Lake Lanier may be far behind Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom when it comes to annual attendance, but its numbers are close to matching Disney’s EPCOT.
The number of folks pouring into the 39,000-acre, man-made North Georgia reservoir was once estimated to attract 6-7 million people per year.
But a formula revamped several years ago shows Lanier’s visitor numbers should be 50% higher than previously reported.
The number of annual visitors to Lake Lanier, which borders Hall, Lumpkin, Dawson, Forsyth and Gwinnett counties, is now 11.8 million visitors, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, which governs the lake.
That puts Lanier ahead of the Louvre museum in Paris, at 8.1 million, and Shanghai Disneyland at 11 million, but behind Magic Kingdom’s 20.5 million and EPCOT’s 12.2 million, according to an index produced by the Themed Entertainment Association.
Most area residents don’t need to be told how busy Lanier is, especially during the Memorial Day weekend, often regarded as the unofficial kickoff of the summer season.
“During certain times of the year, we can have 40,000 or 50,000 people in one area (of the lake),” said Nick Baggett, the corps’ natural resource manager at Lanier. “We always recommend that during these high-use periods, people get here early if they plan on having a family reunion or any type of group meeting.
“We have to turn away a lot of nice people … who have waited until 11:30 (a.m.) to get here. Once the park reaches its maximum number, if everybody’s parked in all the legal parking spots, we have to shut down the entrance.”
So, how are all those people counted?
“We have (underground) counters in every park, marina and leased area we have,” Baggett said. “(A vehicle) applies a certain weight amount and adds a number (to the counter).”
Local corps officials submit the numbers, along with campground reservations, to officials at the national level who then “take the information and run it through a statistical formula they have developed over time,” Baggett said. “It gives an average of how many people would be in a car.”
The 11.8 million doesn’t count the number of cars that cross Buford Dam or any of the bridges that span the lake, he said.
“It’s just (recorded at) a developed park or area we deem as a recreational area on land,” Baggett said.
The increase in numbers is largely the result of a “modernization effort on the part of (corps) of our visitation estimation system,” he said.
One thing to note is the 11.8 million includes repeat visitors, Baggett said.
“These numbers are not ‘unique’ visitors,” he said.
Corps parks nationally tend to do well numbers-wise because “a lot of our projects are close to urbanized areas — in our case, Atlanta,” he said.
The numbers could be less this federal fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1-Sept. 30.
“Weather could affect visitation,” Baggett said. “Because of the flooding this (fiscal) year, we had to shut down West Bank, which is one of our most highly visited parks.”
The corps announced Wednesday, May 22, that it would keep West Bank Day Use Park and Sawnee Campground — both off Buford Dam Road in Forsyth County — closed this weekend because of damage from heavy rains and flooding earlier in the spring.
West Bank’s reopening will be announced later. Sawnee Campground is set to reopen June 13.
“The safety of all visitors to Lake Lanier is our priority,” Chief Ranger Chris Arthur said.
Stacey Dickson, Lake Lanier Convention & Visitors Bureau president, said tourism officials don’t have a breakdown of where the 11.8 million visitors are coming from, “but it is safe to assume a portion of them are local and nearby residents who frequent the lake many times over the season.”
Tim Evans, vice president of economic development for the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said he wasn’t surprised the visitation number is higher than was previously reported.
“People are attracted to water, and Lake Lanier is one of the most accessible recreation lakes to the growing Metro Atlanta region,” he said.
Lake Lanier visitation
2016: 11.8 million
2015: 10.8 million
2014: 11 million
2013: no data
2012: 6.6 million
2011: 7.2 million
Note: 2013 was a transition year between estimating methods. And data for 2017 and 2018 is going through a review process and could be released soon.
Source: Army Corps of Engineers