Discovery Place seeing a lot of new faces

The exhibits are bright, colorful and sparkling new. The halls are alive with curious half-pints and their parents, all ready to discover the new Discovery Place.

Attendance at the newly remodeled uptown center is exceeding expectations, even though it has been reopened only since late June. Discovery Place is one of many Charlotte-area attractions reporting attendance increases this summer.

Janet Marek, Discovery Place chief financial officer, said the center saw 61,545 visitors in July - 26 percent more than expected and more than any July since 2007.

"We've only been reopened since the very end of June. Has it been going well? Yes," she said. Discovery Place attendance, she said, is usually in the upper 40,000s during July, the center's busiest month.

Marek said she thought the boost in attendance was almost wholly due to an 18-month, $31.6 million renovation that included revamping the museum's World Alive rain forest and adding to its aquarium system.

She said administrators tried to take the renovation into account when they were coming up with the year's budget, but they didn't foresee such an increase in attendance.

Marek said the center usually only sees attendance spikes when it hosts a special exhibit. The highest attendance month since 2004, July 2007, featured "Body World" and drew 76,540 guests. July 2010 was the second-highest despite the absence of a special exhibit.

Another Charlotte-area attraction that is gaining attendance is Carowinds, which added a new roller coaster called "The Intimidator" and remodeled its children's area, "Planet Snoopy."

Carowinds spokeswoman Bryn Hough said in an e-mail that Carowinds believes the new attractions have helped broaden the park's appeal, boosting attendance. Hough wouldn't comment on exactly how much larger the crowds are.

The U.S. National Whitewater Center is also seeing more visitors, said center spokesman Stephen Youngblade.

"Attendance for the fiscal year so far is right around 215,000," he said. "We were at 190,000 this time last year. We've seen things just kind of steadily increasing throughout the year."

Youngblade said the climb in attendance is largely due to increasing familiarity with the center and people choosing to vacation closer to home.

"I think it's a good mix of people finding out about us and people coming back out that have been here before and had a good time - plus they're not going to Europe or Costa Rica, they're hanging around here, finding stuff to do," he said.

Marek didn't count out the economy as another factor behind Discovery Place's increasing attendance.

"The economy is still at that stage where families are staying, not going on as many vacations, and looking at things to do closer to home," she said.

Marek said word-of-mouth and media coverage are also helping increase attendance.

Sara Warren-Hillill said she decided to visit Discovery Place with her family because she heard it had been remodeled.

"We came a long time ago and we thought it would be a cool thing for the kids to see," she said. "I was a kid the last time I was here. It looks really nice, more spacious. It's great."

John and Nicole Buggie, in Charlotte visiting relatives with their children, said their hotel recommended visiting Discovery Place.

"We've loved it so far, absolutely loved it," Nicole said.