Disney World Regains Title of Priciest Theme Park, $100 Admissions Not Far Off

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I’ll see your theme park admission price hike and raise you a buck. Disney always aims to be at the forefront of film and theme park innovation. Apparently, it feels the need to be the leader in charging the most for theme park tickets as well. Less than a week after Universal Studios Orlando raised its basic ticket to $88, Disney World jacked its base price up to $89. Multi-day passes were made proportionally more expensive as well.

At the beginning of June in 2011, the base admissions price to a Walt Disney World park was $82. By the end of the month, it was $85. Now, a year later, it’s $89 for adults, $83 for kids ages 3 to 9.

Upon news of the most recent price hike, one Orlando Sentinel columnist speculates that the $100 ticket may arrive as soon as 2014, based on WDW’s history of jacking up prices roughly 6% (or a little under $4) per year. Even as prices have risen 70% in the past decade, the all-but-inevitable $100 price point may serve as a cut-off for certain visitors, according to the column:

“The moment you get to three digits, it has an emotional impact,” says Eli Portnoy, CEO of CultureRanch, which studies consumer behavior. “It’s a barrier no one wants to cross, and Disney is going to have to be careful about crossing it.”

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Even with regular price increases assumed, the most recent ones in central Florida came as somewhat of a surprise. It was only last summer when the last price hike took place, and even as prices at California’s Disneyland were raised, experts thought that it would be at least fall before the theme parks in Orlando jacked up their ticket prices.

Last week, though, Universal Studios Orlando raised its base price from $85 to $88. The assumption was that Disney would match the price increase, probably quite soon. But Disney did Universal one, or $1, better, separating itself from the competition—thereby getting weird bragging rights of some sort—by raising its adult admissions price to a minimum of $89 (plus tax) for a one-day pass.

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“Minimum” is there because it’s easy to theme park patrons to pay a lot more than that—just for admissions. (Food, parking, souvenirs, and such can obviously add a bundle more to your bill.) The $89 price is strictly for a ticket granting entrance to one park, on one day. A “Park Hopper” ticket, which allows the visitor to hit more than one Disney park on the same day, has already crossed far beyond the $100 threshold: It now costs $124 (plus tax), up from $120.

Beyond the greedy executives seeking to vacuum ever-more dollars out of customers, there may be someone else to blame for the price hikes: customers themselves. A new report relates that, despite lackluster economic growth and general unease about the state of jobs and real estate, and despite price hikes instituted by Universal and Disney, theme park attendance rose nearly 3% in 2011. Much of the growth is attributed to Universal’s new “Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” but attendance also increased at Disney and SeaWorld parks.

When theme park executives see numbers like this, they automatically think that they’re undercharging for admission. And they automatically move to correct such a “mistake.”

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As things stand, theme parks aren’t really looking to boost attendance in leaps and bounds. In certain circles, it’s understood that price hikes are meant as crowd control: They’re used as a strategy to avoid overcrowding, by way of scaring off visitors who aren’t willing to pony up top dollar for admissions. What’s left coming through the turnstiles are the most desirous customers—folks who don’t think twice about dropping $500 or so per day on short-lived thrills for their families, and who are likely to drop much, much more than that on food, lodging, and other amusements during their vacations.

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.