Theme parks offer big draw, big prices

(Reuters) - With summer fast approaching, the nation’s theme and amusement parks are gearing up for the seasonal explosion of visitors. If you’re going to be among the millions packing these parks, it’s time to develop your strategy for maximizing the fun without going broke.

Attendance at the 20 largest theme and amusement parks in the United States far exceeds 100 million people per year, according to the Themed Entertainment Association. (Major League Baseball’s 30 teams drew a combined 73 million fans in 2011).

Overall, the approximately 400 parks in the U.S. draw about 300 million people a year and generate $12 billion in revenue, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

Walt Disney Co parks dominate the top 20 list, holding the first six slots in the most recent report (2010 data) with Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure - home of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter - nipping at the heels of Disney’s California Adventure Park.

Disney’s Anaheim, California, properties, which just boosted prices to $87 for park-goers older than 10 (a $7 jump), are getting the big buzz this year. In June, the California Adventure Park is to unveil a 12-acre Cars Land, an area made to look like the animated Radiator Springs featured in the “Cars” movies.

“It’s not every year you get a big new attraction from Disney or Universal,” says Robert Niles, editor of the consumer website

Closer to home for most are regional amusement and water parks, such as the 19 owned by the Six Flags Entertainment Corp or the 11 controlled by Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. They’re more geared to the day-trippers and usually pull from a 75-100 mile radius, says Jefferies & Co analyst John Maxwell.

“Both Cedar Fair and Six Flags have performed well over the past couple of years in a tough economic environment. They’re giving the consumer what they want,” he says. “They still provide what people are willing to pay for.”

The parks are in the business of keeping people happy, Maxwell says. They try to keep their venues clean and up to date because they need visitors to return and stay at the property as long as possible. “They always have to reinvest into their business. You have to keep them fresh. You have to keep them attractive.”

While Disney and Universal try to deliver a broad experience for visitors connected to their brands, regional amusement parks are most closely associated with their roller coasters, Niles says. High-speed winged roller coasters - riders are suspended on either side of the track - are new this season at Dollywood (Wild Eagle) in Tennessee and Six Flags Great America (X-Flight) in Illinois. “Dinosaurs Alive! On Adventure Island,” featuring about 50 life-sized animatronic dinosaurs, just opened at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio.


The big resorts in California or Florida may offer the broadest range of attractions, but many families cannot afford the cost of travel, let alone what they’ll pay for entry. The cost of a single day’s admission for a family of two adults and two children at Walt Disney World in Orlando is just short of $350, including tax. Add in an optional upgrade that admits the family to more than one park that day and the cost swells to $488.

Costs for visitors are far less at regional parks, although not necessarily cheap. At Cedar Fair’s flagship Cedar Point amusement park, a family of four’s admission costs $158 at the gate.

A theme park/amusement park visitor, on average, will be able to get on 10 rides in a day - a figure that can vary widely depending on how crowded the park is and how ambitious the visitor is, Niles says. So, if you’re doing math by the ride, using that average, it’s costing the family going to a Disney Park in Orlando just under $9 per ride compared with about $4 a ride at Cedar Point.

But, theme park expert and Orlando guidebook author Jason Cochran notes, the options for lowering the price at the parks are numerous. At Disney, you can drop the daily admission rate when you buy multiple-day passes. With a seven-day pass, daily admission drops to about $146 for the family of four - a bit more than $1,000 for the seven days.

Here are tips to make park visits work for you this summer:


Discounts are everywhere, from buying your ticket on the park’s website to codes found on soda cans to newspaper ads. And, if you plan a return trip (or more), a season’s pass is an option at most of the regional parks, Cochran says. At some parks, such as Six Flags’ Great America in Illinois, the cost of a pass that will get you in all season is $260 for a family of four compared with $200 for a one-time admission purchased at the gate. Most of the parks, Niles says, will let you apply what you spent on admission if you upgrade before you leave. As a bonus, the Six Flags season passes allow admission to 13 of its parks.


If money’s not an object, Cochran points out that you can upgrade your admission at many parks to skip the lines. “You can essentially end up paying double your ticket price, but you can enjoy the park in half the time,” he says. At Great America, for instance, a group of four can pay $135-$320 a day for a variety of line-skipping options, from being paged when it’s your turn to ride to being able to avoid an estimated 90 percent of the wait-time.


Not everyone is looking to save, says Niles, who has been running his theme park website since 1999. For some, particularly those headed to the destination parks, they want the full treatment. “There are certainly ways to cut costs, but also some people like to treat it like they’re at an all-inclusive resort,” he says. That means on top of tickets, using the theme park’s often pricey hotels and buying the resort meal plans.


If you’re not prepared spend thousands of dollars and you’re sticking with a more frugal amusement park experience, in addition to scoping out all the admission pricing options, Cochran suggests car pooling as a way to lessen the blow of often bloated parking fees, refilling water bottles at fountains, trying to bring in your own sandwiches (something often prohibited but not always enforced) and avoiding souvenirs.


If you’re close enough, Cochran suggests checking out throw-back parks such as Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg, Pennsylvania, where admission and parking is free and the costliest ride is $3 (plenty are $1 or less).


Niles likes Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana, where your $45 admission ($35 for kids) includes free soft drinks. “You don’t feel nickeled and dimed and gouged there.” In contrast, a single medium beverage at some parks could cost $3 or more.

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(The author is a Reuters contributor.)

Editing by Linda Stern, Beth Pinsker Gladstone and Steve Orlofsky