Walt Disney Co. took a drastic step Wednesday to boost languid attendance at its new California Adventure theme park, offering free admission all summer for Southern California children accompanied by an adult, whose ticket also will be significantly reduced.
The offer is highly unusual for Disney, which has traditionally given modest discounts only in the off-season and has long been the industry's trendsetter for raising admission prices. The company has never allowed free admission to its parks for an extended promotional period.
Now Disney is following the discounting lead of Universal Studios in Hollywood and other theme parks and tourist businesses as it tries to entice wary consumers to visit--and spend--this summer.
The new promotion, which took effect Wednesday, allows adults to buy admission tickets to California Adventure for the children's price of $33, $10 less than the adult fare. Each child between the ages of 3 and 9 who is accompanied by an adult gets in free.
A family of four now could get in to the park for $66, compared with the usual $152. The discount is good through Sept. 4. Visitors to nearby Disneyland, which continues to draw large crowds, will still pay regular admission prices.
While acknowledging the promotion is new for Disney, officials said it is intended to encourage Southern Californians to visit the park at a discount--and should not be viewed as a reaction to disheartening attendance figures.
"We just know a lot of people haven't experienced [California Adventure] yet, and we want to give them that opportunity," spokesman Tom Brocato said. "This is a different approach. But we're always trying to offer more things to our guests."
Since the $1.4-billion park opened next to Disneyland in February, attendance has been dramatically below projections and has topped the 20,000 mark on only two days. The sluggish economy, dreary weather and questions about the value of the new, much smaller park have all contributed to the slow start.
The deal "is unheard-of for Disney, a huge, huge step for them," said Tim O'Brien, a senior editor for Amusement Business, which tracks attendance and other industry trends. "I knew they had to do something to start getting people in there, but I don't think anyone would have expected this. I wouldn't call it desperate, but it's close."
Disney officials already have said they will resurrect the popular Main Street Electrical Parade at California Adventure next month, as well as opening a "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" attraction based on the popular TV show.
Responding to complaints that there isn't enough for children to do inside the Anaheim park, officials also plan to release a new stage show featuring Goofy, while making Disney characters more visible in California Adventure overall--something they originally said they wouldn't do.
Observers say the company was unprepared for such a dim debut and never expected to have to roll out new attractions so soon. Admission prices for the park were confidently set at $43 for adults--the same price as for Disneyland. The company also didn't offer its usual discount for Southern California residents this spring, believing the new park would be enough of a draw.
"They are really hurting," said Al Lutz, editor of MousePlanet.com, a Web site devoted to unofficial Disney news and advice. "It's too expensive, kids aren't crazy about it, and it's short on rides."
Universal Studios has a similar promotion for children 11 and under--which in the past has boosted attendance by as much as 28%, O'Brien said. Other parks, such as Sea World in San Diego and Busch Gardens in Tampa, Fla., have offered free admission for the rest of the year to guests who purchased one full-price ticket in the spring.
"This is no doubt the most discounted summer in history for amusement parks," O'Brien said.
Disney's announcement startled other theme park operators in the area.
"I'm shocked," said Jack Falfas, general manager of Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, predicting other parks now will rethink their promotions for the summer.
"We have to be realistic. Disney, they're the big boys. They set the price that everybody in the industry works off of."
Although Knott's has allowed free admission for children in the off-season, summer generally is not the time for such a program, Falfas said.
"It is high season," he said. "That's not the time you typically want to cut back on your revenue."
For Disney, though, it may have been the only choice. There are murmurings among retailers about less-than-expected traffic at the new Downtown Disney shopping district next to California Adventure and reports of disappointing restaurant receipts inside the park.
The owner of Hoypoloi gift shop took a spot at Downtown Disney in Anaheim because his store had done so well at the Downtown Disney in Florida, manager Kari Thorson said. But business here has been disappointing by comparison.
Industry experts say Disney's latest offer will benefit restaurants and retail sales by sending guests through the gates with more spending money. A family that may otherwise go for fast food now could opt to splurge on a nicer, sit-down restaurant while inside the park. Souvenir sales also could enjoy a bump, experts said.
"They're basically allowing a wider sampling of the park, and that's a smart move at this point," O'Brien said. "They need to create a buzz, because once it catches on, it will do well. It just hasn't hit the right nerve yet."
Times staff writer Andrea Perera contributed to this report.