The latest price hike at Disneyland raises a one-day “Park Hopper” ticket from $105 to $125 for adults. Kids ages 3 to 9—yep, if you’re 10, you’re an “adult”—get a measly $6 off the adult price.
Recent stories in the New York Times and the Boston Globe focus on how toughly Universal Studios, Disney, and other theme parks are competing in terms of one-upping each other with rides and attractions. Something of an attraction arms race has heated up, in which Universal’s “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” is being countered with Disney’s “Cars” themed land. Here, a new “Transformers” ride, there an enormous “Avatar” expansion, and on and on.
Normally in ultra-competitive marketplaces for consumer dollars, price wars will arise from time to time. GM will jack up its new car incentives to get an edge up on Ford, for instance, while Walmart will attract customers by undercutting Target’s prices on soda, toys, or DVDs.
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In battles between Universal and Disney, though, admissions prices only go in one direction: up.
Disney recently announced new ticket prices at Disneyland in California, and a ThemeParkInsider post breaks down just how much various ticket prices have risen before and after. The SoCal Select Annual Pass, available only to Southern California residents now at a cost of $269, saw the steepest increase, rising 35% from the old price of $199. An annual parking pass now runs $129, up from $99.
The price for the most basic one-day ticket is now $87 per adult ($81 for kids), up from $80 ($74 for kids). If visitors want a Park Hopper ticket, which grants admission to more than one Disney park on the same day, the rates go up to $125 per adult, or 19% higher than the old price of $105. Children ages 3 to 9 now pay $119 for a single-day Park Hopper. “Years ago, a child at Disney was anyone under 12,” says Robert Niles, the editor of ThemeParkInsider. “Today, it’s under 10. And the price gap is narrowing. The price gap is gone on annual passes at Disneyland, too. Kids for years have had to pay the same price as adults for Disneyland annual passes.”
Meanwhile, at Universal Studios Hollywood, which is debuting a new 3-D “Transformers” ride over Memorial Day weekend, the “most popular” one-day ticket (according to the order Universal lists them anyway) is a “Front of Line Pass” that grants priority access and seating at rides and attractions and costs $129 per person (adult or child) on most days, and $149 over Memorial Day and much the peak summer season.
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“Front of Line” passes at Universal on Memorial Day weekend would cost just under $600 for a family of four. The prices sound outrageous—especially because they don’t even factor in how much theme parks charge for food, parking, souvenirs, and other extras—but there is one obvious justification for them: People keep paying up. Anyone who has ever waited an hour in line for a ride at Disney or Universal knows that these parks don’t need to spark demand. If you have more than enough customers, what’s the incentive to lower prices? There is none, really.
It’s understood that many high-end ski resorts jack up lift ticket prices not to increase revenues or meet operating costs, but to thin the crowds — while focusing on attracting visitors who clearly aren’t scared about spending serious money. Many theme park junkies think the same thing has been happening at the turnstiles in Orlando and Southern California. As one commenter at ThemeParkInsider put it:
Hopefully this will thin the insane crowding that is plaguing the park for much of the year. Us tourists spend big bucks to go to Disney parks, only to be confronted with mobs of annual pass holders who paid a tiny fraction of the cost that we shelled out.
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Another reason for raising admission prices is to make theme parks’ multi-day passes and lodging-pass packages seem like better values: Compared to paying $125 or $129 per day just for admission, anything can seem like a deal.
The recently announced price hikes only affect Disney parks in California. Prices at Universal and Disney in Florida were raised just last summer, but don’t rule out another price hike there in the near future. “Disney and Universal will take a look at their attendance before deciding on a ticket increase this fall,” says Niles. “If attendance is through the roof, leading Disney to think its parks are underpriced, I wouldn’t be surprised to see another increase before next spring.”
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.