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How much are people willing to spend at theme parks? More every year

ALLIE GOULDING | TimesGuests walk down Main Street with Cinderella's Castle in the background at Magic Kingdom on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 at Disney World in Orlando.
Published May 30

Every single theme park in Florida this year has a major new attraction heading into the summer vacation season, and that also means consumers are spending more to go there.

One-day admission can reach $159 at Disney World and $84.99 at Busch Gardens. Universal admission starts at $115. For comparison, it cost $26 to go to Disney and $17.95 to go to Busch Gardens in 1987. When Universal opened in 1990, prices were similar.

But the pull of the new Star Wars land, Harry Potter and wild coasters at Busch Gardens has guests willing to overlook constant price hikes.

Attendance is up. Some 20.8 million people visited Disney's Magic Kingdom last year, a 2 percent increase, according to the Themed Entertainment Association's annual attendance report released last week. The whole industry had a combined attendance of more than a half-billion visits for the first time in history, the report said.

RELATED: Theme park guide 2019 — everything new this year at Disney, Universal, Busch Gardens and more.

The average American spends about $2,900 a year on entertainment, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and about $700 of that goes toward fees and admissions.

A closer look at the numbers show that upper-income guests are more willing to fork over more. Those with incomes over $70,000 account for two-thirds of the purchases. More than half of spending on tickets and fees comes from those earning $100,000 or more.

"It feels like the Gilded Age," said Bill Newton, deputy director of the nonprofit Florida Consumer Action Network, based in St. Petersburg. With a median household income of around $52,000, he notes, Florida is not a wealthy state, yet it is surrounded by wealth.

Every theme park in Florida saw a spike in attendance last year. Busch Gardens, the 11th most visited theme park in North America, had a 4.5 percent increase in attendance by some 4 million visitors. Walt Disney World retained its crown as the world's busiest tourist attraction, with its four parks among the top-attended in the world.

Blame the strong economy for the high prices, said Sean Snaith, director of the Institute for Economic Forecasting at the University of Central Florida.

"When times are hard, it's low-hanging fruit to cut what you might spend on entertainment," Snaith said. "But when the economy comes out of the worst recession since the Great Depression, what are you going to do now? I'm going to Disney World!"

Florida's own tourism numbers reflect that, Snaith said.

"We saw that here in Florida, our economy didn't recover until 2012, but almost immediately tourism began to grow once the national recession came to an end."

Defenders of theme park prices point to other options by comparison.

"If I want a decent seat at a concert I have to pay $200. Even the nosebleed seats are $80," said Duncan Dickson, an associate professor at UCF's Rosen College of Hospitality Management where he teaches up-and-coming theme park leaders the finer points of the business. "That makes a theme park and 14 hours of entertainment look like a bargain."

And millenials may be more willing to pay top dollar for an experience, Dickson said, while older generations may not be.

Admission prices began to creep up industry wide starting in the early 1980s when Disney got rid of its old "E-ticket" system in favor of a single admission price. It then aggressively started raising prices, just a few dollars at a time but nearly a dozen times in less than two years in the mid-1980s. In a Wall Street Journal examination, chief financial officer Gary Wilson at the time said the only real surprise "was how much guests were willing to pay."

Dickson, a Disney executive at the time, was among the traditionalists who feared the increased prices "were going to kill the fatted goose," he said. "But we never got any resistance."

Dennis Speigel, head of the consulting firm International Theme Park Services, said Disney's aggressive pricing, "was the greatest thing that had happened to regional theme parks in years."

He was consulting regional parks in Ohio at the time, "and when they raised those prices at Disney, that allowed us to raise our prices and our revenues took off."

The labor statistics show a steep drop-off in spending on admissions for households earning $50,000 or less, who make up just 16 percent of the spending on fees and admissions in 2017.

And that is how it has always been, said Carol Osborne, a marketing instructor at the Muma College of Business at the University of South Florida. But theme parks, she said, "are a different animal" when it comes to consumer spending.

"My theory is that their perceived consumer value is much higher," Osborne said. "They spend billions on these attractions and it seems to pay off. People love it they can't get enough of it. I would have thought my students would have outgrown them, but no. These brands are obviously doing something right."

PRICES THEN AND NOW

1987

Walt Disney World: $26 for either the Magic Kingdom or Epcot; $19.50 children ages 3-11.

Busch Gardens: $17.95; children ages 2 and under free; parking $2.

SeaWorld: $16.50; $13.50 ages 3-11.

2019

Walt Disney World: It now has four theme parks that cost $109 to $159 depending on the day. Florida residents can purchase a three-day Discover Disney ticket for $175 for one theme park per day, valid through June 30. disneyworld.com.

Bush Gardens: Starts at $84.99. Recently announced deals include a $49 single-day ticket available through Sunday (for use through June 23) and a $65 Fun Card. Also, military members, veterans and their families get free admission online at wavesofhonor.com by June 9 for use by July 15. buschgardens.com.

SeaWorld: Starts at $84.99 online. Summer flash sale through Sunday of $52.49 (good through June 23). Also free admission online at wavesofhonor.com for military, veterans and their families. seaworld.com.

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.

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