Is Airline-Style Variable Pricing Coming to Theme Park Tickets?

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Matt Stroshane / Bloomberg via Getty Images

At the start of last summer, Walt Disney World raised the ticket prices at its theme parks to $89. There’s a case to be made that, at least on certain days, Disney should be charging a whole lot more.

While some theme parks have prices that change with the seasons, the big players tend to pick one admissions price and stick with it—at least until it’s time to raise prices again. At Disney World in Orlando, for instance, an adult one-day ticket runs $89 no matter if the visitor strolls up to the gate on the packed day after Christmas or when the park is relatively empty two weeks prior.

Economists would say that this sort of flat pricing is flawed — a missed opportunity. In the same way that gouging consumers with high gas prices during shortages makes perfect business (if not ethical) sense, some say that theme parks should offer discounted admissions to stir up business during slow periods (weekdays, autumn) and perhaps even jack up prices to the heights during the most in-demand weeks.

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The Orlando Sentinel reported that at a recent industry convention, a panel of experts discussed what seems like the very real possibility that the cost of admission during lulls (when school is in session for youngsters) could be a fraction of what tickets run around New Year’s or during the middle of summer. Weekends could cost more than weekdays too:

“Day-of-the-week pricing, where you price cheaper during the week and more expensive on the weekends, is extremely uncommon. I think there’s a gold mine right there,” said Martin Lewison, an assistant professor at Farmingdale State College in New York who studies attraction pricing.

“More parks are using seasonal pricing — high season, low season, shoulder-seasons pricing,” Lewison said. “Remember, this is an industry that used to be, ‘Set it and forget it.’ The price was set for the season, and nobody thought about it again.”

Dynamic pricing has already crept into the world of pro sporting events, not only thanks to secondary marketplaces like StubHub—where baseball tickets can cost 1¢ plus fees—but also via official team box offices, which charge more for certain home games played against popular opponents on days that are sure to attract big crowds. Dennis Speigel, a theme-park consultant, told the Orlando Sentinel that he believes theme park giants such as Disney and Universal have been looking into admissions pricing along the lines of airlines, in which the cost could vary widely depending on when tickets were purchased, how they were purchased (online vs. in-person), and what day(s) the tickets would be used:

“The theme-park arena and world — which I’ve been in all my life — is slow to grasp and pick up on things like this,” he said. “But it’s coming. It’s going to happen.”

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To some extent, this sort of variable pricing already exists. The prices of single- and multi-day tickets are the same no matter what day of the week or time of the year you’re planning on visiting the parks. At Disney parks, it also doesn’t matter how far in advance you purchase them—the cost will be the same as if you’d purchased at the park. Universal Studios, on the other hand, gives a discount for booking multi-day passes in advance online; purchase a pass via the web and you’ll get $20 off what the same multi-day pass would cost at the gate.

More common is the dynamic pricing that affects the cost of bundled packages that cover lodging, admissions, and sometimes other inclusions like meals and special tours. Prices for these packages vary widely depending on the time of year, whether or not the visit is occurring during a period of peak demand (like Christmas week or Spring Break), and also when the reservation is made and paid for (the resorts periodically run discounted promotions to spur demand and get bookings locked in). It may be difficult for the family booking such a package to tell if their park admissions are effectively full price, half-price, or free, but the possibilities run the spectrum, in the same way that an airline flight might cost $59 or $600 depending on when it was booked and when travel was taking place.

Rather than airlines, the business model theme parks may be more likely to mirror is that of ski resorts. Parts of both models are already basically the same. Packages that include lodging and lift tickets for one discounted price are commonplace at ski resorts, just as lodging-admission bundles are at theme parks. Both offer hefty discounts on the purchase of multi-day passes too.

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Where ski resorts differ is that mountains generally charge more for lift tickets on weekends and holidays than on quiet weekdays. There are often discounts for booking tickets online in advance. Beyond maximizing revenues, the goals of the ski resort pricing structure is to try to attract customers during off-peak periods and perhaps even keep customer numbers down on what are normally the most crowded days. It would seem to make sense that theme parks would have the same goals.