Theme parks’ entry prices jump

Alhambra secretary Laurie Casado struggles each year to buy Disneyland annual passes for herself and her family, so the park’s announcement last week that it was jacking up prices by up to 30% wasn’t exactly good news.

But Casado will buy the passes anyway and cut out something else.

“I’ll keep going because Disney is a big part of our lives,” said Casado, who buys annual passes for her husband, daughter and two grandsons, ages 4 and 5. “But the price increase is so disheartening.”

Disheartening, perhaps, but inevitable, industry experts say. Disneyland and other theme park operators have learned that they can raise prices without denting attendance.

This year, modest improvements in the economy and a major new attraction at Disney’s California Adventure has apparently emboldened park operators to boost prices a bit more than usual, according to John Gerner, a theme park consultant and managing director for Leisure Business Advisors.

“Now that the economy has improved, that in itself justifies increasing prices,” Gerner said.

Disney officials declined to explain their reasons behind the latest hike, except to say in an email, “we periodically evaluate and adjust our pricing structure to ensure we are offering a great entertainment value.”

This year, daily passes for the Anaheim Disney parks — Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park — rose as of May 20 from $80 to $87. The biggest increase hit the estimated 300,000 park-goers, such as Casado, who buy premium annual passes that include parking. Those went from $499 to $649.

The jump last year was lower — Disney raised the daily pass by $4 and increased the price of the premium annual pass by $40.

Industry experts said the steeper hike in 2012 was probably tied to a major expansion at California Adventure, including Cars Land, a 12-acre addition with rides and other attractions based on the hit animated Disney “Cars” movies. It opens June 15.

“This is all about Cars Land,” said David Koenig, author of four books about Disney’s theme parks. “If it wasn’t for Cars Land, the increase would be $4 or $5. Park-goers will go to see Cars Land.”

Koenig also noted that the big jump in annual pass fees may be intended as a cap on those visitors. Pass holders tend to be Southern California locals who don’t spend as much on food and souvenirs, and they can crowd out the big-spending out-of-towners, he said.

“There is no room in the park and the parking lot for this many people to come back over and over and over,” he said.

The last time prices rose so much was in 2005, shortly before the park unveiled an array of new shows and attractions to celebrate its 50th anniversary. At that time, daily ticket prices for Disneyland jumped almost 13% — from $49.75 to $56.

Not all Disney fans have kept coming to the parks in the face of price hikes.

Torrance resident Marrianne Welsh, 69, had been visiting Disneyland since she was a girl but stopped in recent years.

“In this time of the Great Recession, one would think Disney officials would reconsider this annual price hike in favor of a reduction,” Welsh said, “so more people can enjoy Disneyland and all it offers.”

But overall, visitation is up nationwide for Disney. For the first three months of 2012, attendance at all Disney parks in the U.S. was up 7% and per capita spending was up 5%, according to the most recentWalt Disney Co.earnings report.

“Because of all the new stuff we’re doing,” Disney’s Chief Financial Officer Jay Rasulo recently told financial analysts, the company was enjoying “a lot of demand on the annual pass programs, particularly out here on the West Coast.” “Disney” was the top Google travel search term in January and February, surpassing even “Las Vegas,” “Florida” and “Hawaii,” according a study by the AdGooroo digital marking firm.

“The annual passes are going up at least 30%, and they are doing it because the parks have been so packed,” said Al Lutz, who writes the Miceage blog about Disney.

Although Disney’s ticket prices are typically the highest of any Southern California theme park, others follow a similar pattern.

At Universal Studios Hollywood, one day passes increased in April from $77 to $80, and annual passes that include parking jumped from $149 to $169 — a 13% boost. On Friday, the park debuted its multimillion-dollar attraction “Transformers: The Ride — 3D.”

Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, which is not launching any major attractions this summer, is keeping daily ticket prices at $57.99. Its annual passes, with some blackout days and no parking, are increasing starting July 1, from $69.99 to $74.99 — a 7% increase. The park’s unlimited pass with parking has not been raised — it’s $165.

Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia has a big new attraction debuting this summer — Lex Luthor: Drop of Doom. But the park is keeping its general admission price at $61.99. For the same price, patrons have been able to get an annual pass with blackout days and no parking. That changes June 4 when the pass price goes up to $71.99. However, the unlimited pass with parking remains $125.

“We continually evaluate pricing and are committed to maintaining our competitive edge,” said Six Flags spokeswoman Sue Carpenter.

Although the price increases may not be welcome by park-goers, the Southern California economy benefits significantly from the presence of these venues, said Robert A. Kleinhenz, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Theme parks in Los Angeles County alone employ about 35,000 workers, he said. The parks attract millions of out-of-town visitors whose spending helps boost local hotels, restaurants and other businesses and generates sales tax revenue for state and local government.

“It certainly does create valuable economic activity that wouldn’t otherwise be here,” Kleinhenz said.

The price increases are not likely to dissuade foreign tourists, who make plans to visit theme park months and even years in advance, according to industry experts.

“If there is going to be resistance, it will be from locals,” said Gerner. After all, they’re more likely go multiple times in a year.

To appease them, industry experts say theme park operators often unveil discount deals for area residents during lower attendance periods, particularly in the fall or winter months.

But Disney fans such as Casado don’t want their visits to be limited to off-peak periods.

She created a savings account, and contributes to it often, to buy annual passes for her family. Casado said she and her family try to visit one of the Anaheim parks once a month.

“It hurts,” she said of the price hike, “because we count on that as our only entertainment.”