After sitting home last summer and worrying about the economy, Americans are getting ready to head out this year. Encouraged by a recovering economy and slower increases in travel costs, an estimated 119 million Americans will take summer vacation trips, a 14 percent increase over last year, according to projections from the United States Travel Data Center.
''People did not cancel (last year's vacation) trips willy-nilly, they postponed them,'' center director Douglas C. Frechtling explains. ''And the economy has improved, (providing) the financial resources for the consumer to act on his dreams.''
Not only will more people travel this summer, they will take more individual trips. The total number of trips is expected to increase 12 percent over last summer, to 292 million. That's the largest increase since 1978, according to the center, an industry-sponsored research group.
The most popular destination: Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. ''There is nothing in the world'' that attracts as many vistors for a prolonged stay, Mr. Frechtling says.
With vacationers eager to see the park's EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) area, attendance soared 102 percent, to 10.6 million, in the six months ending last June, according to Disney spokesman John Dreyer. This summer some 13 million travelers are expected to visit.
Of course, consumers may fool travel forecasters by saying one thing and then doing another. Such a shift could occur if, for example, economic indicators suddenly grew gloomy. Last year, for example, the center surveyed consumers and then used an economic model to predict that the number of vacation trips would rise 4 percent. But people actually cut the number of their trips by 9 percent.
''Consumers suddenly lost faith in the recovery,'' Mr. Frechtling explains.
And potential travelers have been sending some mixed signals this year, too. The American Automobile Association reports that requests for travel assistance materials are up only 1 percent from last year.
''We see a modest increase in (automotive) travel, not a big banner year,'' an AAA spokeswoman says. But she cautions that the actual pattern is difficult to predict until after the Memorial Day holiday.