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.
The least a chain can do is meet customers halfway, as the Cedar Fair parks do. Cedar Fair's Cedar Point facility in Sandusky, Ohio; Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif.; and Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Pa., all have pass programs of their own. But a vacationer looking to hit as many parks as he or she can from coast to coast has the option of buying a $200 Platinum Season Pass that's valid through Dec. 31, provides free admission and parking for all parks (including more than a dozen in the U.S. and Canada's Wonderland in Ontario), one-hour early entry and a whole lot of in-park discounts.
It won't let you skip to the front of ride lines as Cedar Point's Fast Lane passes do ($70 to $100 per visit, pluss the cost of admission), but it takes a hefty whack at the price of an adult ticket and parking ($65 combined for base-level tickets at Cedar Point). If you're a senior citizen, the price of that pass plummets to $140 a year. It isn't the cheapest pass out there, but at least it gives buyers some room to roam on their summer vacation. It also seems to be helping Cedar Fair, which saw 1% growth at all parks last year and a 5% uptick at Cedar Point and Knott's Berry Farm. That helped it leapfrog SeaWorld to become the nation's fourth most-visited theme park chain with 23.5 million visitors, just behind Six Flags' 26 million.
It also pays to be incredibly upfront with your ticket buyers. Universal's theme parks in Hollywood and Orlando each offer 12-month passes for the price of a single-day admission, but there's one very big catch: blackout dates, and a lot of them. Bascially, the entire country is going to want to visit these parks at the same time you are, so your pass is invalid on the day after New Year's, Easter week, big swaths of June and August, all of July, Labor Day, the day after Thanksgiving and the latter half of December. Don't want to deal with any of that? It'll cost about $50 to $70 extra for an upgrade.
That seems to be worth it for swarms of Harry Potter and Simpsons fans, as Universal Studios in Orlando (7 million visitors and 14% growth in 2013), its nearby Islands Of Adventure (8.1 million, 2% growth) and Universal Studios Hollywood (6.1 million, 4% growth) all saw big gains last year.
As you crawl up the theme park chain, the pass prices get steeper, but the savings get far more substantial. Disney Parks don't have to give away passes at all. The 132 million people they drew around the world last year was a population that could have made Disney parks the 10th largest country in the world. But Walt Disney World in Orlando offers a $634 annual package that includes unlimited access to the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios, free parking and exclusive events. If you want water parks, golf courses or the ESPN Wide World of Sports thrown in, that's $754 a year.
That looks steep on paper -- especially when you haven't booked a place to stay yet -- but just consider that a four-day park pass alone costs $300. Tack on the ability to jump from park to park that the pass gives you and that's about $380 per stay. Include the water parks and parking and you're looking at upward of $400 per visit. Now, chances are, if you're hitting this park more than twice a year there's a strong chance you're a Florida resident, which means there's a deeper discount in it for you. If you aren't and you're somehow being roped into even two lengthy visits to these parks in a year, the passes will offer at least some modest savings if Disney doesn't clean you out on food, souvenirs and hotel rooms as well.
If the thought of paying that much for a pass anywhere just made you pass out, there's always the National Parks Service's "America The Beautiful" pass. For $80, you and any passengers in your car are covered on entrance and amenity fees at any of 7,000 federal recreation sites across the country. Is it worth it? Well, again, it depends where and how often you're traveling. The more costly sites -- such as Utah's Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks, Yellowstone (in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming) and Arizona's Grand Canyon -- charge $25 per vehicle. Even less-expensive parks such as California's Yosemite can cost $25 just for entry. Budgeting becomes a bit less of a concern for travelers age 62 and older, who pay only $10 for a pass that covers them for life.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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