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How theme parks can increase guest spending: Free water (or even free drinks)

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Published: August 20, 2009 at 10:13 AM

Huh? If you're giving people something for free, how does that make them spend more?

Lemme back up for a minute, to answer that question. The biggest factor affecting how much someone spends in a theme park is how long that person stays in the park. So if you want your guests to spend more money, you've got to find a way to keep them in the park for more of the day.

In my first piece on this topic, I wrote about improving breakfast options in the parks, as a way to get more people into the parks earlier in the day. Free water is designed to keep them there later on summer days, when heat and dehydration combine to force many visitors to seek relief with an early retreat to their hotel, or, worse for the park, home.

Pretty much all parks do offer free water at their restaurants. If you ask. Or you can always stoop over at the nearest water fountain. I'm suggesting that parks get much more aggressive about it, to dramatically increase the percentage of people taking advantage.

Do like Dollywood, and line up cups of ice water on the counter, free for the taking. Or better yet, do like Holiday World, and place open drink cells throughout the park, so people can have all the free water - and soft drinks - they want.

Free soft drinks, I can hear you ask: Am I insane?

Soft drinks are among the highest margin items that theme parks sell. Giving them away surely would cripple the per-guest spending that we're trying to increase, right?

Maybe not. Free drinks not only encourage people to stay better hydrated, allowing them to last longer in the summer heat, they change people's mentality about the park.

The free drinks we got at Holiday World affected the way we thought about our money while we were in the park. By not having to spend two or three bucks a drink, we felt like we could more easily afford souvenirs and extra snacks later in the day. I'm convinced that we ended up spending more at Holiday World because of the free drinks than we would have without them.

For further proof, let's talk about our trip to Kings Island, later the same week. Spending three bucks per Coke left us feeling ripped off after the Holiday World experience, and helped convince me to keep the wallets shut when the kids started looking at souvenirs. The hassle of asking for water also led to us getting less than we did at Dollywood. So, when we were wavering in late afternoon about whether or not to stay longer, feeling tired and hot, we made the easy decision: leave.

Would we have chosen differently had Kings Island more aggressively offered free water, or free drinks? Probably.

Again, the key to higher guest spending is a longer day in the park. If giving away a three-dollar Coke (which actually costs the park pennies, if anything, giving pouring deals), helps keep guests there so that they can buy a $20 dinner or souvenir later in the day, that initial loss pays for itself.

When I attended the media day for Terminator: Salvation at Six Flags Magic Mountain, I saw Six Flags employees offering cold bottled water to every park employee and media rep at the ride. Park President Jay Thomas encouraged everyone to take one, imploring people to "stay hydrated" in the California desert sunshine.

Every park should be that aggressive in offering water to every guest when the temperature exceeds a certain mark. Even if a park decides against offering free soft drinks, it should put free cups of ice water out on all its food service counters and set up freely accessible water drink cells throughout the park, for people to refill their water bottles. Gross old water fountains don't cut it anymore.

Happy, healthy park guests spend more than cranky, ill-feeling ones. Providing cold drinks to everyone is a small expense for parks to take when compared to the money that they can make if more people stay, eat and shop in the parks later in the day.

Readers' Opinions

From 129.171.150.71 on August 20, 2009 at 10:27 AM
Wow! I didn't know that some parks offer the free drinks. I have been to Dollywood, but don't remember the free water on the counters. Nevertheless, I agree with you. Excellent writing and thinking process.
From Nigel Smith on August 20, 2009 at 10:36 AM
Couldn't agree with you more. Last year I visited Sea World Orlando and Sea World San Antonio as well as Bush Gardens Tampa when they still offered the free beer. At all the parks my friend and I ended up spending more on food, having a more leisurely visit as well as staying till close. We had more energy and enjoyed our day a whole lot more, as well as spending more on food and drink at their restaurants and snack stores. I've been to many Six Flags and Cedar Fair parks throughout the country and didn't stay nearly as long, spend as much or have as enjoyable/memorable experience. There is just something about visiting Busch park and not feeling ripped off/penny pinched.

So I think it all boils down to goodwill. If a park is willing to give you something for free, the guest is willing to reward the park by spending more and most importantly enjoying their time at the park. This also encourages repeat visits.

From 216.118.82.254 on August 20, 2009 at 12:09 PM
Knoebel's in PA has DIY soda/drink fountains in their picnic area and it proved to be a wonderful thing for our family. Our 4-year-old son was hydrated and happy and we did indeed have almost $20 at the end of the evening to spend on souvenirs ($3 per drink for 3 people, twice per day). If the profit on souvenirs comes even close to that of soda/water, it's well worth it for the parks to do. Happy customers spend more money and stay longer! And it makes them want to come back!
From Randy Clover on August 20, 2009 at 12:11 PM
I agree with Nigel and would like to add that if you don't feel like you are getting ripped off, you will purchase other items (i.e. souvenirs and such) since you will figure you are not getting ,or getting less, ripped off there too.
From 64.223.151.6 on August 20, 2009 at 12:51 PM
I was just at SFGAv the other day on one of my trips, and me and my dad were droping about $3.57 for bottles of water, not to mention that it was 100 degrees. We left at about 4:00 though.
From Anthony Murphy on August 20, 2009 at 1:56 PM
I think what is better is you either pay ahead for drinks at a discounted rate (such as a meal plan thing) or they can actually charge what the drink is worth (no more than $1.50).


Still, any park that gives away free drinks will be popular. I wonder if any are willing to test the theory out for a month.

From Rhys Evans on August 20, 2009 at 6:29 PM
And though Robert mentioned it in his earlier report, I think it's worthy of repeating that Holiday World also has FREE PARKING and free sunscreen! It just makes one think...why don't the big parks do the same! (Doesn't it make you mad to pay $10, $15 or more to get a tiny piece of paper that says "we are not liable for anything that happens to your car, but we'll take your money anyway?" (not a direct quote). Even making it worse, last year at Six Flags over Georgia, 45 minutes before opening, they didn't have enough parking lot ticket windows open, which resulted in traffic being very unsafely backed up onto the interstate! So they collected money for a poorly maintained, litter-heavy parking lot (at park opening, no less; they hadn't cleaned it during the night) AND caused a major traffic hazard to do it... OK, off my soap box now.
From James Rao on August 20, 2009 at 6:30 PM
Getting people to your parks, and keeping them there all day are the two most critical components to success. And to that end, offering free drinks is a lot cheaper than a $25 million coaster and the annual upkeep to maintain it, I assure you!

Furthermore, like Robert, when we went to Holiday World we took XX amount of dollars for food, drinks, and souvenirs. Even with the free drinks, we still spent XX amount of dollars AND bought some snacks we normally wouldn't cause we felt like we were saving so much money!

Silver Dollar City, like its sister park Dollywood, has plenty of water available around the park, and they always offer to REFILL your plastic water bottles whenever you stop at a food vendor. Nice touch.

From John Jackson on August 20, 2009 at 7:06 PM
I totally agree. We did the exact same thing. We'd spent $20 dollars at Kentucky Kingdom for a drink and funnel cake on one day and literally bought no souvenirs. Then the very next day we visited Holiday World with all its freebies and bought two full meals for $20, in addition to purchasing a lot of extras. We did so for two reasons: one, we had extra money, and two, we felt like we weren't being taken gouged and wanted to do what we could to support the park.
After that we visited Kings Island and Cedar Point. We ended up leaving Kings Island a little early and Cedar Point we left very early the second day. The main reason we did so was that we were hot and thirsty but didn't want to spend a lot of extra money just on drinks. Plus, we didn't spend money on souvenirs at either of those parks.
On our trip we visited twelve parks. On the whole trip, we spent the most money per day at the parks that were the most reasonable, Holiday World and Knoebels, and had a much more enjoyable time doing so.
From Michael Owen on August 21, 2009 at 4:44 AM
I agree with you on pretty much everything in this piece Robert. Offering guests free drinks makes them think they are getting a good deal and that they will have a little extra money to spend throughout the day. This near enough always leads to guests spending more on other things than they would do normally, so the park will be better financially even if the guests don't stay at the park for longer as their spend whilst they are there will most likely increase.

I also feel this works on another level, it doesn't just effect how long people are going to stay in the park but also if they are going to come back again. If you feel you've got value for money then your more likely to go to the park again. Of course word of mouth will also be effected. You know what they say, if you have a good experience (free Coke) you'll tell a few friends and family members, if you have a bad experience (paying $3 for a Coke) you're going to tell near enough everyone you meet for the next few days.

It's not something which is going to happen at somewhere like Walt Disney World, where there's new guests everyday but at smaller, regional parks repeat business is integral to their survival, especially during an economic crisis like we're in at the moment. If they keep local guests happy by offering things like this they increase not only the chance of them coming back again but also the chances of them considering an annual pass.

From 162.95.216.222 on August 21, 2009 at 6:56 AM
Re: Holiday World -- the owners will tell you that the free drinks also reduced the dehydration issues in the park and the medical runs to the local -- but still rather distant -- hospital. Will Koch, President, has said that guest experience is greatly improved by the free soft drinks -- plus the reduction in medical runs and the greater revenue per guest -- he can't understand why other parks don't follow HW's lead. Plus the Pepsi branding EVERYWHERE has got to help defray the costs. Just another reason Holiday World is #1 for family fun.
From Joshua Counsil on August 21, 2009 at 7:56 AM
I've discovered that Orlando parks and BG Tampa will oblige and give you cupped ice water if you request it. But you have to request a cup of it - naturally, bottled water costs money.
From 72.147.171.77 on August 21, 2009 at 8:30 AM
This article again proves how smart and just plain awesome the owners of Holiday World are. They make visitors feel like family with a degree of Southern hospitality--and it works. I actually LIKE spending money in the park to support their growth. Once I bought a book about the history of Santa Claus Land/ Holiday World that I might not have bought anywhere else. I always feel good about buying some famous Udderly Blue ice cream, and once I took my niece there not actually planning to visit the water park area, but we ran into some friends who wanted to go swimming so I went into a shop and bought her a swimsuit and beach towels. I was happy to do so and hope it helps Holiday World keep up the good work.
From 192.195.66.46 on August 21, 2009 at 10:31 AM
HW and Dollywood are also two fine examples of parks who put their employee needs first and foremost ahead of profit. Dollywood, in particular, has given massive amounts of money back to the Pigeon Forge/Smokey Region for improvement projects, education, ect. I think alot of this is due to the "family" nature of how the business is ran, which is an important keystone to their operations model. CF and SF could take a few lessons from Dollywood on how to run their businesses accordingly..
From 67.112.146.34 on August 21, 2009 at 4:13 PM
The parks are providing us with free drinks - water from water fountains. America is one of the only countries in the world that guarantees the water coming out of every tap is perfectly healthy and safe, and yet Americans are afraid to even look at a water fountain. Where do you think that Dollywood ice water came from? maybe not from the fountain, but a spigot hooked to the same pipes.
The parks pay for the water that comes out of the fountain, the city of Anaheim has tested and certified that the water is safe, and they're not charging you to fill your water bottle, or take a quick sip from the fountain.
Sounds like they are providing free drinks to me, we just would rather have it in a plastic bottle with caramel coloring and a sugar substitute.

If they're going to give something for free then they should stop gouging us for parking. Even if they secretly raised the price of the ticket a couple of bucks and just told me that parking was free I'd be happy with that.

From John Jackson on August 23, 2009 at 11:45 AM
^Ummmm...yeah. Kids, that brings me to my next point; don't smoke crack.
From 71.250.223.218 on August 24, 2009 at 9:49 AM
On the subject of water fountains at parks..Yeah, they all have them. My problem is that they're usually room temperature or warmer. There's one at CP outside the arcade on the Midway that is absolutely ARCTIC! Alas, that's a rare bird. Anyone one know of other REALLY cold water fountains? I've encountered some others, but my 44-year old brain fails me...

Mike

From 74.131.20.206 on August 24, 2009 at 10:10 AM
I can't agree more with this blog post. I've attended Holiday World for years, for many reasons. One, it was close to home. Two, free drinks. Those free drinks do keep the visitors happy and healthy, and I know for a fact I spent more money on souvenirs and food because I didn't have to pay for drinks. I went to Kings Island this year, and the $3 a pop is ridiculous. I only spent $15 on that trip, not including the cost of the ticket. At Holiday World, I spent around $80 on my OWN. So yes, I have to agree with this post.
From 216.49.120.192 on August 24, 2009 at 10:25 AM
The fact that Holiday World offers free drinks AND free sunscreen gives the impression that they care more about their guests' well-being than the extra money they could have made on such products. Way to go, Holiday World!
From 74.133.42.8 on August 24, 2009 at 10:48 AM
I used to live in South Florida and frequented Disney parks and Universal as well. Now that I live in Southern Indiana I have to say that Holiday World beats them both. Ok...the rides are not the same, but the water park at Holiday World is in the same league. Now, toss in the free parking, the free sunscreen, the free sodas (crazy!) and top it all off with some of the nicest, friendliest employees I HAVE EVER SEEN ... and you have yourself a winner with Holiday World!
From 205.188.116.18 on August 24, 2009 at 10:55 AM
I've been to many, many parks in the Midwest. HW makes me think twice about going to any other park, especially the Six Flags Parks. If you talk money for money yor dollar goes much farther at HW. THe pop and parking along with the sunscreen make all the difference. Then you have to talk about the quality of food. At HW you can purchase a meal that has real meat at the cost you might spend at a fast food place. My niece is Glutin and Casin intolerant, the food is actually cheaper at HW then at the store. HW makes every penny you spend go farther.
When I go to Six Flags I know that all my money will go to pop or water, I don't even think about spending it on other items.
Way to go HW!
From 65.185.150.130 on August 24, 2009 at 11:01 AM
I dislike having to spend 3 bucks for pop or a bottle of water at Kings Island. We always drink fountain water or stop at a water fountain. Our money we spend is for food, although it is very expensive. I've done a better solution at Kings Island... Drink water and either A) bring a cooler for lunch or B) leave at the end of the day when tired, and stop at a restaurant outside the park! It is much cheaper that way! :)
From 67.141.43.45 on August 24, 2009 at 11:38 AM
I am 33 years old and had never been to Holiday World before last summer - I always thought it would be "less fun" than close parks like Kentucky Kingdom or Kings Island. I had the same fun - and maybe more - at Holiday World than I did at those parks. Free parking, free drinks and free sunscreen really put the icing on the cake for me. Their water park is excellent (and I am not the biggest fan of water parks!) and the rides make for a great day. And agreed - as a consumer, spending nothing on things you know aren't a ripoff like food and drink, we spent money on souveniers at Holiday World. We had never bought souveniers at other parks. The folks at HW really know how to take care of people.
From 72.2.253.87 on August 24, 2009 at 12:15 PM
Holiday World have several facets to their goodliness.

It's isn't just the free soft drinks, it's the high quality fresh meals with a price equal or less than McDonald's....5$ meals such as a huge slice of the best pizza, large fries, and a cookie...or fully loaded hamburger, fries and cookie....or taco salad made fresh in front of you....funnel cakes for under 3$...caramel apples under 2$.

Their gift shop is full of that same quality and reasonable prices. You can get a handblown hand made ornament in the gift shop for under 5$ I bought all of my children steel mood rings and a huge lolly pop for under 4$ each.

We are a family of 10, this year we spent over a thousand dollars to buy season passes for our entire family.

We spent on average 200$ at Holiday World. Because our family truly believes in supporting family owned business that have such extreme dedication to families. I have never seen such kindness, quality and passion for service as I have when witnessing the employees at Holiday World.

Free sodas are nice...wonderful infact. But at Holiday World it's just the tip of the ice cream. (Which for a huge ice cream is only 2$):P

Holiday World has our money, we will be their customers every year. The real secret to bringing back folks is making them feel cared for...and we do.

Lanie Eden<3

From 71.134.210.146 on August 24, 2009 at 2:30 PM
San Doego Zoo Doesn't even provide water fountains!
From 75.16.227.223 on August 24, 2009 at 4:13 PM
Water fountains are actually pretty gross. A surprising number of people (often, but not exclusively young children) PRESS THEIR MOUTHS AGAINST THE METAL. Any germs they have can contaminate the fountain for quite some time.

The handles are frequently touched too, so it's an easy way to pick up germs.

A soda tap requires far less hand contact (often none), and I have never seen anyone press their mouth to the delivery spout.

Bathroom water taps are actually cleaner than water fountains (blech and double blech).

America's safe and clean tap water is truly amazing. Some of the delivery mechanisms are not.

From 207.40.118.194 on August 25, 2009 at 5:32 AM
Holiday World's drinks aren't really "free." They raised the price of admission by three dollars I believe the year they switched to that program. That said, I totally agree with you. I left Kings Island (and every other Cedar Fair park for that matter) feeling ripped off but I can't wait to get back to Holiday World.
From 208.188.247.240 on August 25, 2009 at 8:21 AM
Holiday World is a wonderful park and very clean. I never realized it until I went to Kings Island and Six Flags and saw the difference. The free drinks kept us happy and feeling good. I just wish HW would add some steel coasters like Kings Island and Cedar Point. That would take HW from great to phenomenal.
From 216.176.139.219 on August 25, 2009 at 10:29 AM
Holiday world is a wonderful park. I wish more parks would offer free soft drinks/water. In the past 5 years we have been going to Holiday World they have NEVER raised there prices that cant be said for other parks. Went to Dollywood and was so upset at the prices for food and drinks. Holiday Worlds prices were very reasonable, I would recomend Holiday World to everyone who is looking for family fun.

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