Theme Park Insider

What happens when a park wants more visitors, but not too many more

August 16, 2016, 10:11 AM · With soft attendance at many major theme parks this summer, many parks are looking for ways to boost attendance. Some are offering discounts, and some are rescinding blockout dates on their annual passes.

The Disney and Universal theme parks sell lower-priced versions of their annual passes, usually targeted to locals, that balance those lower prices with extensive blockout dates during the summer and other holiday periods. You really ought to think of these passes as "low season" passes rather than "annual" passes, because the idea behind them is to fill the park with locals during the school year, when most tourists stay close to home instead of coming the parks. During popular vacation weeks, though, those tourists keep the parks filled, so the parks don't need (or really want) the locals adding to the crowd.

But what happens when the tourists don't show during the summer? One way that parks can counter that is by lifting their blockout dates, allowing the locals back into help fill the parks. Universal Orlando did that this summer, lifting blockout dates on its Power Passes. Walt Disney World held firm on its blockouts, but recently started selling $79 one-day park-hopper tickets to its annual passholders, to encourage them to bring family, friends (or random people they met on the Internet) to the Disney parks for cheap.

In California, Disneyland just sucked it up, as the attendance slump there didn't hit nearly as bad as it did in Orlando. Up the road at Universal Studios Hollywood, however, the park found a clever way to lift blackout dates for some of its annual passholders.

The situation at USH this summer is unique. Universal stopped selling annual passes for a time last year, as it prepared for the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter last spring. When the park resumed AP sales last November, it offered three levels — two of which it no longer sells. The park then added, then took away, then brought back a seasonal pass option. But attendance has been strong this summer anyway, as Potter has helped keep the park, and its queues, filled.

So Universal hasn't needed to fill the park with locals to hit its numbers. But there's a flip side to blockout dates (or blackout dates, as Universal Studios Hollywood calls them). That's the crowd surge that happens when they lift.

Disneyland's summer blockouts on Southern California Select Annual Passes lift on Monday, and you'd better expect the park to be packed next week. With the end of the 60th anniversary Diamond Celebration coming on Sept. 5, local fans will be filling the park as they come back to see the Disneyland Forever fireworks and the Paint the Night parade before they close. The late-August crowds is even worse in years when Disneyland opens something new during the summer, and returning SoCal Select APers rush the park as soon as they have the opportunity to see it.

That's the scenario that Universal Studios Hollywood faced this year. All of its annual passholders had an opportunity to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter before its summer blackouts kicked it. But the park opened its The Walking Dead Attraction on July 4 — smack in the blackouts. And its been running a nifty exhibition of Laika Animation models this summer, too. Many annual passholders wouldn't have had the opportunity to see those attractions when they opened, leading to a rush on the park as soon as those blackouts lifted.

Except that Universal Studios Hollywood found a way to alleviate some of that pressure. During the summer, it offered its annual passholders the opportunity to register online for a one-day special admission on a blackout date, first to see The Walking Dead and next to see the Laika exhibit. The exceptions were capacity-controlled — only a limited number of AP holders were allowed to register for each of the designated days and once one day was "sold out," you had to pick another available day. And each AP holder could pick only one day to get into the park for each event.

If lifting blockout dates is a shotgun approach to boosting attendance, Universal Studios Hollywood's system this summer was a laser-sighted rifle. It allowed the park to admit a designated number of blacked-out annual passholders on each day, potentially redistributing some of the August rush to dates throughout the summer, while not overwhelming the park on any of those dates. It also allowed the park to keep its blacked-out annual passholders in the habit of coming to the park during the summer, without significantly undermining the value of higher-priced passes that it had sold with fewer blackout dates.

With their new date-specific pricing plans on one-day tickets, Disney and Universal theme parks are looking to do a better job of "smoothing" their attendance levels, steering people from traditionally crowded days to traditionally less-crowded ones. Blockout dates always have been part of that effort, but Universal Studios Hollywood's use of them this summer shows that parks are finding even more focused ways to shape their attendance numbers.

Got a question about theme parks? Robert's starting a mailbag column. Send your question/comment/conspiracy theories to themeparkinsider@gmail.com and we'll answer the best ones in an upcoming post.

Replies (9)

August 16, 2016 at 10:47 AM · Parks exist in physical space, not cyber space. There is a limit to the number of guests they can accomodate, and it's not the max capacity number. Once the parks get so crowded that no one is having any fun, then the guest experience is gone, and you start losing your customers.

The small attendance drop of 4% this summer is good news for everyone. After multiple price increases, maybe the parks are reaching the sweet spot, in which they can still make hefty profits, but not at the expense of the guest experience and customer loyalty.

August 16, 2016 at 10:51 AM · USH is offering the Season Pass for $119 that lasts until Feb 2017. It's a half year pass without a lot of blackout dates. It's a pretty good deal since the next level is more than double the amount.

Disneyland did offer a summer pass for locals in the past. I haven't seen it in the last few years. It is essentially a 3 day pass for $180. The only other near term option is the Halloween pass for $79 on a week day. Next year, the local SoCal pass is offered. If you're doing the CHOC charity walk/run, you can buy some discounted one day passes.

August 16, 2016 at 3:29 PM · Summer 2016 turned out to be one hell of a surprise to both the WDCo and Comcast, as internal projections for both theme park divisions, on both coasts, were way off. Comcast more so, as this is the first time the WWOHP did not deliver internal projections, again on both coasts.

Taking SoCal into consideration...
Internal strategizing at Team Disney Anaheim, lead to the last minute 60th take aways. With APs coming off block out days and non-APers seeking to experience the Anniversary numbers are bound to bump-up.

By not releasing any predictions UH can still claim, and press/bloggers will follow the lead, that attendance is up.

And quiet cost cuts (including reducing hours, eliminating seasonal workers) at UH and not so quiet at The Disneyland Resort, show the attendance dip may be more long term, than originally planned. Internal conversations at both resorts are asking the question...

Are we becoming a premium experience at our current price point?

August 16, 2016 at 4:20 PM · Let's clear something up: Attendance at USH is up year over year (and it might be the only major park that can say that). That's not some press/blogger fantasy. That said, from what I've heard about USH's attendance estimates for post-Potter, they were insane. So it is possible, indeed likely, that both statements are true: that attendance is up but that it is less than estimates.

Frankly, I have no idea what USH is using to model attendance forecasts at this point, after having blown up its AP and daily ticket programs to the point it did. And Orlando provides no guidance - it's such a different market than California. If USH relied on anything from Orlando to model its attendance, that was a foolish move. They've entered uncharted territory here.

My unsolicited advice? USH needs a nighttime show to extend the day for tourists and to draw locals into the park. It needs to finally give up worrying about cannibalizing CityWalk and just embrace that the ET parking structure has more than enough spaces to accommodate everyone.

The Hogwarts castle projection show from the premiere would be perfect for that need. Pyro ain't gonna happen on any regular basis here, but multiple projection mapping shows on the castle each night would help the park. Longer term, the park needs some nighttime entertainment designed into the Lower Lot expansion, as well.

Ultimately, the park won't achieve maturity until it gets that hotel done and it has a couple of years of consistency in AP and ticket structure under its belt. The prices don't have to remain constant, but the products do. Right now, no one in the market knows what to expect from Universal, and without its own hotels, it's too hard to hold tourists captive to the resort the way that Disneyland can.

Are theme parks are premium experience at this price point? They were designed to be. The trouble is that the number of people who can afford the premium price point is deteriorating faster than anyone modeled. That's an external political problem. But parks are going to have to figure out how to deal with it.

August 16, 2016 at 5:40 PM · The price of attending Disneyland or Universal is more than the cost of a wide screen television for a family of four. The choice isn't hard.
August 16, 2016 at 10:31 PM · Even if Universal Hollywood had its own hotels, it can't hold tourists captive because it's a one-day experience. Disneyland Resort, on the other hand, can easily fill five or more days (and I'm still pissed that they phased out the 6-day ticket).
August 17, 2016 at 3:21 AM · Internal UH conversations already detail the hotel is a Hollywood tourist revenue play, not designed specifically for engaging longer stays at UH. Comcast would also like to acquire the two existing hotels on property.

Internal conversations have even included a massive rebuild of CityWalk if it could offer more land for theme park expansion. The thought was to redirect CityWalk into the existing surface lot. It would take A LOT of money, but it could offer precious space for upper lot expansion.

Internal conversations have also narrowed night time entertainment (yes, it's projections), but UH's neighbor's will have a say. It's all about the noise level. And today's spectaculars are noisy with or without fireworks. And noise testing has CONFIRMED the noise definitely travels up the hill.

The "Premium Experience" argument is circular. The WDCo and Comcast are driven by quarterly results. Both still plan to replace/expand and dramatically increase prices. The goal... create a MUST SEE environment. It's worked before and, most likely, will again. Everyone has a credit card!

The real DIS/Comcast savior will only be expanding the purchasing power of the theme park class.

August 17, 2016 at 5:14 PM · Don't you mean noise travels DOWN the hill. The residents are living further down the hill. Hogwarts is at the highest point.

Rebuilding CityWalk to give up more space for the theme park seems an unnecessary waste of resources especially after rehabbing it and new vendors appeared. Instead, they should consider building the theme park at the surface parking lots and create a new entrance.

August 18, 2016 at 4:26 AM · Traditionally, the loudest critics of UH live in the hills above Barham. They are highly organized and have defeated UH serval times, without actual court action.

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