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5 Biggest Amusement Park Chains of Summer 2014

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- All those roller coasters, spools of cotton candy and workers sweating it out in mascot costumes this summer aren't just U.S. roadside attractions, but vital pieces of the nation's nearly $15 billion amusement park industry.

The more than 400 parks and attractions that make up the U.S. amusement park circuit welcome roughly 300 million visitors through their gates each year, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions in Alexandria, Va. The Top 20 amusement parks in North America that accounted for 131.5 million of those visitors last year have seen attendance rise 17% in the past decade, according to the Theme Entertainers Association amusement industry group in Burbank, Calif.

More importantly, they employ more than 100,000 year-round workers, plus upward of 500,000 seasonal workers each summer. It isn't exactly a bad gig, either, as a 2011 IAAPA survey found that 28% percent of Americans said they liked the idea of working for an amusement park company.

That's a quarter of the country that's willing to endure rides full of screaming patrons, extreme heat, musty costumes, interminable lines of disgruntled customer and lots of food made primarily with sugar or deep fryers just to get a little sun and a paycheck. Who can blame them? With few exceptions, it's fairly steady work. Roughly a quarter of Americans have visited an amusement park within the past year and 43% are planning to go within the next year.

Market research firm IBISWorld notes that even during the past five years since the recession, the U.S. amusement park industry has grown 4% each year. For the larger companies behind those rides, games, shows and other attractions, overseas growth during the U.S. downturn managed to minimize the damage while increasing their brand's global footprint. Worldwide, the Top 10 amusement park ownership groups alone welcomed 377 million visitors to their facilities, which was an increase of 5.4% from 2012.

A whole lot more are expected this year as parks add attractions and the economy picks up. The following five companies are not only behind most of the parks U.S. vacationers will be visiting this summer, but are some of the most successful entertainment companies in the world. They don't attract "guests"; they draw the population of small countries on an annual basis:

San Diego; Orlando, Fla.; San Antonio, Texas; Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pa.; Adventure Island in Tampa, Fla.; Water Country USA in Williamsburg, Va.
Number of visitors in 2013: 23.4 million

The bad news is that a whole lot of people saw the documentary Blackfish last year and have some serious questions about the treatment of orcas by SeaWorld and the ethics of animals as entertainment in general.

That helped drag down attendance at all SeaWorld parks by 4.1% in 2013 just after its parent company SeaWorld Entertainment went public. That includes a 5% drop at SeaWorld Orlando, the No. 19 amusement park in the world and 10th-largest in the U.S., with attendance of more than 5 million last year. That also hurt SeaWorld San Diego, which ranked No. 22 globally and No. 11 stateside in 2013 with 4.3 million visitors.

Worse for SeaWorld, it overshadowed what should have been a promising new penguin exhibit in Orlando and marred what was supposed to be its first year carrying its own weight after being sold off by Anheuser-Busch to the Blackstone Group in 2009. SeaWorld has gone on a public relations campaign refuting the documentary's claims and vouching for the safety of both its animals and their handlers, but is still waiting to see if its misfortune carries over to this summer.

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