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Cookie Monster and Santa boost tourism in Bucks

A new Christmas spectacle starring Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Santa is giving a late boost to Bucks County tourism in what has been a turnaround year.

A new Christmas spectacle starring Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Santa is giving a late boost to Bucks County tourism in what has been a turnaround year.

And 2012 "looks like a great year," with three historic events and a renowned exhibit of European art promising to draw visitors, says Jerry Lepping, executive director of VisitBucks, the county's tourism agency.

"The problems are starting to recede," Lepping said last week about tourism, second only to agriculture as a revenue producer for the county.

"With good weather, we would have had an excellent year," he said, pointing to tropical storms Irene and Lee, which helped set a rainfall record in August.

Hotel, motel, and B&B occupancy and the daily room rate are each up 2.5 percent through November, and total lodging revenue is up 5 percent. Two years ago, those numbers were in the red by double digits, Lepping said.

It's too early for this year's bottom line, but Lepping said he expects at least a 3 to 4 percent increase in the $814 million that visitors spent last year, not including $111 million in local, state, and federal taxes.

One of the most popular attractions, Sesame Place, "is having an extremely good year, and they added 'A Very Furry Christmas,' which is doing even better than they had hoped," Lepping said. "They're getting 5,000 to 6,000 on a weekend day."

The theme park next to Oxford Valley Mall extended its season into the last two months of the year, stringing millions of lights and displaying more than 300 Christmas trees. Four shows and the daily Neighborhood Street Party Parade have holiday themes, including Christmas carols.

A "surprising" benefit is that many visitors are staying overnight at neighboring hotels, as they do during the summer, Lepping said.

"I thought it would be 100 percent local families, within a 1½-hour drive," he said. "That hasn't been the case. They stay around for meals and buy gas."

New Hope, another of the county's top attractions, suffered from the closing of the Bucks County Playhouse. The picturesque borough on the Delaware has tried to lure shoppers and diners with summer fireworks displays and holiday light shows.

Through New Year's Eve, 30,000 lights will illuminate the Christmas tree outside the Logan Inn at 5, 7, and 9 p.m. in 10-minute shows set to music.

The borough also gained the Children's Museum, which opened last month.

Next year, three landmark events will draw visitors to Bucks, Lepping said: the 200th anniversary of Doylestown as the county seat; the 100th anniversary of Henry Mercer's Fonthill Castle and Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown; and the 50th anniversary of Peddler's Village in Lahaska.

And the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown will be the only site in the Northeast to display 44 Renaissance and baroque paintings and tapestries from the famed Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. The works, which are on a tour that is displaying them outside Europe for the first time, could draw more than 250,000 viewers from the Philadelphia area and neighboring states, museum spokeswoman Ilene Dube said.

Another of the county's most popular spots, Parx Casino in Bensalem, is scheduled to complete a 90,000-square-foot addition, including restaurants, a show lounge, and gambling space, in the late summer.

Also scheduled to open next summer is the renovated visitors' center at Washington Crossing Historic Park and an all-suites hotel near Sesame Place, Lepping said.

"Bucks County is getting better known," he said. "The prices are very reasonable," with hotel rates half of those in New York and $50 less than those in Philadelphia.

"People like to use our hotels and B&Bs as a base of operations for three or four nights to visit Philadelphia, Lancaster, and the aquarium at the Camden waterfront," Lepping said.

And then there's Sesame Place.