Tampa's Busch Gardens has fired the latest salvo in the painful "arms race" of ever-escalating theme park entry fees.
The park bumped its full price adult ticket by $3 to $95 (plus tax) on Monday. Admission for children is $90.
Major theme parks offer an abundance of significant discounts online or by purchasing tickets ahead of time or via AAA or other marketing partners. So think of the full fare prices at Busch Gardens and other parks more as a barometer of the economy and the industry's desire to keep visitors well conditioned to expect regular increases in the overall costs of admission.
The 306-acre Busch Gardens has come a long way from its 1959 debut as a beer garden and bird show with free admission to the hospitality/brewery facility. By 1987, Busch Gardens charged $18.95 at its front gate while pitching the arrival of the pandas Yong Yong and Ling Ling. Now, 27 years later, Busch Gardens' full fare is five times as pricey. And the theme park finds itself competing for visitors more aggressively by building cutting-edge (and heart-stopping) thrill rides like the SheiKra dive coaster of 2005 and this summer's Falcon's Fury, a drop from a 335-foot tower at 60 mph.
The only thing sure to arrive faster than the next Busch Gardens ride is the next ticket hike. How high can it go?
Based on the pace of the past 27 years, we might anticipate a $125 full-fare admission by 2024 and $150 by 2034. But I'm guessing those prices arrive much sooner.
Busch Gardens has special challenges. While it has no immediate competition in this metro area, it also lacks Orlando's massive tourist base and must lure visitors from there and the gulf beaches. Borrowing a couple of adorable pandas still has a role at Busch Gardens, but it won't lure folks in enough volume to keep shareholders happy. Especially when Busch Gardens must contend with such summer theme park upgrades in Orlando as Universal Orlando's expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction and Walt Disney World's Seven Dwarfs Mine Train coaster ride.
Universal charges $96 for a full fare one-day ticket. Disney World charges $99 for one-day tickets to the Magic Kingdom and $94 for its other three theme parks.
Busch is now part of SeaWorld Entertainment, a publicly traded company of 11 U.S. theme parks. Companywide, theme park admissions accounted for 65 percent of total revenue for the first quarter of this year. Those admissions averaged just $45.12 per person, a reminder of how the focus on full-fare prices can be misleading when theme parks offer such a broad mix of entry fees based on single, multiday and annual passes.
SeaWorld Entertainment reported net income of $50.5 million for all of 2013. Yet it managed to lose $49 million in just the first quarter of 2014. Even Florida's record tourism numbers did not seem to help.
That's not the most promising start for the year.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]