Sky High Theme Park Prices – Theme Parks are Outpricing the Middle Class

Sky-High Theme Park Prices - Theme parks are outpricing the middle class.

Theme parks seem to be more about the money than the magic these days. The price of tickets and vacationing at popular parks around the country and world have been rising faster than inflation for decades. The rising costs are preventing many middle-income families from being able to afford a vacation at their favorite park destination.

It’s not just ticket pricing for admission on the rise. Resort hotels are also consistently raising their prices and adding more fees that previously were included with an overnight stay. Add in higher food, parking fees, and drinks. How can families considered to be middle class still afford to go on vacation or spend just a day at their chosen theme park? The answer is that many middle-income families are no longer going or they are not paying to go as often.

What is considered the middle class in America?

To better understand why middle-income families can no longer afford many theme parks it is important to understand how the middle class is defined. Pew Research Center used a wide band of income to define the middle class. They stated mid-income levels had a household income between $41,000 and $132,000. Much of this is dependent on the geographic region a person lives and the living expenses associated with that area. Places like San Francisco and New York are often said to require an income as much as 300k per year for a middle class lifestyle.

According to the Census survey, they have defined median household income for the United States as $60,336 in 2017, the latest data available. This is before taxes and living expenses. 

Why is the middle class having a hard time paying for rising theme park tickets?

The income ranges considered middle class is gross figures before taxes, medical insurance, and any other expenses. The problem many mid-income families are having is not just the fact they are not making as much money, but everything else is costing more at a faster pace. It is not just theme park tickets that are rising faster compared to inflation. Expenses like car insurance went up over 7% in 2018. Think of all the services and expenses you pay each year and how each one seems to go up every year.

The research by Pew found the earnings for the middle class have not improved much since 2000. Contrary to what is currently reported with higher wages and low unemployment, many people are not truly making any more money. With the cost of living and services adjustments, any gain is a net gain at most.

How much has the price for theme park attendance gone up?

Generally speaking, there is one theme park that seems to be the one all and be all that sets the price for many of the other popular destinations. If you guessed Disney, you would be correct. Just look at the price of their one-day park ticket to Disney World. In the year 2000, one-park admission costs just $46 for an adult. Today that price range would be between $116.09-$169.34 with tax. The price will vary according to the time of year. The range represents low to peak season. This is over a 150% increase in the ticket price on the low end to over a 268% increase during peak season.

I realize there is inflation between the year 2000 up to today, but those increased ticket prices go way beyond being adjusted as just an inflationary rise in price. 

It’s not just Disney that has raised their admission ticket prices substantially over the years. Usually when Disney raises their price other parks are soon to follow. Here is what some of the other parks currently cost to attend:

  • Universal Studios Hollywood – Adult day pass: $129 US Dollars
  • Universal Studios Orlando – Adult day pass: $114 US Dollars
  • SeaWorld Orlando – All ages day pass: $104.99 US Dollars
  • Busch Gardens Tampa – Single park ticket: $94.99 US Dollars

Some of these parks do offer discounts if tickets are purchased in advance. However, you will not find what is considered to most people a large reduction in price on any of them. Disney World tickets are even more challenging to find a substantial discount price.

It’s not just ticket prices that have outpriced the middle class at theme parks.

Hotels

Ticket prices do make up a big portion of the cost to go to a theme park. However, what if you are flying in from out of town or you want to extend your stay and make it a multi-day vacation? These added costs are where it really starts to outprice the middle class.

Flying a commercial airline is not cheap for most travelers. Add this to staying on property at a park like Disney World and you will certainly get hit with a shocking cost. Disney World resort hotels are now on average at around $300 per night. This is not to say you can’t find one less expensive. It is just the average cost, which can also go up.

Although I live in Florida, I do not go to Disney World often. The one thing that always surprised me is the availability for hotels on property. They all are booked months and years in advance. This even includes the hotels that charge $500 or more per night. I always ask myself, who is paying these prices and staying for a week at a time?

Deals can be found at some area hotels off Disney property. Yet, many of them keep pace with rising prices. I have noticed local hotels off Disney property might not go up in price as fast compared to ones on a property, but they do keep costing more. They many times do this by adding additional fees for things that might have previously been included. Charging guests to park in a hotel parking lot now seems to be quite normal. Many hotels are using the baited price to get guests to book a room. Then, they add in all of the taxes and fees. This can pad the overall price extensively.

Food and Refreshments

Almost all theme parks prohibit visitors from bringing in their own food and drink. With security bag searches it makes it almost near impossible to bring anything of your own to eat or drink. The problem with rising food and drink costs is people are held hostage once in a park to pay the inflated prices. This is certainly one area that is adding to the cost of theme park admission making it more challenging for middle-income families.

According to Theme Park Insider, Disney raised many of their outdoor vending refreshments in 2018:

  • Mickey pretzels changed from $6 to $7 – 16.67% increase
  • Mickey ice cream bars and sandwiches $5 to $5.75 – 15% increase
  • Popcorn $4.25 to $5.00 -17.65% increase
  • Souvenir bucket popcorn refills, $1.75 to $2.00 – 14.29% increase
  • Bottled soda $3.50 to $4.50 – 28.57% increase
  • Bottled water from $3.00-$3.50 – 16.67% increase

There are dining deals that can be added to ticket prices to reduce food and drink costs at many theme parks. Yet, it is still costly to feed a family of three or four.

Many years ago, I realized just how captive theme parks have people for refreshments. This occurred when I was waiting in a long line in the heat of the Florida summer to get on a ride. A man with a backpack full of lemonade walked up and down the line selling what was about an 8 oz cup for the cost of $3.00 each. Just think of the markup for water, lemons, and some sugar.

What is the total cost?

It is estimated that a vacation cost for a family can easily cost $4,000 or more to stay at Walt Disney World. Even just going for the day can run $800 or more for a family of three or four. There is not a large difference when going to another theme park that isn’t Disney related.

With ticket prices, hotel costs and eating, going to other parks like Universal or SeaWorld is still clearly expensive for the middle class.

Debt

Although I could not find a lot of information and statistical data, I would imagine that many middle-class families are charging their way through a theme park vacation. The result is having to pay for a vacation for a number of years after enjoying it. This only creates a bad situation in many instances because high-interest credit card debt can slowly build into a mountain.

Families Can’t Afford to Go

There is nothing that says every child should be able to enjoy a day at Disney or another park. Yet, some families will never be able to experience what was once considered magic at a theme park. Even with all of the crowds and hype, some of the attractions at parks are pretty amazing to see. There is no denying that Disney often runs a top-notch business.

With the prices increasing as fast as they are at many theme parks, they will only soon be an experience upper-income families can enjoy. Many professional sports have been taken away from being able to attend for the middle class. The theme parks also appear to be on the way out. Here is a previous article I wrote on how professional sports are overpriced –The Overpriced Sports Event.

Why are theme parks getting so expensive?

It’s hard to say exactly why the prices for theme park admissions and vacations are rapidly going up in price. It is understandable that parks have upkeep and employees to pay. They also have to pay their bills for electricity, ride maintenance, and additions to keep visitors coming back. Yet, how much is enough?

There is some speculation as to why prices keep rising. This is particularly the case with Disney parks. It is said they keep raising prices to help with crowd control. The more expensive it gets the less more visitors can afford to make a trip.

The business model Disney is using is to raise the prices so the people that do visit pay more money for a trip. This might decrease attendance, but the net result is about the same or more profitability from fewer visitors. Disney has been viewed as a premier place to visit for some time now and it is getting to a point where it is exclusive.

Despite all of the steady price increases year after year, Disney Parks and Resorts reported a $4.5 billion operating profit in their 2018 fiscal year. All of the price increases have not seemed to sway profits. Furthermore, attendance has not decreased yet either. Disney’s four theme parks had a combined 4.4% attendance increase last year.

What does the future hold for theme park pricing? 

There is no way to know if prices will keep going up for theme park vacations. Although, if history tells us anything, the costs will just keep rising each and every year. Demand is driving prices. As long as people keep buying tickets and making vacation plans to popular theme parks, the cost to go will keep increasing.

It’s not just Disney that will likely keep raising their costs. Universal, Six Flags and many other popular parks will keep doing the same. They do not want to be seen as the bargain and runner up for travel plans.

Final Word

It really is sad to see many of the theme parks outprice middle-class families. Just like many other businesses that seem to raise their prices above what most people can afford, they do not realize middle-class families are the people that built many of the mega theme parks. I can only imagine if Walt Disney were alive what he would think about middle-class families not being able to vacation at one of his parks.

I can only hope that eventually there will be a breaking point for many of the theme parks and their pricing. Disney does not seem to be hurting yet from their astronomical pricing, but there are rumors things may start to change. This can be seen in their recent annual pass holder price increases again and the many regular pass holders. Many of them are downgrading to a lower level annual pass to make up the increased cost difference.

Disney has also shifted to a peak and off-season pricing model to try and get visitors back to their park. Theme parks like SeaWorld and Busch Gardens have also made it easier for returning visitors with affordable passes which are many times close to the cost of just one or two visits.

It will be interesting to see the future of theme park pricing and if the demand eventually falls due to the crazy costs.

What do you think of the admission and vacation prices for visiting popular theme parks?

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