on TV, radio and prints have been splashed across the country for months. Most of my non-Christian students have heard of the Ark Encounter whereas most of the same students were not aware of the Creation Museum. So the word is out there and certainly the Christian community, which is the primary market for the Ark, has been hearing about it for years. They have had ample time to work the Ark into the summer vacation plans. Maybe some where afraid to come to the opening month fearing the crowds but for those that are most interested they will try to see it this summer.
As I said before, I believed that the Ark Encounter would be a moderate success (financially) and likely viable for a long time. After visiting on Friday I am far less certain that the Ark Encounter will live up to the hype. Repeat business is absolutely essential for the Encounter’s success and my sense was that there will only be a small core of devotees who would have come back no matter what the Ark looked like. Instead, I think that the majority of visitors will say “I’ve seen it but I don’t need to spend money to see it again.” For example, while I was in the parking lot getting ready to leave I overheard one attendee on a cell phone talking to a friend and the gist of what he said was: It’s worth checking out once but I wouldn’t pay to see it again.
Will the Ark Encounter become a sort of Christian Mecca? A place that you have to see in your lifetime but most aren’t likely to return. Or will it be a vacation destination where families will return every couple of years? Will it attract enough curiosity seekers from the secular community to be viable? Time will tell but in its present configuration, the Ark Encounter provides little reason to believe that anyone other than the core of devotees who would go return multiple times no matter what it looked like, will be returning again. If it doesn’t wow the public to the point that non-Christians are drawn by the spectacle or craftsmanship it is going to struggle to achieve the attendance that is necessary to remain solvent long-term as a for-profit enterprise. The park will never receive the type of publicity that it has these past few months so it is hard to see how it will build significantly on this beginning. And don’t forget, The Institute for Creation Research is raising funds to open another creation museum in Texas that will compete for the young-earth vacation dollar.
However, from a financial perspective, not reaching the 1.4 million lower goal for the first year sounds like a failure, but not reaching hoped for numbers is far from implying that bankruptcy is around the corner. It would be wrong to assume that just because the Ark may only attract 750,000 visitors that it will be abandoned within a few years. Those would be disappointing numbers to Ken Ham and the bond holders but may very well be enough to keep the Ark solvent for a long time to come.
Finally, as I will share in another post, I don’t believe this park in its current configuration is going to attract a significant non-Christian audience which is a potential financial problem but also means the Ark Encounter may not live up to its most important stated goal: bringing the gospel message to the unbeliever. But that is a discussion that will have to wait for another time.