A Million and Counting:  Assessing the First Year of the Ark Encounter

The young-earth inspired attraction, the Ark Encounter, opened one year ago near a small town in Kentucky.  When it opened there were many questions about how this themed religious attraction would fair.  Would the Ark Encounter become a sort of Christian Mecca? A place that fundamentalist Christians would feel they have to see once in their lifetime.  Or would it be a vacation destination where families return every couple of years?  Would it attract enough curiosity seekers from the secular community to be viable?  How many people needed to visit to raise enough funds to pay back bond holders, cover operating expenses and continue expanding the attraction?

Yours truly in front of the Ark Encounter, July 2016.

A year later we are in a position to assess at least some of these questions though it will be many years before all of them will be answered.  After visiting the park myself a year ago I said (Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter Opens to a Flood of Press but Fewer Visitors than Anticipated) that from a financial perspective not reaching the 1.4 million lower-end goal for the first year would not constitute failure or serious concern.  Bankruptcy appears to be far from being right around the corner as some secular articles have wishfully predicted.  Claims of sparse attendance, lack of financial impact on the nearby town of Williamson and possible additional taxes that might be levied on the Ark Encounter do not pass the smell-test of presenting serious short or even long-term problems for the survival of the Ark Encounter.  These articles do little more than give opponents of the Ark Encounter and Ken Ham’s ministry a warm fuzzy feeling that there is trouble in paradise.  At worst they provide fodder for Ken Ham to raise his already high level of paranoia and stoke his followers to support his cause all the more. Ken Ham regularly tweets about the “fake news” being spread about the Ark Encounter.  For example on June 4: “Thousands upon thousands pouring into @ArkEncounter daily as some secular media & secularists desperately try to say otherwise.”

I have read all those articles and there is some truth in them but Ken Ham isn’t all wrong. There are claims being made which are unfounded speculation and sometime just factually incorrect. Of course, Ken Ham is no stranger to exaggeration and carefully wordsmithing to avoid acknowledging facts that don’t sound flattering – eg. The Ark Encounter was built partially with public money.

Don’t get me wrong, the bad theology and bad science presented by the Ark Encounter is an evangelical embarrassment and a high-risk long-term investment for the many bondholders who bankrolled much of the first stages of the theme’s part construction.  But in the short-term, 1 to 5 years, there would appear to be little danger of the Ark Encounter failing and opponents would do well to recognize the reality of the Ark Encounter’s existence and popularity rather than pretend it is failing as if telling people it is failing will make their prophecy come true.

How many visitors came the first year?

Mike Zovath a co-founder of Answers in Genesis has been quoted in news articles as saying that over a million people have visited the Ark Encounter in the first year.  These are the first somewhat solid numbers we have been given since Ken Ham had proclaimed in the fall of 2016 that 400,000 had visited the park just 2 ½ months after opening.  Based on those numbers it seemed they still might be able to reach their original lower estimates for the first year.

All year Ark Encounter’s chief promoter, Ken Ham, has been tweeting and Facebooking at least weekly about the crowds and lines of cars at the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum.  But, in an article that Ken Ham called a “good news story” we read that “Zovath said the one million who have come through the gates is slightly below the one-and-half to two million the Ark Encounter projected.”

That is an interesting use of the term “slightly below.”  We can be pretty confident now that first year attendance was somewhere between 1 and 1.1 million. Had it been more than 1.1 then it would certainly have been reported that way rather than saying “more than one million”.  Who those “visitors” are is a bit harder to say.  Here I must engage in a bit of speculation or education guessing if you prefer.  It is not speculation to say that the most important visitors are paying customers.  But how many of those paying customers have there been?  Many visitors could be counted twice if they bought multiple day passes and returned twice or they could include the thousands that bought life-time passes and their money was already included in the fund to build the ark but other than buying food they are not providing much new income.  The million visitors may also include the tens of thousands that got to preview the ark at the ribbon-cutting ceremony before opening which included thousands of volunteers and donors.   Perhaps one in every twenty visitors are under the age of 5 and so are free and many bought passes to both the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter and therefore are not paying the full $40/adult fee for the Ark Encounter alone. In addition, large numbers are paying discounted fares as part of a tour bus entry.  Given those considerations, I’m going to generously estimate the average entry fee for the million visitors at 25$ each.  Combined with income from food, zip-line and merchandise sales the Ark Encounter very well may have revenues of more than 35 million dollars.

The bottom line is that the Ark Encounter appears to be a “going concern.” It is a financially solvent entity whose leaders have reason to believe that attendance and revenue will increase at least the next year and is moving ahead with plans for multi-million dollar expansions.

Not meeting lofty goals does not constitute failure

On January 20, 2016, just a bit more than 6 months before the Ark Encounter was scheduled to open, the Ark Encounter tickets were finally put on sale.  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.

As far as I can tell the Ark Encounter has never had a single operating day in which it has accommodated more than 10,000 visitors.  So, yes, they were overly optimistic about the response but projecting unrealistic optimistic numbers and not achieving them does not constitute failure.  As we have seen they were not wrong that many people – a million of them – would be willing to travel long distances to plunk down their money to visit an extra-large model of an Ark and purchase food at a kitchen named after Noah’s wife.  And make no mistake, those people will continue to come.  I expect that next year the numbers will be closer to their original estimates.

To sum this rambling post up, I always believed that the Ark Encounter would be at least a moderate success (financially) and likely viable for a long time. I believe AiG will reap big rewards (see below) and the Ark Encounter will continue to expand for several years.  I would not bet on it long-term but even in decline it will be sustainable for many years.  There is a built in audience of many who will come back over and over.  But I think that even among fundamentalist Christians there will be burnout and growing disinterest.  My reaction having visited myself was similar to one I overheard in the parking lot getting ready to leave.  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.  AiG hopes to pull that person back in with a multi-million dollar Phase 2 to add new attractions. It’s a big gamble because if they don’t return then the climbing operating costs could become prohibitive.

Some of the headwinds that the Ark Encounter faces are new competition for where the evangelical spends their vacation dollars.  In the next few years the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. and yet another Creation Museum in Dallas Texas run by a competing YEC organization, the Institute for Creation Research (see: New Creation Museum to Test the Limits of Donors and Attendees) will open their doors seeking the attention of virtually the same clientele.

As much as many of us believe that the Ark Encounter runs counter to the advancement of the gospel, the rumors of its death are certainly premature.

A Footnote about the financial state of Answers in Genesis

Answers in Genesis is certainly experiencing a financial windfall this year. It is difficult to parse apart the two entities, Answers in Genesis and The Ark Encounter. The former is a non-profit ministry which operates the Creation Museum while the latter was established as a for-profit enterprise though exactly how it operates now is a bit of a mystery to me.  But both are really run by Answer in Genesis with the operating structure serving as a buffer to protect AiG as an organization should the Ark Encounter fail. But should the Ark Encounter fail or not AiG is a big winner.

Answers in Genesis has probably never been in better financial shape than it is today. There is no doubt that the Ark Encounter has done exactly what Ken Ham predicted it would do: greatly boost the attendance of the Creation Museum.  The Creation Museum is currently adding additional parking because of the Ark Encounter. Since it opened in 2007 attendance has generally been going down though started bumping back up in 2015 and it very well may exceed even its first year attendance this year because of the Ark Encounter.  This will be a huge financial boon to Answers in Genesis and indirectly to The Ark Encounter.

A review of past 990 IRS submissions (see: Review of Creationist’ Finances) for Answers in Genesis suggests the Creation Museum has consistently operated in the red with several million dollars in donations to Answers in Genesis used to pay for operating expenses.  For example the last one I have seen from 2013/2014 fiscal year showed 281,000 visitors, $8,112,529 in expenses and $4,895,263 in revenue though they also had book store revenue on top of that.  This year the CM may break even or better which would free up millions of dollars for other aspects of their ministry and possibly to funnel into expanding the Ark Encounter.

Unlike the Creation Museum which draws a greater proportion of strong adherents the Ark Encounter is a more popular attraction drawing in the more casual fundamentalist Christian.  That in turn is broadening AiGs donor base and reach especially as they roll out a new Christian School bible curriculum and push their popular Vacation Bible School programs and so forth.


My other reflections on the Ark Encounter

Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter to Usher in a Modern-Day Reformation? 

My Trip to the Ark Encounter: Some Pictures and Reflections

The Ark Encounter: Depicting a Real Flood with Unrealistic Images

Ark Encounter Common Ancestors: The Increasing Inclusiveness of Biblical Kinds

The Ark Encounter Sits on a  Foundation Made of Trillions of Fossils

New Ad for Ark Encounter Contradicts Ken Ham’s Understanding of Biblical Kinds

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