Vote of the week: How should theme parks deal with their holiday crowds?
Written by Robert NilesIf you've visited any of the Orlando or Southern California theme parks this week -- or during any Christmas holiday week in past years -- you've experienced the busiest that theme parks can be. Packed queues. Hours-plus waits. Closed parking lots and park gates by mid-afternoon. Even frayed nerves and conflicts among those who came in without reasonable expectations.
Published: December 28, 2012 at 1:11 PM
Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. Parks take several steps to cut down on the crowds during this week. But you might not like those alternatives any better than a three-hour wait to ride Toy Story. Let's take a look at a few of them.
Raise the price
Economists' favorite way to reduce what they call "an excess demand problem" (in plain English, "really long lines") is… to raise the price. Surely, a lot fewer people would end up coming through the front gates of the Walt Disney World and Disneyland theme parks if their daily tickets cost, say, 50 percent more than on a "typical" day. If parks hit the right price point, they can create an atmosphere that's downright comfortable for all the guests who get in, while allowing the park to make almost as much, if not just as much, money as it would by keeping the front-gate prices the same and packing the place, as they do now.
But parks make money on a lot more than just the front-gate charge. There's parking, food and merchandise. With fewer people in the park, that means less income from those sources, even if the park's attracting a, uh, "higher end" clientele. And who buys their tickets at the front gate, anyway? (Not you, dear Theme Park Insider readers. You know well enough to buy your tickets in advance.) Are the parks going to ask people using no-expire tickets purchased long ago to fork over extra cash to get in? Not unless the parks want to face a nasty class-action lawsuit.
And I'll bet that many of us would argue that theme parks have gotten expensive enough as it is. Jacking up the price at Christmas only serves to make the parks appear even more elitist.
Even if parks wanted to try raising ticket prices for this holiday week, they would need a way to distinguish holiday-week tickets from "regular" theme park tickets. That would be the only way to keep people who've bought regular-priced tickets in the past from using them during the high-demand holiday week. But even without a price increase, parks could use "holiday-only" tickets to limit crowds.
Tokyo Disney already sells tickets for specific dates only, so this wouldn't be a revolutionary concept. Walt Disney World could require people who wish to visit between Christmas and New Year's to register in advance online, either by purchasing tickets specifically for those dates or by reserving those dates for use with an existing no-expire theme park ticket. Annual passholders would have to claim their days in advance, too. (Disneyland and the Universal theme parks don't sell no-expire tickets, so this isn't an issue for them, except for the APs.) When a day is sold out, that's it. No one else is getting in.
To make this system an improvement over the current one, parks would need to set reasonable caps on daily attendance. Again, there'd be some math wizardry involved in setting the number where crowds wouldn't become overwhelming, but the park wouldn't take a hit on food and merchandise sales. I suspect that if parks did implement a reservation system, it'd come hand-in-hand with a price increase for those days, too.
In effect, Walt Disney World already has implemented a twist on the reservation model with its Very Merry Christmas parties. Those provide another option for visitors who want to enjoy the holiday festivities and atmosphere at the park, but on an evening when park capacity is controlled more tightly than usual, as advance reservations are (usually) required. I suppose that annual passholders could argue that the parties represent a price increase, too, as admission to the parties is not included with their passes. But for people without an AP, the parties actually represent a price decrease, as the party ticket is less than the cost of a one-day, one-park ticket.
Close the gates earlier
Long-time visitors to the Walt Disney World and Disneyland resorts have learned to expect the gates to the Magic Kingdom parks to close each day around noon or so to new visitors, during Christmas week. But what if the parks were more aggressive about restricting access, and closed the gates earlier, to further limit the number of visitors in the parks? Would that make the experience of visiting during this week more comfortable for those who arrived early? Would an earlier close encourage more guests to visit other parks and attractions at the resort? Or would closing the gates earlier just transfer the location of angry, hostile lines of people - from inside the park to just outside the front gates?
Leave it alone
Sometimes, the best alternative in a bad situation is to quit looking at even worse alternatives. Leaving things the way they are means continued massive crowds in the parks, but it saves both the company and visitors the hassle and expense of dealing with a potentially complex new ticketing system. Or having more visitors get left outside on an expensive theme park vacation. People who don't want to deal with this week's crowds can stay home, and visit another time. And people who do will learn to either accept the crowds, or become one of those who chooses to visit another time.
The danger for the parks in doing nothing is that many of the people frustrated by this week's crowds won't choose just not to come back during future Christmas weeks. They might choose not to come back ever, at all. Parks don't want to be in the business of making customers mad. If Christmas week crowds are turning too many customers off of theme parks altogether, that's a problem that they must address.
So which of these would be your preferred option? Should parks do something to address the attendance issues that seem to be inherent in this week? Cast your vote below:
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