Ugh. This is a terribly dishonest title for an article: Creationist blames dreadful attendance at Ark theme park on tax-starved city not supplying ‘tourist services’. It’s about Ken Ham and his Big Wooden Box theme park, and I knew before even reading it that Ham would not say attendance was dreadful. And he didn’t. The article also claims that the park is failing; we don’t know that, since we can only estimate revenues and expenses. It’s a cheap little outfit, so maybe it’s doing just fine financially — we’ll have to see what their tax statements are like.
Ken Ham is actually complaining not that attendance is low, but that it could be even greater if it weren’t being throttled by the lack of amenities in the region. He’s saying that their attendance is just fine and dandy, and that potentially it could be even greater. Let’s honestly report what he said, OK?
When I visited, I had the subjective impression that attendance was healthy — I think in part because the first part was designed like a cattle chute to confine and restrict the flow of people into the building. But the crowding experience beyond that was, I plainly said, similar to what I’d seen at real museums. So I decided to look at the available data and get a more objective feel for the attendance.
This isn’t easy. I dug up a bunch of annual reports, and sometimes they were surprisingly cagey about attendance figures. In part it’s because some of them are free, so you don’t have metered entrance; most big museums also tend to have traveling exhibits and outreach programs, do you count those for attendance? Or look at something like The Smithsonian museums: multiple museums, no attendance charge, lots of outreach, and they report that they have 12.5 million visitors per year. We cannot compare the Big Wooden Box to the Smithsonian, however.
The American Museum of Natural History brings in about 5 million per year; that’s still an unfair comparison. The regional Science Museum of Minnesota, however, is a comparable in its reach, and their yearly attendance is about 866,000.
Here’s a list of other American science centers. These estimates are just that, estimates, so don’t take them as absolute.
Top 10 Science Centers — USA
1. Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago 1,605,020
2. Pacific Science Center, Seattle 1,602,000
3. Museum of Science, Boston 1,600,000
4. California Science Center Los Angeles, Los Angeles 1,400,000
5. St. Louis Science Center, St. Louis 1,400,000
6. Franklin Institute 892,804
7. Liberty Science Center, Jersey City 866,000
8. Fernbank Science Center, Atlanta 865,000
9. California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco 882,000
10. Exploratorium 600,000
What about the Big Wooden Box theme park? Ken Ham gives some figures in his letter.
For example, last Saturday we welcomed 7,500 guests to the Ark and 2,500 to the museum. Of these 10,000 visitors in one day, almost all of them were from out of state.
He also argues that because of the lack of local hotel rooms, they are limited to
to 7,500 to 8,000 guests visiting the Ark in a day. I don’t know how trustworthy his numbers are, though, because he also says this:
Interestingly, a state-commissioned study predicted that if the Ark Encounter were a themed attraction featuring our creationist beliefs (and it does), it would draw 325,000 visitors the first year. The Ark reached that figure in less than three months.
OK, but that suggests that attendance was around 3,600 per day, on average. You also have to expect that the opening months should have a surge of attendance, thanks to the novelty. But if that held up, that would put them on track for about one and a quarter million visitors in their first year, which is respectable. Other estimates put it in the ballpark of a million visitors. Of course, Ken Ham also said this before it opened:
… the full-size Noah’s Ark, when it opens in 2016, is estimated to attract up to 2 million visitors a year…
So there’s the expected exaggeration and inflation by the Answers in Genesis crew, and we can also expect a steady drop off in attendance over the coming years (The Creation “Museum”, for instance, gradually lost attendance to the point where AiG was losing money, and we can expect the Big Wooden Box, given its lack of content, to follow suit), but still — I think my subjective estimate holds up well, and numbers are comparable to what the Science Museum of Minnesota gets.
Here’s why that comparison starts to fall apart for the durability of the Big Wooden Box experience, while still not boding imminent disaster for Answers in Genesis.
The Science Museum of Minnesota is big and packed full of interesting hands-on activities and material of genuine scientific merit. It also has regularly changing exhibits, extensive outreach activities, and scientifically literate volunteers who are an important part of the experience. The Big Wooden Box…doesn’t. The people working there are guards and salespersons. One point against AiG.
All that stuff in SMM costs money. Keeping the museum lively and up to date is an expensive investment. The BWB is not going to change, it just has to keep doing the same ol’. It’s relatively cheap to run. One point for the profitability of AiG.
There’s an invisible component to running a real museum: what visitors see is the public face, but behind the scenes lie extensive collections and research. A real museum is a repository of science and has an active group of research scientists behind it. If you look at the financials for the Bell Museum, for instance, about a third their income goes to research and collections, and another third to public programs. AiG doesn’t have any of that; another point to their profitability, but not their quality.
AiG gouges their visitors. Admission to the Science Museum of Minnesota: $25 for nonmembers, and that includes a ticket to the Omni Theater. Admission to the Big Wooden Box: $40, not including parking. And they can get away with it, since their visitors tend to treat the expense as a gift to the glory of their god. Another point of profit to AiG.
Ken Ham has no idea what makes for a good experience. Here’s his idea of adding value to the Creation “Museum”:
we are adding a parking lot to accommodate 1,200 more vehicles. The surrounding towns are now expected to build more restaurants and hotels because Ken Ham has invested in more parking spaces to an already comically large parking lot. One point against the long-term survival of AiG.
The Big Wooden Box does not provide a sound foundation for economic growth, as those surrounding towns are discovering. He also brags that
as many as 40 motor coach tour buses arrive from several states on a given day. This is not good for local businesses. That says that a large number of visitors are there specifically for and only for the Big Wooden Box, and that after their visit they’ll get on those tour buses and leave. Another point against long term viability for AiG.
I don’t think AiG can keep this up. They boosted flagging attendance at the Creation “Museum” by sinking a huge amount of money into another gigantic attraction, the Big Wooden Box, but as revenues from that begin to decline, as they will, what will they do next? Add more ziplines? Increase ticket prices? Build an even bigger, more expensive attraction next door (come see the life sized Tower of Babel! Visit the Great Flood water park!)? There are diminishing returns on that kind of pyramid scheme, but don’t write it off yet — people are infinitely gullible when people are asked to donate in the name of Christianity.
But the bottom line is that right now they aren’t showing signs of failing. Those are decent attendance numbers, especially for a rural, out-of-the-way attraction that doesn’t have much content. Compared to real museums or even genuine theme parks with rides and fun things for visitors to do, their expenses are tiny. They’ve got a big wooden box that does nothing but vacuum money out of visitors’ pockets, with no expectation of value provided in return.
They’ll be fleecing the sheep for years to come. I think they’ll disintegrate eventually, but it’ll be a slow decline.
Focus right now on the fact that they sell lies for a profitable living. Attendance is a feature of the gullibility of the American public, which Ken Ham is exploiting; the crappiness of the content is a function of the intellectual bankruptcy of American creationism, which Ken Ham promotes.