Ticket prices for Universal Studios, Disneyland and other theme parks are rising fast

For the past seven years or so, Joseph Armendariz of West Covina has watched the price of his annual Disneyland pass creep higher, prompting him to wonder when the cost finally would be out of reach.

Armendariz, who works at a community college administration office, paid $619 for his annual pass, which lets him into the park on all but 50 days of the year. If the charge continues to rise, he said he may be forced to get a cheaper $469 annual pass that blocks him for about 140 days.

“They are pricing out parts of the community,” he complained. “It is becoming a very niche thing where only certain people can go.”

Prices are rising for most forms of entertainment, including movies, concerts and sporting events. But the cost of a theme park ticket has gone up much more than that of other pastimes over the last decade, with Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood pushing through price hikes last month.

Like Armendariz, theme park fans grouse about the bigger tab, but most aren’t ready to abandon the parks altogether — as shown by rising attendance numbers.

“We have not seen any pushback from the marketplace,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a consultant to the industry. “If you look at the industry, we are still seeing growth.”

Theme park operators say the price increases come in response to strong demand and reflect the millions of dollars spent over the years on new high-tech attractions.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve made unprecedented investments in the Disneyland Resort, allowing us to introduce even more experiences more often to our guests,” Disneyland spokeswoman Suzi Brown said.

Universal Studios spokeswoman Audrey Eig said theme park customers are paying for an all-day experience with “immersive lands and technologically advanced rides and attractions.”

Since 2007, the average price of an adult ticket for Disneyland has jumped 67% to $110, while the price of a ticket at the front gate at Universal Studios Hollywood has climbed 88% to $120. At Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, the front gate ticket price has jumped 50% to $75.

Tickets to theme parks in Orlando have increased at about the same pace. One-day adult tickets for Walt Disney World have increased 51% to $107 in the same period, while prices for Universal Studios Orlando have jumped 64% to $110.

Annual pass prices have increased at an even steeper rate. Armendariz’s annual pass has jumped nearly 140% since 2007, when it cost $259.

The ticket price increases are not only several times higher than the 20% increase in the Consumer Price Index since January 2007, they also outpace cost increases for most other entertainment.

In roughly the same period, movie theater tickets nationwide have jumped 26% to an average of $8.65, according to the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, a lobbying group.

In big cities, prices are considerably higher, but the industry doesn’t publish that data. For example, an adult ticket for evening showings at the AMC Burbank 16 theater is $14.99.

The average ticket for the top 100 concert tours in North America is now $76.55, up 24% since 2007, according to Pollstar, which tracks data on the concert industry.

The average price for general-seating tickets at a Major League Baseball game is $31, up 36% since 2007, according to Team Marketing Report, which tracks the prices of professional sports teams. The average price for a general-seating ticket to see the Los Angeles Dodgers is $31.90, a 21% increase over the price in 2007.

If you want to attend an NBA matchup, the average ticket price is $55.88, up 14% from 2007, according to Team Marketing Report. Tickets to see the Los Angeles Lakers have gone up 16% to an average of $103.27 since 2007.

Ski lift tickets in North America sold for an average of $105 last winter, up 61% from the winter of 2007-08, according to Liftopia, a website that sells lift tickets for ski venues throughout North America.

The steep hike in theme park ticket prices hasn’t deterred the crowds.

Disneyland attracted an estimated 18.3 million visitors in 2015, up 23% from 2007, according to the most recent report from Aecom, the Los Angeles engineering firm that publishes an annual roundup of theme park attendance. Universal Studios Hollywood drew 7 million visitors that year, a 51% increase from 2007.

Several factors may explain why theme park ticket prices are rising faster than other entertainment costs.

The parks have spent heavily on technology-infused attractions to boost demand, and they have passed some of that along to the customers.

“Our business lives on repeat visitation,” Speigel said. “Repeat visitation is built on capital investment — or new products.”

Universal Studios Hollywood opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter expansion last year, part of a $1.6-billion upgrade to the park. Last month’s increase to $120 for a ticket bought at the park’s gate represented a $5 boost.

At Disneyland, bulldozers are moving mountains of earth to make way for a 14-acre, nearly $1-billion expansion based on the “Star Wars” franchise. Disneyland ticket prices rose last month by $2 for a daily pass (to $110) and as much as $20 for annual passes.

While investing in flashy rides and themed lands, operators have done little to increase capacity, which allows them to raise prices for the limited number of tickets.

Destination theme parks, such as Disneyland and Universal Studios, are rarer than smaller regional amusement parks and are in high demand during the summer and spring break as well as a handful of holidays, such as Christmas, Easter and July 4.

That is one of the reasons both Disney and Universal adopted demand pricing schedules last year: The parks now charge more for high-demand days such as holidays and less for low-demand days like weekdays in the fall. At Universal Studios, visitors who buy tickets online can save up to $21 off the price at the front gate.

“As long as there is demand, they will increase prices for those coveted days,” said Naveen Sarma, a Walt Disney Co. analyst for Standard & Poor’s.

Big amusement parks also have a reputation for imposing strong security measures, which is a comfort for parents who are willing to pay premium prices as long as they know their children will be out of harm’s way, said Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group, a consumer research firm.

“They can charge these rates because parents feel their families will be safe,” he said.

And although consumers can now stream movies and concerts on their smartphones, digital tablets and laptop computers, theme parks can be enjoyed only in person, said Dominique Hanssens, a marketing professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.

That may explain, he said, why concert and movie ticket prices have increased at a slower pace than theme park tickets.

“Live forms of entertainment have become more valuable because they are rare,” Hanssens said. “Digital is so abundant.”

Theme parks have made paying higher prices less painful by offering monthly payment plans.

At Disneyland, a Signature Plus Passport with no blackout dates sells for $1,049. But under a payment plan, customers can make a down payment of $95 and pay $79.50 a month. That means an annual pass holder who visits the park once a month can slice the price of each visit to about $87.

But even with a payment plan, some theme park enthusiasts say prices are too high to justify.

Matthew Gottula, a 27-year-old marketing worker from Altadena, owned an annual pass to Disneyland on and off since 1999. But last May, Gottula let his Premium Pass expire when the $779 pass was discontinued and he had to choose between an $849 option with fewer blackout dates or a cheaper pass with more than 100 restricted days.

“I decided it’s just too much hassle to fight traffic on the freeways and crowds and security lines to make it worthwhile,” he said.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

To read more about the travel and tourism industries, follow @hugomartin on Twitter.

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