PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- With little more than a month left until Labor Day, the debate about buying a park pass should have ended by now right?
Not if you still want to save money.
National parks and theme parks are still offering passes, and most pay off sooner than you'd think. Consider that the nation's nearly $15 billion amusement park industry of more than 400 parks and attractions and 300 million visitors each year is driven by foot traffic, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions in Alexandria, Va. The Top 20 amusement parks in North America that accounted for 131.5 million of those visitors last year have seen attendance rise 17% in the past decade, according to the Theme Entertainers Association amusement industry group in Burbank, Calif.
Season passes are a big part of that draw, as they discount admissions in favor of increasing in-park spending. At Six Flags parks, for example, a “Thrill Pass” that offers free admissions for the entire season costs the same price -- $60 -- as a one-day general admission pass bought at the park. If you have any intention of spending another day at that Six Flags park or any other, the pass will pay for itself by that second trip.
Those passes helped Six Flags increase attendance 1.4% last year, with its Great Adventure park in New Jersey seeing the biggest bump at 5%. There are a few twists and turns in the details, though. If you order tickets to a Six Flags park online, the price drops from $60 to $40 and makes a “Thrill Pass” 50% more costly than a single admission. It also still leaves you paying for other amenities such as parking, food, extra tickets and events. For even a modicum of those extra perks, Six Flags asks that you kick in $75 for its season pass. Want early admission, parking and friend passes? That's $100 for the season.
That's all still significant savings over the a la carte costs, but it all depends on how much of your remaining summer you want to spend on rides. Those discounts apply in all Six Flags parks, though, which means you don't necessarily need a staycation to make the pass pay off.
That concept is lost on competitors including SeaWorld and Cedar Fair. The folks at SeaWorld have flagship locations in San Antonio, Orlando, Fla., and San Diego as well as satellite locations in Tampa, Fla., Pennsylvania and Virgina -- well fewer that Six Flags' vast stable -- but insists on separate pass programs for each. In Orlando, it's $156 a year for free parking, unlimited admission and in-park discounts (compared with $80 for admission alone). Tack on SeaWorld's Aquatica water park and the annual cost jumps to $180. Pair it with the Busch Gardens theme park, and you're up to $204. Bundle all three parks together, and it's $204 for one pass.
Keep in mind, that's just for Orlando. In San Diego, an adult “Fun Card” pass provides a year's worth of admissions for an $84 single-ticket price. A one-year membership with added perks jumps to $145, while tacking on water park admission and parking brings it to $205 a year. An all-day mean pass costs an extra $34. It's a lot cheaper in San Antonio, where those same yearlong fun passes and water park add-ons cost $65 and $100 apiece (compared with $45 and $70 for one-day admission). Turn it into a yearlong pass with parking and the cost jumps to $100 or $140 a year. Again, still a discount, but one that requires at least two visits to be worthwhile. This isn't the only reason SeaWorld attendance dropped 4.1% last year, but it's not some minor coincidence, either.