Just in time for summer: Big theme parks and resorts are jacking up their ticket prices. For parents, this means finding new ways to whisk the kids away without breaking the bank.
While major amusement parks regularly raise prices heading into their peak summer season, experts say this year's hikes are higher than usual. They also come as many recession-scarred consumers are still questioning whether it's the right time to take that big family trip. In recent weeks, the three most-popular parks announced price increases. Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., raised the price of its popular three-day pass nearly 9%, to $224, while Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., hiked its three-day adult pass by about 4%, to $232. Meanwhile, Universal Orlando increased the gate price on its three-day ticket by 11% to $155.99. (The Orlando parks both raised their one-day adult passes $3 to $85, while Disneyland raised its one-day adult pass $4 to $80.) "Those are big price increases, if you pay them," says Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com.
And it's not just the ticket prices. Industry experts say these theme parks and others are pushing longer multi-day tickets in an effort to get visitors to spend more on the park's food and merchandise over the course of a longer stay. John Gerner, the managing director of Leisure Business Advisors, a Richmond, Va.-based consulting group, says guests could pay the equivalent of the admission price again in food, premium rides and merchandise in one day. Universal Orlando eliminated its seven-day ticket in June and replaced it with a 14-day ticket for all its theme parks and its Wet 'n Wild water park. Tom Schroder, spokesman for Universal, says the new tickets give guests more options and flexibility.
For their part, spokespeople for some of the big theme parks say they need to raise prices to keep up with rising costs and besides, they say, it's worth it. "Nearly all our guests agree that a Disney theme park experience is a strong value," said Disney, in a statement. Industry experts also point out that parks are raising rates to recoup investments; Disney's California Adventure park is in the midst of a five-year $1 billion expansion and Universal Orlando opened its "Wizarding World of Harry Potter" attraction last year. On top of that, experts say that it's part of a move toward attracting bigger spenders. "You're not seeing the same lower-middle class visitors that you might have seen in Orlando in the 1980s and early 1990s," says Niles.
For consumers with financial limits, there are options. Regional theme parks may have lower prices, but no shortage of attractions. The average daily adult ticket price at theme parks nationwide is $49.75 -- about 40% less than a day pass to Disneyland, according to a survey of 72 parks by The International Association of Amusement Parks. Prices also vary by day of the week: Cedar Point theme park in Sandusky, Ohio, for example, with 75 rides and 17 roller coasters, offers special deals on Wednesdays and Sundays during July.
Another option is to seek a discount. Local residents of the big three parks get special rates. Experts also advise buying tickets online, scouring the social media websites and theme parks' own websites for deals. Len Testa, co-author of "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World," recommends third-party websites like UnderCoverTourist.com and his own Walt Disney World ticket calculator, which he says can help match your plans with the best value tickets, and says local hotels often offer cut-priced tickets. Walt Disney World, Disneyland and Universal Orlando list their own special offers on their respective websites. Universal Orlando recently doubled the size of the discount it offers for tickets purchased online to $20. The same holds true for the smaller parks. Cedar Point offers a range of discounts with local retailers and online deals. Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., also has a range of discount offers online and dining coupons that may make it cheaper than a trip to one of the big three.
But some of the biggest savings can be made on transport, food and accommodation. "These are the things that people have most control over," says Testa. He says a typical family of four could save hundreds of dollars by driving instead of flying, even if it means extending the vacation and spending an extra day or two in a cheap motel rather than at the resort. He also says Orlando is replete with bargain hotels with rooms for as little as $50 per night. "That's ideal for families going to theme parks that aren't spending a lot of time in the hotel room," he says. For those who want to dine within the walls of the park, Debra Martin Koma, editor of AllEars.net, an unofficial Disney vacation planning website, says Walt Disney World has already had deals on in-park dining this year. "Families planning their once-in-a-lifetime trip are sitting on the fence and waiting for these kinds of specials," she says.