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Five things that make after-hours parties a great deal at theme parks

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Published: October 6, 2010 at 11:43 AM

I'm a huge fan of the evening parties at Walt Disney theme parks, such as the ongoing Mickey's Halloween Party at Disneyland. After-hours hard-ticket events provide a different park experience than a typical daily theme park visit - one that's often an even better value for the money.

Fireworks at Cinderella's Castle
Cinderella's Castle, during the Very Merry Christmas Party at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

But what makes an after-hours theme park party a good buy? Let's break it down:

A lower price than a daily ticket

After-hours parties typically run from around dinner time to midnight or so - giving you around six hours in the park, give or take an hour or two. Given that many fans stay eight hours or more on a daily theme park visit, you want to see a lower price for the party than you would for a typical one-day park ticket.

That was the case at Disneyland's Halloween Party, where I could buy tickets for $49 each, as opposed to the typical one-day, one-park ticket price of $76.

Better and unique entertainment

This is supposed to be a party - something different than the usual theme park experience. So you should expect the park to be providing entertainment that you wouldn't find in the park as a day guest.

The ultimate in unique entertainment is Universal's Halloween Horror Nights, with dozens of mazes, live shows and scareactor-filled scare zones transforming the Universal Studios theme parks into substantially different destinations.

The Disneyland and Magic Kingdom parties offer unique experiences, as well. At Mickey's Halloween Party this year, Disneyland offered a parade and fireworks show that were running only during the party, as well as two dance parties and a few Halloween characters. But the biggest unique offering was the trick-or-treat zones, with unlimited candy. How often do people hand you free stuff at a theme park?

Signature attractions

While you want to see unique entertainment at an after-hours party, I think that you still should be able to experience the park's signature attractions, as well. I can't imagine visiting Disneyland without riding Pirates of the Caribbean, so I was happy to see that ride was open during the Halloween party.

Typically parks close many of their attractions during after-hours parties. It's a practical decision: With the extra entertainment and limited time frame, demand would be low for the park's less popular rides and shows. And the park needs those attractions personnel to staff the extra entertainment, as well. But while most visitors won't miss minor attractions, I wouldn't like an event where the top attractions in the park were closed, as well.

Ideally, not only should the park's top attractions be open, they should offer something special, themed to the park or season, as well. After the candy, the longest lines at this month's Disneyland party were for its Halloween-overlay attractions, Haunted Mansion Holiday and Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy. I love hitting up Revenge of the Mummy during Halloween Horror Nights, as well. When parks have attractions that fit the party's theme so well, it should take advantage of those opportunities by incorporating them into the event.

Shorter lines

With extra entertainment available, the lines should be shorter for those top attractions, even with the park's minor attractions closed. That requires the park to limit the number of party tickets that it offers for sale.

Most days, theme parks don't limit the number of people they admit through the front gate. Only when parks approach the physical capacity of the park - such as Disneyland during Christmas week - will you see parks close the turnstiles. By the time that happens, though, visitors are facing multi-hour waits throughout the park.

With a hard cap on ticket sales, visitors to after-hour parties can experience a different park experience - one where they have the time to enjoy more of what the park offers, even with the reduced operating hours. Of course, if a park sets the cap too high, this element of extra value for after-hours parties is lost.

Dinner before the show

This is where Disney falls down, by the way. With most after-hours parties starting in the late afternoon or early evening, it's natural that visitors will want to enjoy dinner as part of their evening out for the party.

So why not offer a dinner option that's themed to the party? Knott's does a great job with this, offering a "Pre-scare Boo-fet" option for Halloween Haunt ticket-holders, which gets them a buffet-style dinner (with the park's Mrs. Knott's fried chicken) along with early entry into Halloween Haunt. It's an extra charge - $21 in advance and $26 walk-up - but you're gonna have to buy dinner somewhere.

It's frustrating trying to scramble to eat dinner at one of a park's restaurants before they close for the party. And it's even more frustrating when all the park offers during the event is snack-bar fare. Make food part of the event and give folks the opportunity to spend more in exchange for real value a special, uniquely themed meal that they can't find anywhere else.

When parks deliver all five of these elements with their after-hours parties, those events make for great deals that fans ought to consider and support. And even when parks come up short and deliver only some of these, events still can provide unique experiences that are worth a look from fans wanting something different than a typical theme park visit.

Readers' Opinions

From Tiffany J. L. Alfonso on October 8, 2010 at 6:29 AM
Just bought tickets to MNSSHP when leaving Epcot! I can't wait to see how it goes on Tuesday night! I agree that buying separate admission for an event has a great payoff, and especially for MHSSHP, adults like me can come in costume!

Speaking of which, I will dress 90's/grunge with flannel and jeans!

From Bryan Fear on October 8, 2010 at 12:48 PM
You nailed it. As much as I really love all these theme park party-after-dark events, the shortfall of some is finding food more than snack bar fare. I'm hypoglycemic. Not that I don't appreciate all the free Disney candy but... Yeah, I could use some real food. ( In all fairness, they also had snacks for the health conscious. ) Prior to going ( 2008 ) I thought there'd be more of a full fare restaurant open.
From Larry Zimmerman on October 8, 2010 at 7:27 PM
Thanks for your rundown, Robert, but in the case of WDW's Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, the devolution over the years has made it a much less desirable event for me.

Compare today to 1995. Back then, for about $35 per person, you got five hours of a strictly limited attendance cap, a commemorative button, a souvenir family photo, cookies, hot chocolate, special entertainment (show and parade), special fireworks, and walk-on rides.

2010, you get, for $60 per person, cookies, hot chocolate, special entertainment and special fireworks, and you get to share it with many more people than were allowed to attend in the '90's, leading to meaningful waits for rides, high-season-like jostling and crowding to see the shows and parades, and crowded food venues.

Frankly, it just isn't worth it to me anymore. But I recommend everyone try it at least once, and make up your own minds about it.

From Robert Niles on October 8, 2010 at 9:30 PM
Larry brings up some solid points. I've been to both events, and prefer the Disneyland Halloween event to the Magic Kingdom Christmas one. Part of that is due to the fact that I prefer Disneyland to the Magic Kingdom, but Larry's point about the crowds weighs it even more toward the west coast.

I'm still looking for an ideal event that nails all five of these criteria, but even three out of five is enough to get me to consider buying a ticket.

From Anthony Murphy on October 10, 2010 at 9:17 PM
Very good points, especially when it comes to dinner. I did the Halloween Party last year at MK and while I enjoyed myself, there was nowhere to really eat.

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