Why Disney World's pricing structure ensures it will remain Orlando's theme park leader
Published: June 20, 2011 at 12:17 PM
Fans queue for early entrance to Universal's Islands of Adventure last summer.
Pricing, more than any other factor perhaps, shows why SeaWorld's been suffering for attendance and why the Universal Orlando parks continue to lag the Disney parks.
Remember, most people who visit Central Florida visit Walt Disney World during their trip. And once you've bought a couple days at the Walt Disney World Resort, Disney makes it absurdly cheap to add extra days at a Disney theme park. Once you've bought three days of theme park tickets at Disney, it costs just $9 to add a fourth day. Then it's just $8 to add each additional day beyond that, up to 10 days total.
Given that the Walt Disney World Resort has four theme parks, it's easy to visitors to justify a three- or four-day visit to the resort. Once they've committed to that, then, it's dirt-cheap for families to stay with Disney for the rest of their vacation.
So if you want to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter when you're in Orlando, but you're visiting Disney World, too, you're looking at $85 for your day at Universal Orlando versus $8 to skip Potter and spend an extra day at Disney instead.
Let's say that you're dead-set on seeing Harry Potter, though, and commit to spending the extra $85, or $120 if you want to see both Universal theme parks in one day. To add a second day at Universal Orlando would cost you an extra $31 if you're going with one-park-per-day tickets or an extra $16 if you bought the park-to-park.
Even the $16 charge to add second day at Universal is twice the $8 to go back and spend an extra day at Disney.
Let's say you do two days at Universal anyway, one for each park. A third day at Universal is still more expensive than that extra day at Disney - $20 for a third day on a one-park-per-pay ticket ($136 if bought online) and $15 extra for the third day with park-to-park ($151 online). I imagine that at this point, most people go for the cheaper ticket and return to Disney.
Remember, the TEA/AECOM attendance report counts a "visitor" as each person who visits a park in a single day. If you come back and visit a park on another day, you're counted as an additional visitor. It's those multiple, repeat visits that help pump up the numbers for the Disney theme parks, as visitors return for their additional $8 days.
Given the price advantage that Disney holds, as well as the fact that Universal raised its ticket prices substantially before Harry Potter opened, it speaks to the popularity of the Wizarding World that Universal's attendance in 2010 rose as much as it did.
But the Universal Orlando theme parks are never going to catch the Walt Disney World Resort parks, unless Universal becomes popular enough that the majority of its visitors decide to skip Disney altogether when they visit Orlando. It's hard for me to see that happening without several more "Harry Potter"-level expansion at the Universal Orlando Resort.
For SeaWorld, the numbers are even more grim. Before Harry Potter, SeaWorld may have been the "second choice" destination for many more Walt Disney World visitors. SeaWorld's attendance decline this year suggests that SeaWorld's slipped to "third choice" for most visitors now. As a third choice, SeaWorld's $72 online sale price for a one-day ticket not only has to compete with that $8 marginal cost for an additional day at Disney, it also has to compete with that $15 or $20 marginal cost for a third day at Universal Orlando. As we see from the attendance numbers, fewer and fewer Orlando-area visitors are opting to do that.
SeaWorld's trying to compete on price. It's $72 ticket is the cheapest for non-Florida residents. And it offers a second day free for online buyers, as well. But $72 is still a lot more than $20, $15 or $8. SeaWorld's going to have to find its own Harry Potter to get back into this mix.
Is there any hope for Universal and SeaWorld to catch Disney? Yes, but they'd have to work together. Right now, Universal and SeaWorld are part of an "Orlando Flex Ticket" that gives you up to 14 consecutive days at those three theme parks (plus the Wet n' Wild and Aquatica water parks) for $275. That's the same price as an eight-day base ticket to the four Disney theme parks. Most Americans don't take 14-day vacations, though. And if I had to pick one ticket or the other for my $275, there's more to do at the four Disney World theme parks to fill a week than at the Universal Orlando theme parks and SeaWorld.
For what it's worth, Universal doesn't even mention the FlexTicket on its main ticket page online any longer. You can find it only on the SeaWorld website.
Perhaps more people would choose the Universal/SeaWorld combination as their first choice if those parks offered a truly integrated ticketing system to challenge Disney's "Magic Your Way" ticket structure. Match Disney World on day-to-day price, but offer admission to Universal Studios Florida, Universal's Islands of Adventure, SeaWorld Orlando and Legoland Florida and Busch Gardens Tampa as part of the ticket. Five parks for the price of Disney's four.
Ultimately, so long as so many Central Florida visitors include Disney as part of their vacations, Disney will retain its price advantage over the other area theme parks, under the "Magic Your Way" price structure. If those other theme parks are going to break that system, they're simply going to have to find a way - working together or alone - to convince more visitors to start skipping Disney.