Is This America's Last Middle Class Theme Park?
With ticket prices rising up to and even over the $100 a day mark for the nation's most popular theme parks, middle class families might be wondering if they can how much longer they will be able to afford to visit theme parks.
At first glance, the choice seems stark: Find some sort of package that makes a visit to one of the Disney or Universal resorts an affordable deal, or settle for a shorter trip to a regional amusement park. While going for a less popular park isn't a bad deal for roller coaster fans — heck, most coaster fans would prefer a visit to a great iron park over going to Disney or Universal — families who prefer themed rides to thrill rides probably won't think much of that option.
Where is the middle option for the middle class — a park offering Disney-style dark rides and first-class shows at regional amusement park prices?
Fortunately, theme park fans in Southern California are getting that option, as Knott's Berry Farm changes course from the traditional regional park strategy of putting up more coasters and carnival rides in favor of embracing the dark rides and shows that once made it Disney's greatest theme park rival. (Even the Busch Gardens parks seems to be moving more and more to a Six Flags-style model.)
I write about Knott's Berry Farm's appeal to middle class visitors in my Orange County Register column this week. I hope that you'll give it read.
How are you finding value for your money in theme park visits?
Perhaps an interview with Matt Ouimet would be illuminating on this topic.
For 11 years I've been a Disneyland passholder. However, this year I finally decided not to renew it. The cheapest Disney pass available is $300, and you're blocked out on weekends! That's paying $300 to go on Friday nights and that's it! On the other hand, a Knott's season pass is $86, and a Six Flags membership is $75. Having these 2 passes has been great. Not only is the combined total of the prices half the cost of a Disney pass, but they have no blackout dates! In the end, I've been much happier having Knott's and SFMM passes then having a Disneyland pass.
I would like to suggest Dollywood as a good regional park. It has a great mix of good food, some truly fantastic coasters and lots of arts, crafts and stage shows. It may be lacking a bit in the "Dark Ride" side of things, but at $60 it is fairly affordable.
I think the lack of "middle-class" options says more about our economy than anything else. There is no more middle class as it was defined in the 70's and 80's. There are far more working poor and white collar elites than there were a generation ago, and you're seeing that shift in the purchasing behaviors and lifestyles of the current 20-something generation (millennials as they seem to be called). Those that have money (white collar elites) spend it, and a week at Disney is a drop in the bucket on a $250k/year income. Those that don't have money stay close to home and favor those regional parks that offer the day away for fun. The working poor lack the disposable income that make an out of region vacation a once every 3-5 years proposition, so whether that be to Orlando or Hawaii, it's simply not something that this group can afford every single year.
If don't mind taking a vacation try Dollywood in Sevierville TN. one day at $62 multi-day at $95. Not themed but very family oriented is Knoebels in Elysburg PA. they operate on a ticket book system (Didn't Disney do that at one time.)ar $5-10-20 with a current 10% discount.
I don't consider Knott's to be a middle class option. It is a lower class option. The rides are inadequate as both the Six Flags comparison and the Disney dark ride option. Knott's is clearly between the two extremes.
The middle class still exists, but tastes have changed to favor the high-end lifestyles that were once reserved for the rich. These are the kinds of people who turn their nose down at Six Flags for being cheap or attracting the lower-class, even though they're scrapping pennies together to go to Disneyland.
Both Silver Dollar City and Dollywood are excellent Disney-on-a-budget style theme parks.
I agree with James that I think Dollywood, Dollar city, Holiday World, etc..are great alternatives. Too many people are caught up into Disneyland. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy going to Disneyland from every few years but there is so much more offered out there that people are missing out! My sister and cousin just spent around 2 thousands dollars total for a 4 day stay at Disneyland. For the same amount of money, I got a full round trip flight to PA, a week long rental car and went to Holiday World, Six Flag Great Adventure, King Island, Cedar Point and Hershey Park! And that included food and hotel stay (FYI: I had the season pass that paid for parking and gate entry to six flags and cedar fair parks). That trip was way more memorable than any Disneyland trip I've done in the past decade!
I went to Knotts this spring and I would like to say it gave me the same feeling I got going to Disneyland I the 80's. Old school themed dark ride fun! I will be planning a trip back to Knotts before I go back to Disneyland for sure (this is coming from a Disney fanatic).
Contrary to the popular impression that the middle class is declining, it is actually alive and well. Even though the percentage of middle class households of the overall number of households in the USA declined from 57% to 45% between the years 1979 and 2012; during that same period the population of the United States grew by 40%, so the actual number of middle class households has grown by over 10%.
I visit always visit one of the Orlando parks at least once a month (depending on whose annual pass I have, of course) and the majority of the people I see at the parks don't really seem that rich. Sure, I wouldn't really classify them as "low income" but they don't really seem to be "white-collar elites" (key word: seem). A regional park is still a good idea if you wanna save a few extra bucks, but I don't think the situation of whether or not the average middle class family can visit Disney or Universal is as bad as some people would have us believe.
I agree that Knott's Berry Farm is a good option for those who can't afford to or don't want to visit Disney. However, it is not the last middle class theme park. Holiday World, the Herschend parks, Hersheypark, Busch Gardens...even the Cedar Fair and Six Flags parks are theme parks to a certain degree. Actually, other than the Disney parks I'd say that most of America's major theme parks still appeal to middle class families.
I don't think Seaworld and Universal studios is all that bad in price. I found tickets for both and it came out around 100 dollars total for the both of them. Besides I think Disney is worth the money and Universal and Seaworld is also worth the prices.
I love Dollywood, Holiday World, the Busch Gardens parks, SeaWorld, and some of the other parks mentioned in these comments. But none of them are moving in the direction of adding more themed entertainment, especially dark rides, the way that Knott's has been. That's my point here.
Robert or others:
Mr. Niles writes that Knott's Berry Farm is a great place to visit now since the prices are low and they are focusing more of their resources on the construction of dark rides.
The real problem with the middle tier parks trying to get more themed dark rides in their entertainment mix is a lack of capital investment. Six Flags, Cedar Fair, and Sea World routinely make capital investments to their parks to the tune of $100-140 million per year - over multiple parks. Disney and Universal can afford to spend this kind of money on developing 1 or 2 rides in an immersive land in a single park every year. The economics just don't support a strong move into well-themed dark rides for these park operators.
Those that are saying that Knotts are not bringing Disney/Universal quality to their dark rides haven't seen what they did to The Calico Mine Ride or Their Log Ride. These classics have been brought up to Pirates of the Caribbean level. Also as a comparison of value, I am going to Tokyo Disney this year. The current price is around $64 per day.
Great article, Robert.
What's wrong with Micheal Eisner? So many Disney parks were built during his time, and that's when the two best Disney rides, as well as the two best theme park rides of all time, Splash Mountain and Tower of Terror, were built! If you don't count Walt and Roy, Eisner was the best thing that ever happened to the Disney parks!
Eisner deserves credit for some creative decisions, especially in the early days before he turned into a cheapskate. The real problem with Eisner was that he deserted Walt's vision of Disneyland being an inexpensive refuge for the middle class. Knott's Berry Farm should pick up Walt's mantle by marketing to the segments of the market most likely to desert Disney: fans who care less about IP and just want great attractions at a fair price.
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