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Study Finds Crime Risk Rises in Areas Near Major Amusement Parks

New research from The University of Texas at Dallas suggests that crime is higher near major theme parks where bars, restaurants and hotels are also built in close proximity.

The crime risk is higher near major theme parks in cities such as Orlando, Florida, according to new research from UT Dallas.

A recent study published online Nov. 6 in Justice Quarterly analyzed crime data collected in and around the perimeter of Universal Studios Florida in Orlando and measured how often low-level street crimes such as robberies, burglaries and aggravated assaults happened near the park, which hosted more than 10 million visitors in 2018. 

The research showed that the probability of crime occurring was highest in neighborhoods closest to the park, tapering off farther from the attraction. Homicides and sexual assaults were excluded from the analysis since these offenses were rare.

“We found that the problem is not the park itself, but the presence of certain establishments around the park,” said Dr. Alex Piquero, corresponding author of the study and Ashbel Smith Professor of Criminology in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences and director of social impact research in the Office of Research at UT Dallas. “We call these establishments crime attractors.”

“Once bars, restaurants and hotels are built, a lot of people congregate in one place. This increases the number of so-called targets. Tourists tend to take fewer precautions with their valuables. For example, patrons may leave their cellphones unattended or don’t put their jewelry in the safe in the hotel room.”

Dr. Alex Piquero, Ashbel Smith Professor of Criminology in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences

The study is the first of its kind to examine the geographical cluster of crime around a sizeable amusement park. Researchers found crime rates increased 19% in places where just one attractor, such as a bar, restaurant or hotel, was added near the perimeter of the park. Additional findings show that when census blocks are within a mile from Universal Studios, crime in the area increased almost 200%.

Piquero said one contributor to the problem is the high number of tourists who may have relaxed attitudes toward safety.

“Once bars, restaurants and hotels are built, a lot of people congregate in one place,” Piquero said. “This increases the number of so-called targets. Tourists tend to take fewer precautions with their valuables. For example, patrons may leave their cellphones unattended or don’t put their jewelry in the safe in the hotel room. Sometimes vacationers are drinking alcohol and become less aware of their surroundings.”

Piquero said the study focused on Universal Studios Florida because it is one of the few theme parks within the boundaries of a single city, making it possible to obtain crime data from a single source, in this case, the Orlando Police Department. Researchers compared crime data gathered over three years (2015 to 2017) and analyzed it at the census block level, the smallest unit used to define a geographical area.

“The maps show that crime patterns are not proportionate across the city,” said Sungil Han, a doctoral student in criminology at UT Dallas and lead author of the study. “Patterns of crime concentration were, however, observed near the theme park. These results indicate that those impacts are significantly influenced by crime-generating/attracting facilities such as bars, hotels or restaurants located within census blocks.”

A better understanding of the relationship between tourism and crime could help in the implementation of crime-prevention strategies, including increasing awareness, police presence and the use of technology such as surveillance cameras in and around large theme parks, Han said. Adding additional signage and more staff to direct tourists to their destinations and posting safety tips on ATMs also could be useful strategies to decrease crime, he said.

“Bars, restaurants and hotels can take steps and increase their surveillance or security to limit the likelihood of their clientele being victimized,” said study co-author Dr. Nicole Leeper Piquero, Robert E. Holmes Jr. Professor of Criminology and associate vice president for research development at UT Dallas. “Our research shows that the risk of crime is high in areas right around prominent amusement venues. This means people need to be very aware that these are crime magnets. When travelers go on vacation, they need to continue to be alert, take precautions and ensure they are not victimized.”

The study team also included Dr. Matt Nobles from the University of Central Florida.

Media Contact: Melissa Cutler, UT Dallas, (972) 883-4319, [email protected], or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].