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Busch ups theme park fees

Busch Entertainment Corp. on Friday raised the daily admission for Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa by 7 percent and Sea World in Orlando by 5 percent.

But the Anheuser-Busch Cos. theme park unit is not raising the price of annual passes. And it is keeping intact its Florida Fun Card that offers Florida residents a year of return visits at either park for the price of one day's admission. Busch also extended its free admission for active duty, ready reserve and National Guard members who present a military ID card.

The new daily admission at Busch Gardens is $61.95 plus tax for adults and $51.96 for children 3 to 9. Sea World's new daily rates are $64.95 plus tax for adults, $53.96 for children.

After the increases, Busch's two Florida parks will be priced slightly below rivals Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando. Each one of those charge adults $67 plus tax, $56 for children.

Busch thus kicks off what has for years been an annual round of Florida theme park admission increases. In 2006, however, Busch, Disney and Universal broke with tradition and raised their admissions twice.

In addition, all the parks also have been quietly jacking up parking fees. Busch Gardens in January added another $1 to bring its daily rate to $9 a car, while Sea World is now at $10.

Park officials have justified the increases by noting they are competitively priced with other entertainment. Concerts, pro sports events and Broadway plays frequently cost more.

"And they're offering a two-hour experience while we're offering a full day,'' said Gerard Hoeppner, a Busch spokesman. "Florida residents get a year of unlimited visits by paying for one day. It has been enormously popular and encourages repeat visits.''

Busch also added a $5 discount for up to six friends and relatives Fun Card holders bring with them.

Such moves increase park reliance on getting visitors to spend more once inside.

Theme parks use their ever-rising ticket prices as a starting point for the industry's penchant for rampant promotional pricing.

To soften sticker shock they promote an extensive menu of discounts, most of which revolve around the time of year, travel packages and Florida resident deals such as Universal's offer of two days at two parks for the price of one day. Disney, meanwhile, has been using a matrix of discounts that increase with the number of days purchased.

"The park pricing strategy has changed,'' said Steve Baker, president of Baker Leisure Group, an Orlando theme park consultant. "Disney has to price for market share like that because it has all those hotels and parks to keep full. Now the parks look at raising their rates every six months because there has been no backlash to their pricing increases.''

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

FAST FACTS

Daily admissions

Busch Gardens: $61.95, adults; $51.96, children.

Sea World: $64.95, adults; $53.96, children.

Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando: $67, adults; $56 children.

Prices do not include taxes.

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