There are some very lucky people in the world who live in the Orlando area, and there are other very lucky people who can afford to jet to MCO at a moment's notice to get their theme park fix. Unfortunately, the rest of us have to wait for those special trips to Florida every year or two (or three), so we're left with the alternative: visiting our local/regional amusement park.
Sarcasm much? Really, I should turn it down a notch. The truth is that there are some really amazing parks all around the U.S.A., and true enthusiasts make it their business to check them out, even if they don't fall into the special category of "global destination park." And yes, some of these great parks are even part of the *gasp* big regional chains. Don't let that stop you from having a great summer of fun. For sheer thrills, it's hard to beat Six Flags and Cedar Fair when it comes to big and scary roller coasters. Far ahead of anywhere for theming and dark rides, Orlando's actually a little behind the curve in the big coaster department, both in numbers and variety, while Six Flags and Cedar Fair clearly lead the way.
So if you've resigned yourself to a thrilling summer of staycationing at your local Six Flags or Cedar Fair park, you must first ask yourself the question: Are you going to make more than one visit to the park over the season? If so, then common sense says that you should consider getting a Season Pass. But what kind of Season Pass? Silver, Combo, Gold, or Platinum? Should you go for the pass that includes the waterpark? What about the payment plans that the chains offer? Are they worth it?
Well, we've got the answers right here with your guide to Six Flags and Cedar Fair Season Passes for 2014.
What's a Season Pass?
Does a Season Pass make sense for you? It depends on the number of times you're going to visit the park, and it may also depend on whether you are going to visit any other parks in the chain. Let's first start with a bit of nomenclature because not all Season Passes are created equal. For example, all of Cedar Fair's parks offer Silver and Platinum Passes. Silver Passes are "standard" season passes, which I'll explain in a moment. Note that, depending on which is your home park, you may be able to get a discount for buying four or more passes, for being a Senior or for being under 48 inches tall, or for buying a Silver Pass renewal. A "standard" Silver Pass generally comes with unlimited admission, which may or may not include waterpark admission, and admission to Halloween events as well. It's dependent upon the park. That's the basic, "standard" package.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Cedar Fair Platinum Pass. It's a lot more expensive, but it comes with a lot more stuff, like waterpark admission if there is a waterpark, free parking, discounts on food and merchandise, special perks like Exclusive Ride Time (ERT), and, the big one for travelers, admission to any park in the Cedar Fair chain. Some Cedar Fair parks also offer a middle ground, called the Gold Pass. You get most, if not all, of the perks of the CF Platinum Pass, but you cannot use your pass around the chain. Naturally, it's priced between Silver and Platinum.
Six Flags calls its passes Regular, Gold, Combo, and Combo Gold. Regular passes get you unlimited visits to any Six Flags park, a great feature for the well-traveled and for which Cedar Point charges an arm and a leg. You also get a coupon book, discounts, bring-a-friend-free days, ERT, and other perks. Six Flags Gold Passes get you all of the fancy extras like free season parking both at your home park and around the chain, extra bring-a-friend-free coupons, and VIP early entry. The Six Flags Combo Season Pass and the Six Flags Combo Gold Pass are the same as above, but they also include waterpark admission where a sister waterpark has a separate admission gate. Some Six Flags parks have their water park inside the amusement park, like Six Flags St. Louis, while other Six Flags have separate entrances for the water park and amusement park, like Six Flags Over Texas and nearby Hurricane Harbor.
Sure, it sounds confusing, but the basic offer is a reasonable value proposition for the typical theme park visitor. For example, a single full price admission at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey is currently $65.99, although there will probably be at least a $5 discount during the season for purchasing online or for bringing in a coupon on a Coke can, so let's use $60.99. The Six Flags Great Adventure Regular Season Pass price is $79.99 per person, so if you're going to visit at least twice, the Regular Season Pass is obviously a better deal than paying twice for admission. It's an even better deal if you're buying four or more passes, because Great Adventure will give you $5 off on each pass, plus they'll throw in a season parking pass (worth $65), as long as you have your passes processed at the park by April 27th.
Going for Gold?
Is Gold worth is? The Six Flags Great Adventure Gold Season Pass comes with season parking for each Pass issued, as well as free parking at every other Six Flags park. If you make the rounds like I do, that parking pass at other Six Flags parks can come in handy. And the Gold Season Pass has those other perks, like VIP early entry, but you'll have to decide if those add-ons are worth the $10-$25 additional cost per pass over the Regular, depending on how many you buy. The upgrade is cheaper per pass if you're buying four or more.
One thing that I love about Six Flags Season Passes, even the plain old Regular Pass, is that every pass can be used at every park, no matter which park you buy it from. That's significant, because each park prices its Season Passes appropriately for its market. In large markets, parks price their Season Passes more expensively than in smaller markets, and this practice is true of both Six Flags and Cedar Fair. But only Six Flags lets you use any pass at any Six Flags park. Last year I was able to get a Regular Season Pass at Six Flags Mexico in Mexico City for less than US$40! I used that pass again at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington, Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio, and Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California. The only real limitation is that you have to get the passes processed at the park where you bought them, so Dad can't really pick up an armful of cheap Season Passes while he's on a business trip if he doesn't already have the kids in tow. But if your home park is in a major market and your first Six Flags visit of the year is at a smaller market like Maryland or St. Louis, you can save a few bucks on your Season Passes. Unfortunately your book of coupons is only useful at the park where you get your passes processed. You can make a friend by giving it away during your visit. And if you are from a small market, a Season Pass will save you some money if you visit the bigger flagship parks.
Buy or Lease?
Before I move on to Cedar Fair, I need to point out a major new payment plan scheme introduced by Six Flags for the 2014 season. Six Flags now offers something called "Membership Passes." They work exactly the same as the Season Passes, but you buy them on a monthly basis, as you would pay for a gym membership. It's a lot cheaper than plunking down the full cost of a Season Pass up front, but expect to pay a lot more over time in exchange for the convenience of low monthly payments.
It's something to think about, because the payments are really low! Let's look at Six Flags Over Georgia, for example. Let's say you bought four Regular Season Passes for your family of four. That's going to set you back $219.96. Now suppose you opt for "Membership Passes" instead. You could bring the family of four to the park on that first visit for only $24.36! That's a pretty attractive price point for that first visit. It's also tempting to top up that membership all the way to Gold Combo, which includes all of the extras like access to White Water Atlanta waterpark and a season parking pass for both the amusement park and the water park. Your first payment would only be $29.34, less than $5 more. For the modern American family, trying to stretch their entertainment dollar, it looks like a great deal. Bring the whole family to the park with all the perks for less than the price of one adult $59.99 single admission.
But there's the catch: "First Payment". Six Flags' Memberships are convenient and inexpensive on a monthly basis, but now Six Flags has got you on the hook for 11 more payments after the first. If you buy a Membership Pass in April, you'll still be paying for last summer when February's cold snows blow in. Cancellation before the 12-month period comes with a cancellation payment that's probably equal to the remaining payments. If you haven't done the math yet, I'll oblige. Looking back at the Regular Membership Pass, you end up paying $292.32 over 12 months instead of the $219.96 you could have paid at the beginning of the season. It's a very attractive first entry price for the guest, as I said, but it's also a very sweet deal for Six Flags. Six Flags is taking some risk by letting the season pass buyer stretch the payments out over time, but they're also making sure that they're being compensated. On the other hand, if a guest is cash short at the moment, the Membership Pass provides a lot of flexibility.
By comparison, Cedar Fair's payment plan is a lot more straightforward. Cedar Fair Season Passes have to be paid off in six months, but the total payments add up exactly to the original price. Cedar Fair is even losing a little bit on the deal because they're giving you a six-month interest-free loan!
Cedar Fair's Value Proposition
Cedar Fair's basic value proposition on Season Passes varies from park to park. A Silver Season Pass at Valleyfair in Shakopee, Minnesota pays for itself in two visits, as do the Silver Season Passes at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California and at Kings Dominion in Doswell, Virginia. But not at Cedar Fair's flagship park, Cedar Point, in Sandusky, Ohio. You'll need at least three visits to cover the Silver Season Pass cost, as you will at Dorney Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and at Kings Island in Mason, Ohio. And unless you park hop around the country, the cost of those Platinum Passes are difficult to justify. The only benefit to the Platinum Passes not available to the other Pass types is the ability to use them at all of the Cedar Fair parks. The Platinum Pass made sense for me once, in 2011, when I visited Dorney Park, Kings Dominion, Canada's Wonderland (Vaughn, Ontario), and Cedar Point in one year. If you have a marathon park run planned out, it might make sense for you.
Well, there you have it. Buying Season Passes at your local regional chain park can be a little overwhelming, but hopefully I've laid out a little map to help you analyze your choices. With a bit of planning, you can figure out the best ticketing and pass strategy for you and your loved ones. America is filled with some really great amusement parks, so if you're in it for the fun, get yourself there and check out all the great rides and attractions that the regional parks have to offer.
(Full Disclosure: I am a shareholder of FUN and DIS, but I do not hold shares of SIX.)
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