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Whiners get the worst deals on theme park vacations

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Published: June 5, 2013 at 5:47 PM

Perhaps the only thing more predictable than Disney's annual theme park ticket price increases is the complaining that follows them. (If you haven't seen it yet, check out the non sequiturs that animate this Los Angeles Times editorial on the topic).

Kali River Rapids
This is the way Disney theme park fans would prefer to get soaked on their vacation.

But getting emotional about purchases -- whether you feel positive or negative about them -- provides the surest path to making a bad decision about your money. Ticket pricing is business. Theme park companies don't get emotional about it, and if you're a smart consumer, neither should you. Consumers who get the best value for their money are the ones who approach decisions about which parks to visit -- and which tickets to buy -- with as much cold calculation as the parks bring to pricing those tickets.

So Disney raised the price of a one-day ticket to the Magic Kingdom by $6, Disneyland and California Adventure by $5, and Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios by $1. Parking went up a buck, too. Don't whine about that. Just do the math, and decide if Disney continues to be a good value for you and your budget, or not.

This is why I urge fans to look across the industry, at a wide variety of parks. Don't assume that just because Disney is the market leader in annual attendance that it offers the best theme park experience for your family. Does your family love Epcot? Have you considered Busch Gardens Williamsburg as an alternative? Do you enjoy live shows in the parks? How about Dollywood, instead? Thrill ride fans? Disney's never been the best value for you -- now's a great time to look around at other parks.

Even if you decide that you do value the Disney experience above all the others, you still can find value by adjusting to the latest price increases. At Theme Park Insider, we've long suggested that the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California provides better value for the money than Walt Disney World for many visitors. If you're a frequent Disney World visitor and not priced Disneyland recently, you should. Even if you decide to remain with Orlando, that area's wide variety of hotel accommodations provides an opportunity for you to save the price difference in Disney tickets by selecting a different place to stay.

The worst choice you can make, though, is to dump Disney in a huff, then spend your money instead on a poorly researched vacation that you and your family end up not enjoying. You're not "saving" money if you don't enjoy what you bought.

No matter where you decide to spend your money, you should choose a vacation based on a hard look at its costs and the value you get from that spending. Disney's just changed the numbers on us. It shouldn't change the way we approach making decisions about vacations.

Disney doesn't care what you say in comment forums. It does care whether you spend your money in its theme parks. If enough people decide that Disney's price increases have gone too far that the company starts to earn less money, that'll do more to get Disney to change course than all the comments on the Internet, together. But, I suspect that millions of theme park fans around the world will continue to decide that Disney delivers a premium vacation experience that's worth its premium prices, and that we'll see yet another price increase from Disney sometime around summer in 2014, too.

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Readers' Opinions

From 50.37.4.210 on June 5, 2013 at 6:22 PM
Thank you! So many people get upset and it is what it is...business. I have a saying, "Disney is best at parting you from your money and making you happy you did." Is that for everybody? No, of course not. It is for my family. We have a fantastic time, every time. Okay, maybe not every time but that has NOTHING to do with Disney. It usually has to do with who is being a butthead when we are on vacation. Long lines, high temperatures always brings out the worst in SOMEONE. Having said that, we feel that we countered the high price increases for a few years by becoming DVC members. Disney warned us when we bought (great selling line by the way) that they raise their room prices an average of 11% every year. And you know what? They have. We have paid for our room for 45 years and it was the best thing we ever did. So bring on the increases. The room rates won't change for us.
From Brandon Mendoza on June 5, 2013 at 6:47 PM
Personally I'm not too concerned about the increases. What I'm still disappointed with is the more frequent than ever bad customer service, the disconnect with their call center and the actual parks especially for the Disney Dining from two of my own reservations, and the Premiere ticket incident.

Twice I've requested food due to specific dietary needs on the phone, and twice the restaurant has no note of it. Bad customer service came from Big Thunder Ranch's Buffet where we then complained to the manager who then sent us to Town Hall. Town Hall then said to e-mail customer service where we received a cookie cutter response. That's NOT how you handle a customer complaint. If this is the future of Disney's guest services, then I definitely won't be renewing my pass and will be extremely disappointed in the company.

From 67.235.100.164 on June 5, 2013 at 7:06 PM
Simply supply and demand. Surprise tickets are not more costly given the demand that Disney must supply.
From Robert Niles on June 5, 2013 at 9:38 PM
Disney spends enormous amounts of money and staff time to entice you to make an emotional connection with its parks. While I think it's appropriate -- and fun! -- to let yourself get caught up in the emotion while you're visiting the parks (that's part of getting value for your day), when you get home and start thinking about your next visit, it's time to get analytical again. How much is that emotion worth feeling again? Is it worth the extra cost over another park? Should you try that other park first?

I mentioned this on Twitter earlier, but I'll post here, too. Personally, I think the best value in the theme park business today is spending a night at one of the on-site hotels at Universal Orlando. That gets you two days of front-of-the-line Universal Express access at the two parks, plus an early admission to Harry Potter. Cram a family of four or five into one room, and that's a heck of a deal -- one that completely changes the way you approach a theme park vacation. Universal's certainly investing in its parks, too.

That said, I think Disney can be worth the new, higher cost, too -- especially in California. But if you want the ultimate in first-class service at a theme park, and are willing to pay it, Disney *is* your best choice -- but not in Orlando or Anaheim. Save the cash for a visit to Tokyo Disney and you'll enjoy the best theme park quality in the world.

So you've always got options. Explore them. That's why we're here for you! ;^)

From Kelly Muggleton on June 6, 2013 at 4:39 AM
What bugs me more than the ticket increases (inevitable - like death and taxes) is that as a visitor to WDW from the UK, so attending once a year if lucky, seeing the scale of cutbacks. The quality of the 'show' is so much poorer now than it was on my first visit in 1989.
Take my money Disney, here - I am giving it to you, but don't think we don't notice the 'small things'.
But as Robert quite rightly said - voting with your wallet is all you can do.
In years past we have spent 4 or 5 days at Disney, the last 2 vacations have been 1 day.
Currently am looking to skip WDW altogether to have a blow out vacation at Disneyland when the park, and my father, turn 60 in 2 years. Already looking forward to noticing all the differences!
From Doug Jenkins on June 6, 2013 at 6:36 AM
Well said. We have decided to spend our entertainment dollars at Universal, which also had a price increase. However they have committed over a billion dollars in upgrades to their parks, while Disney is lagging WAY behind (I'm 58 and not a big fan of the Magic Kingdom any longer)
From Mark Fairleigh on June 6, 2013 at 6:48 AM
It's all about value and, in my opinion, charging more for MK makes sense. It's the best park at WDW so there should be a premium over the other three. As far as cost in general, did I have fun on my vacation? did I ever leave saying man what a waste of money, never doing this again? Not once. The sheerness of manpower and maintenance needed to run the parks as well as they do is something I try to keep in mind if I get a little knee-jerky about ticket prices. If you think about how much it costs to go to a movie these days (including concessions) and what you get out of it in return...park fees seem a lot more reasonable. So when it comes down to it...I'll sacrifice elsewhere, if necessary, to keep coming back year after year because it's that worth-it to me.
From 107.219.189.242 on June 6, 2013 at 7:20 AM
We live in greater Los Angeles, and for our family, with two children in elementary school, the cost of a trip to Disneyland (over $100 per person for 1-day parkhoppers) just isn't a good value compared to other options in the area.

Our last visits to Disneyland were weekend visits last October and December, and the parks were so crowded and the lines so long, we couldn't do half of what we wanted. There are no longer discounts to Disneyland (there used to be 2fer tickets in the first 5 months of the year), but with how well the parks are doing with CarsLand and the California Adventure improvements, Disney doesn't need incentives anymore, and people will willingly pay (even if they complain) the higher ticket prices.

Last fall, Knott's Berry Farm was selling season passes for calendar 2013 for $66 (thanks for the heads-up, Robert). Granted, the level of theming and quality of the rides and shows is not up to Disney standards, but they are making steps in the right decision with the recent Log Ride refurbishment, new promotional events, and a new commitment to what made the park special in the past. For the price, we are getting one year of unlimited visits for about half the cost of one-day Disneyland park hoppers.

Another park we've come to love is Legoland north of San Diego. Everything is tailor-made for children under 12 or so. It's a little farther away (maybe 2-3 hours), but still manageable. Tickets are about the same price as Disneyland, but there are lots of discounts available, especially if you live in southern California and are involved with your local schools or libraries. We just got back from a visit that included a stay at the new Legoland-themed hotel right on property, and in truth the hotel plus the park visit was more magical than our Disneyland visits for the past 3 or 4 years.

It's true -- there are lots of alternatives to Disney parks, especially when you consider the value of what you are paying for.

From 66.102.150.48 on June 6, 2013 at 7:24 AM
I Love Disneyland, and Walt Disney wanted this to be a place for families to enjoy together, but now thats not too much of a reality anymore, anyone with any more than 2 kids just can't afford to go there anymore,what a shame, especially if you are coming from any distance, and with the cost of gas, airfair, and hotels,parking, admission prices,food, or any type souviners people just can't afford it anymore, what a shame, Walt would be heartbroken.
From Anon Mouse on June 6, 2013 at 7:32 AM
I don't understand the premise that "Whiners get the worst deals". How is that? How is whining getting you the worst deals? I think dumping Disney might actually be a good thing because Disney is not merely a vacation... Disney is a lifestyle choice and Disney's prices reflect the yearning for the perfect vacation with Mickey Mouse.

If you're forced to consider alternatives to Disney, it might actually be a healthy decision and you CAN save a buck or two. There's nothing wrong with making Disney your vacation every five years or so. It is a major decision to travel to the theme parks as vacation as it is for visiting a city or country destination.

From Joshua Bixler on June 6, 2013 at 9:49 AM
I whine about how expensive Disney is LOL, and I still have a great time while I'm there. I also get a "good" deal, all things considered.

I completely agree with the comments on Universal. While it is expensive to go there as well, I feel you get more bang for your buck. My wife and I were all about Disney, but Universal's constant upgrades and more mature feel, have won us over.

If someone is all about the rides, and doesn't care as much about the theming, then they should ditch Disney and Universal all together. Six Flags is much more reasonably priced, as are the Cedar Fair Parks. If you want to really do it the dirt-cheap way, there are a lot of great family-owned amusement parks around the country as well. In Pennsylvania you have Knoebels and Waldameer. They offer free admission, free parking, and free shows. Many of the rides, especially the wooden roller coasters, are top-notch and have won a lot of awards. You can get an all day ride-pass at one of those parks for about $20-$30.

I'm an Orlando die-hard, and fantastic theming and world-class dark rides are where I'm putting my vacation money towards.

From 172.251.28.200 on June 6, 2013 at 11:57 AM
I have to agree, I'll pay the extra because I want to go to Disneyland specifically and I want the Disney experience. As a Disneyland local who doesn't have an annual pass, we only go twice a year, and when we do go, we go for the full day (open to close) and make the most out of our time to get the best value for how much we pay.

Sure, Six Flags: Magic Mountain is closer, and less expensive, but the park has no feel to it - its just a bunch of great rollercoasters (and not much else) which you wait in very long lines for. We were done after about 4 hours. It wasn't a memorable experience like all of our Disneyland trips have been. For that alone, I'm willing to pay the difference.

From TROY DAVIDSON on June 6, 2013 at 11:57 AM
I've had Disney annual passes for years. After they expire I will not be going for a while. I'm giving my money to Universal. Universal feels fresh and new....Disney not so much.
From 208.110.209.18 on June 6, 2013 at 1:06 PM
Good job Robert! I'm glad somebody (you) said this. I'm big a big Disney fan, and we go a lot, but I've been to some of the other parks, and you're right, there is a lot more to see and do than just Disney. SeaWorld in Orlando is a great park in itself and priced considerably lower than a single day at Disney. Also, Busch Gardens in Tampa has a great park with some real thrill rides.
From 64.12.116.206 on June 6, 2013 at 3:42 PM
This was a modest price increase, compared to last year's price JUMP. Last year, I got a 6-day park hopper for Disneyland Resort for $220 (before the price jump). This year? $290 for a 5 day park hopper. That's quite a difference, for one less day in the parks.

Speaking of which, they made a terrible decision when they decided to phase out the 6-day multi-day tickets. Do they want us to spend less days in their parks, driving us into the arms of the competition? Mission accomplished.

From Gabriel Schroll on June 6, 2013 at 5:37 PM
I've been a WDW annual passholder for 4 years now, though I just moved to the Midwest so I did not renew.

Being an Orlando resident, I would go to Disney World an average of twice a month, sometimes more (Food & Wine/Flower & Garden specifically) and sometimes less (middle of Summer, Jan/Feb), but getting an annual pass was built into me and my wife's budget. Even if they raised their prices $100, we'd still get passes.

But now that I'm far from WDW, I have to think about things a little more. For instance, the option of going to Disneyland is a lot more appealing now that I don't have a local park that I can drive to in less than an hour.

The cost of a park ticket really isn't going to affect me, as it's only a few bucks. But I will at least take a few hours to research different options and read suggestions and guides on how to have a better vacation as I can no longer take it for granted that WDW (and Universal Orlando/Sea World) are in my backyard.

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