1. Kids & Family

Is the annual pass worth it? As Disney changes pricing system, we help you decide

Walt Disney World recently raised the cost of its annual passes and changed its admission prices to vary depending on the time of year. Meanwhile, other theme parks such as Universal and Busch Gardens are adding deals to lure Florida residents into buying annual passes,  (Photo by Jacqueline Nell/Disneyland Resort via Getty Images) 2016
Walt Disney World recently raised the cost of its annual passes and changed its admission prices to vary depending on the time of year. Meanwhile, other theme parks such as Universal and Busch Gardens are adding deals to lure Florida residents into buying annual passes, (Photo by Jacqueline Nell/Disneyland Resort via Getty Images) 2016
Published Oct. 19, 2018

It's a pricey decision to enter the turnstiles of one of Florida's theme parks, and Walt Disney World just made a big change in the way it charges admission.

It makes an already complex decision even harder: When is an expensive annual pass worth considering?

As of this week, Walt Disney World's pricing structure resembles airline tickets, with admission based on which day your visits start and end. A one-day ticket is now $102 to $129 at Disney's four Florida theme parks, depending on the time of year.

Meanwhile, the past few weeks have brought a flurry of new deals from Universal, Busch Gardens, SeaWorld and Legoland aimed at Florida residents. The unlimited admission takes the pressure off trying to see everything in one visit, and the theme park industry has begun to appreciate the value in repeat customers.

With most one-day tickets hovering in the $100 range, annual passes can end up being the smarter choice if you go more than once.

SeaWorld and Busch Gardens' bargains have caused spikes in revenue and attendance this year, said Duncan Dickson, a theme park expert and professor at the University of Central Florida.

"They suddenly realized they were missing out on something," he said. "You get more loyal visitors who may end up spending more on food or merchandise, so they are gaining more than they are losing."

It's also why virtually every theme park has a special food and wine festival these days.

Last week, Busch Gardens and SeaWorld announced a new four-tiered annual pass system that lowered the price of a basic annual pass and added perks at higher pass levels. And Universal last week tossed in an extra six months for free for some passes.

Almost a quarter of guests at theme parks and zoos used a 2016 season pass, according to a study by tourist attraction planner PGAV Destinations. They can enjoy a short visit or go for dinner instead of spending the whole day.

But at what point is it a deal?

That's where you have to take a hard look at how you like to spend your free time. If you think you would go several times a year, then a pass is a no-brainer. Most parks have added flexible spending programs that let you pay $10-$30 a month instead of the full cost up front.

We took a deeper look at the recent spate of offers and found some not-so-obvious ways you could end up spending more than you expected. But there are some real bargains if you take advantage of the timing.

Busch Gardens is letting passholders get two free beers in October at the Garden Gate Cafe or Serengeti Overlook Pub, a perk coming for all guests in 2019. It promotes the park's new four-tier pass program.

The Bronze Pass at $119 is a drop in price from 2018's Annual Pass. At $9.99 a month, this tier has block-out dates and doesn't offer free parking like last year's Annual Pass. Instead, it takes half off the $22 parking fee. The Silver Pass at $13.99 a month ($167.99) includes free parking, one free guest ticket (worth $80) and discounts on shopping, dining and event tickets.

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WATCH OUT FOR: Rates on new annual passes are expected to increase after Nov. 30. Parking can add up at $11 per visit, so free parking and discounts on events like Howl-O-Scream can make higher tiers worthwhile. After four visits, the Silver Pass starts paying for itself because of free parking.

OUR PICK: A Gold Pass at $16 per month ($203.88) comes with much richer perks than the Silver, making it a good option for at least one member of the family. You get free parking in the closer lot, 15 percent off purchases, two free guest tickets (worth $160) and half off six more guest tickets, a free PhotoKey (worth $49) and one free animal encounter (worth $29).

In a first for Universal, some annual passes will tack on three or six months for free. Universal's annual pass range from $269.99 to $683.99, depending on the level and number of parks selected.

The higher-end Preferred and Premier passes offer an extra six months free. The lower-priced Seasonal and Power passes, which come with block-out dates, offer three months free. It's not just for new passholders; those renewing current Universal passes can get the extra months if they sign up by April 4.

WATCH OUT FOR: Seasonal passholders are blocked out of all concert dates, such as the Mannheim Steamroller shows at Christmas time and pop concerts during Mardi Gras. There's no parking discount for Seasonal passes, and the Power pass only offers half off the $25 fee. Even free parking for the Preferred and Premier passes is only free after the first visit.

OUR PICK: At $359.99 for Florida residents, the Preferred two-park pass is just $40 more than the Power pass, but it comes with loads of perks, including early park admission days without having to stay at an on-site hotel, free parking, no block-out dates, bigger discounts and the current promotion of six months free .

Legoland Florida is selling a new Seasonal Play Pass for Florida residents to use the last three months of the year, $54.99, good through Dec. 21. And the Awesome Pass for Florida residents includes 12 months of admission with no block-out dates for $119.

WATCH OUT FOR: Pay close attention to the block-out dates with the Seasonal Play Pass. Every weekend is blocked out, as is the week of Thanksgiving and Christmas. So that leaves only 37 days between Oct. 1 and Dec. 21 to take advantage of the pass, mostly on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. But when you consider one-day admission is $79.99, $74.99 for 3-12, it's a savings if you can go on a weekday.

OUR PICK: You'll still have to pay $17 to park with the Seasonal or Awesome Pass, so consider paying $40 more for the $149.99 Awesomer Pass with free parking and free entry to other Merlin-owned attractions, the SEA LIFE Aquarium and Madame Tussauds in Orlando (worth $56).

Disney's new pricing structure unveiled Tuesday increased prices of annual passes, parking (now $25), reduced the amount of time multi-day tickets can be used and set the admission price based on when you visit.

"This is their way of trying to spread the attendance around," Dickson said. "The Magic Kingdom gets really jammed, especially around the holidays, and you run into diminishing returns."

Disney's four parks in Florida are the most-visited parks on the planet, so the Mouse House doesn't discount as much. But being a local is a plus. Florida residents can find passes for $289-$609, while the cost for a snowbird starts at $749 for unlimited admission. Even the lowest-price weekday passes save you $25 on parking. And annual passholders are sometimes invited to exclusive events and previews of new attractions before the general public.

WATCH OUT FOR: Block-out days get more generous at the higher tiers. The Disney Select pass ($439) blocks out Saturdays at the Magic Kingdom as well as holidays, summer and spring break, though other parks are more flexible. If you stay at a Disney hotel, ask about the current Florida resident rate. Disney runs specials on hotels all the time for Floridians.

OUR PICK: The Silver seasonal pass at $479 ($31 per month) costs less than a four-day Park Hopper ticket with far fewer block-out dates than the Select seasonal pass. And you can spread the cost over 12 months in the payment plan, something you can't do with daily tickets.

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at Follow @SharonKWn.


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