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Ark Encounter: Not Sinking, but Not Close to Living Up to Projections | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Exterior of Ark Encounter. Image by Susan L. Trollinger (March 15, 2022).

A few weeks ago – during our spring break at the University of Dayton – we visited Ark Encounter. It was our ninth or tenth visit since the Ark opened in July, 2016. In most ways the demographics of the visitors remain the same. Overwhelmingly (but not completely) the guests were white. There were families with young children in tow, with some obvious homeschool “science” education taking place. There were youth from at least two fundamentalist schools or churches; given the number of T-shirts and caps that referred to farming, it was clear that they hailed from the rural South or Midwest. And as is almost always the case, there was a contingent of Amish tourists.

For a Tuesday morning in mid-March, there was a sizable crowd buying tickets and lining up to board one of the shuttles taking folks from the parking lot to the gigantic non-seaworthy boat. 

And yet, the attendance numbers at Ark Encounter continue to fall short of the projections put forth by Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG). 

As we have noted many times here, in 2013 the nearby town of Williamstown issued $62m of junk bonds to get the Ark project off the ground, so to speak. This deal was made even sweeter by the provision that 75% of what Ark Encounter would have paid in property taxes would instead go to paying off the loan.To secure such a sweet deal, Ham and his colleagues came up with a feasibility study claiming that the Ark would attract 1.2-2.0 million visitors in its first year of existence, with annual attendance increases of 7% per year over the next decade. 

How does actual Ark Encounter attendance measure up?

Every month the doggedly persistent Dan Phelps (founder and president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society) asks Williamstown officials for the “safety assessment form,” i.e. the total amount raised that month from the 50 cent “safety fee” that is added to each Ark ticket. With this information we can get a very good idea of Ark attendance (see the specific month-by-month numbers below).

Since its opening in July 2016 through February 2022 it appears that Ark Encounter has attracted in the neighborhood of 4.2m paid visitors. Of course, and as Phelps always notes when he reports the monthly numbers, Ham argues that attendance is much higher than these numbers would indicate, given that children under 10 get in free, and given that there are folks who have purchased lifetime passes, and thus aren’t included in the official attendance numbers.

Putting aside the obvious problems with such a claim, let’s stipulate that somewhere between 4 and 5 million tourists have visited the Ark since 2016. And those are significant numbers. The Ark is not sinking.

That said, Ark Encounter has never come close to reaching the numbers projected in the feasibility report given to Williamstown in 2013. It has never reached even the minimum number of visitors for its first year of operation. And with every passing year the tourist site falls farther short of what AiG promised.

After our March visit to the Ark we drove through Williamstown. Six years after the tourist site was constructed, and as documented by the wonderful film, We Believe in Dinosaurs, Ark Encounter has had little noticeable economic impact on the small town that provided the tourist site with such gifts. 

But that fits the story of the Flood. You have to be inside the Ark (Encounter) to be saved.

Thanks to Dan Phelps for these numbers.

ARK SAFETY FEE NUMBERS VIA KENTUCKY OPEN RECORDS ACT REQUESTS FROM WILLIAMSTOWN, KY

First year: 800,000 (as reported by Ken Ham)

2017:

  • July: 142,626 (Safety Fee amount: $71,313.00)
  • August: 106,161 ($53,080.50)
  • September: 83,330 ($41,665.00)
  • October: 93,659 ($46,829.50)
  • November: 51,914 ($25,957.00)
  • December: 36,472 ($18,236.00)

2018:

  • January: 13,250 ($6,625.00)
  • February: 17,961 ($8,980.50)
  • March: 62,251 ($31,125.50)
  • April: 67,613 ($33,806.50)
  • May: 73,353 ($36,676.50)
  • June: 113,901 ($56,950.50)
  • July: 135,922 ($67,961.00) 
  • August: 98,106 ($49,053.00)
  • September: 69,207 ($34,603.50) 
  • October: 89,434 ($44,717.00) 
  • November: 40,193 ($20,096.50)
  • December: 46,400 ($24,200.00)

2019:

  • January: 14,885 ($7,442.50)
  • February: 16,328 ($8,164.00)
  • March 2019: 70,466 ($35,233.00)
  • April 2019: 79,908 ($39,554.00)
  • May 2019: 90,803 ($45,401.50)
  • June 2019: 124,230 ($62,115.00)
  • July 2019: 160,124 ($80,062.00)
  • August 2019: 104,350 ($52,175)
  • September 2019: 73,541 ($36,770.50)
  • October 2019: 86,998 ($43,494.00)
  • November 2019: 37,686 ($18,881)
  • December 2019: 37,880 ($18,940)

2020:

  • January 2020: 15,790 ($7,895.00)
  • February 2020: 17,290 ($8,645.00)
  • March 2020: 15,145($7572.50)
  • April 2020: 0 ($0)
  • May 2020: 2,047 ($1,023.50)
  • June 2020: 40,434 ($20,217.00)
  • July 2020: 57,632 ($28,816.00)
  • August 2020: 46,562 ($23,281.00)
  • September 2020: 44,571 ($22,285.50)
  • October 2020: 49,835 ($24,917.50)
  • November 2020: 24,105 ($12,052.50)
  • December 2020: 34,273 ($17,136.50)

2021

  • January 2021: 11,354 ($5,677)
  • February 2021: 11,577 ($5,788.50)
  • March 2021: 57, 801 ($28,900.50)
  • April 2021: 64,479 ($32,239.50)
  • May 2021: 76,089 ($38,044.50)
  • June 2021: 109,694 ($54,847)
  • July 2021: 134,945 ($67,472.50)
  • August 2021: 83,826 ($41,913.00)
  • September 2021: 64,301 ($32,150.50)
  • October 2021: 73,328 ($36,664.00)
  • November 2021: 44,291 ($22,145.50)
  • December 2021: 40,671 ($20,335.50)

2022

  • January 2022: 11,030 ($5,515.00)
  • February 2022: 10,826 ($5,413.00)

Total: 4208298