Flagging attendance at the Ark Encounter?

Thanks to Dan Phelps, a Kentucky paleontologist and avid Ark watcher, for this article. Matt Young is the moderator.

The attendance for the now two-year-old Ark Encounter has been a bit of a mystery. Ken Ham often brags about visitors “pouring in,” while skeptics who visit often have the place to themselves. While fundraising and during construction, Mr. Ham projected huge numbers, as high as 2 million Ark visitors per year.

After the first year of operation for the Ark, July 7, 2016, to July, 2017, Mr. Ham and his associates claimed numbers for the first year of 1 million. Imagine my surprise when a recent Cincinnati Inquirer article said that only 800,000 had attended the first year, and that 1 million had attended the second. This resulted in AiG bragging that a 20% increase in attendance had occurred the second year, whereas the previously supplied 1 million first year figure would indicate a leveling off of attendance.

So, which is it? 800,000? 1 million? More? Less? Unfortunately, there is no real way to know the first year’s attendance, other than by the numbers provided by AiG and their spokespersons. However, in mid-2017, the City of Williamstown passed an ordinance that put a $0.50 per head Safety Tax on tourist sites within the City limits (including Ark Encounter). The Safety Tax for Williamstown, for the second year onwards, is a matter of public record and is available by doing a Kentucky Open Records Act (KORA) request from the city (very similar to a Freedom of Information Act request). By doing a KORA request every few months, I compiled this data for the twelve months July 2017 to June 2018:

July 2017: 142,626
August 2017: 106,161
September 2017: 83,330
October 2017: 93,659
November 2017: 51,914
December 2017: 36,472
January 2018: 13,250
February 2018: 17,961
March 2018: 62,251
April 2018: 67,613
May 2018: 73,353
June 2018: 113,901

Thus the total paid attendance for the Ark’s second year of operation (July 2017 to June 2018) is: 862,491.

AiG and Ken Ham, by contrast, have repeatedly claimed that 1 million people visited the Ark in its second year of operation. Mr. Ham finally addressed the discrepancy in a July 19 interview with the local newspaper, the Grant County News (unfortunately, this story is not available online). The relevant statement by Ham is:

We are like most attractions in that we don't release annual attendance figures. We know how people will attempt to figure them out on their own, but some will cherry pick information from different sources and try to argue the Ark has not been successful. For example, you can't look at ticket sales to come up with the grand total. You see, thousands of young children under 5 who have visited in the last two years came free with their families. Also, Ark members who have life-time passes don't have to pay for a ticket, and they also receive a number of free tickets each year to use for family and friends. Also annual pass holders may visit multiple times, and they don't show up in ticket sales. But we can say that attendance for year two was higher than our excellent first year. [Grant County News, July 19, p. 2.]

Therefore, Mr. Ham is claiming that almost 14% of people visiting the Ark are getting in for free. He is also saying that more people visited in the second year. Although possible, Ham’s apologetics for Ark attendance does not sound convincing. In any case, the Ark is not getting even half of the 2 million projected by Ham in the past. This was especially hurtful to the City of Williamstown, which bent over backwards (and apparently forwards) to the Ark with property tax breaks and selling the Ark nearly 100 acres of land for $2 (not to mention Grant County Development giving the Ark nearly $200,000 cash for locating there). Williamstown and Grant County were sold a bill of goods by AiG when they claimed that the Ark would be the panacea for the City and County’s financial woes.

In any case, Ark Encounter seems to have plenty of money at the present and is adding a new building with meeting rooms and other features, and expanding their zoo. It will be interesting to see how AiG and its spokespersons will behave if attendance continues to decline precipitously. In spite of all the encouraging trends with Ark attendance, I am not optimistic that the Ark will go under any time soon. AiG seems to always have donors that will keep them going regardless of circumstance. And they can always find another Kentucky politician to bamboozle.