Is This America's Last Middle Class Theme Park?

July 28, 2015, 11:25 AM · 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?

Inside Knott's Calico Mine Ride

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?

Replies (22)

July 28, 2015 at 12:04 PM · Perhaps an interview with Matt Ouimet would be illuminating on this topic.

July 28, 2015 at 12:32 PM · 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.
July 28, 2015 at 12:33 PM · 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.
July 28, 2015 at 12:38 PM · 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.

The group that Disney used to target, middle class (making at or slightly above the US median income - @$52k) is shrinking as people exit the workforce to live off single incomes for a multi-person household, and those that over achieve have significant wealth. Disney now targets that later group (white collar elite) and their disposable income, because it's easier to get those guests to come back on an annual basis for an easy to book/plan, familiar vacation than it is to rely on the working poor coming every 5 years getting frustrated by the startling change that occurs in between visits. Those of us left in the real middle class (at or slightly above the median - up to @$250k) are a dying breed with enough disposable income to afford annual vacations and enough exposure to regional parks to know theme is important. As the disparity continues to grow, the question will become more of whether the middle class still exists 20 years from now than if theme parks will continue to appeal to a shrinking segment of the population.

July 28, 2015 at 1:44 PM · 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.

July 28, 2015 at 2:06 PM · 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.

Disney is at the upper echelon of theme parks with Universal, SeaWorld, and LEGOLAND on a sliding scale.

I don't believe Knott's has yet to find its niche. It's indecision in the past has hurt its reputation. I am still dumbfounded as to why it doesn't offer a year round haunt attraction as the pioneer in this area. Imagine a tame dark ride version that can appeal to kids for some fun mild scares, and a slightly scarier version at night.

Elements of its famed customer service went away when they removed the Haunted Shack tour. There is less customer interaction although they still have remarkable characters on the train ride and the stagecoach. Their Christmas entertainment is quite good.

July 28, 2015 at 2:08 PM · 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.
July 28, 2015 at 3:08 PM · Both Silver Dollar City and Dollywood are excellent Disney-on-a-budget style theme parks.
July 28, 2015 at 3:25 PM · 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!
July 28, 2015 at 7:33 PM · 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).
July 29, 2015 at 7:45 AM · 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%.

You also can't blame Disney and Universal for catering to upper income families both foreign and domestic. These are the people who have the disposable income and are willing to spend it at the premium theme parks and thus fund the amazing and immersive lands and attractions that we get to enjoy whether we are a frequent visitor with a lot of disposable income or the scrimper who manages to put the funds together for the occasional visit.

The Six Flags and Busch Gardens style parks are perfectly fine for the middle class visitor. Sure there's a shortage of dark rides, but that dynamic may be slowly changing as Six Flags and Knott's appear to be redirecting some of their I&M money towards dark rides. It's doubtful that they will ever come near the level of dark rides that Disney and Universal provide, but the mid-level theme park operators have realized that a park with only coasters and spinners is a park that is losing a lot of potential visitors and are working carefully to capture some of that market.

In addition, the idea that we are also entitled to a one or two week vacation every single year is somewhat archaic. With the internet and smartphones so pervasive in our society today, we don't need to get out on the road as much to appreciate the rest of the world, and a "staycation" where we spend a week away from our gadgets and reconnect with our loved ones as well as spending some time at our local attractions is not a bad idea.

July 29, 2015 at 9:37 AM · 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.
July 29, 2015 at 10:21 AM · 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 think the big issue is not how much is spent per visit, but how often a visit is made. It is not too difficult to save money for a week at Walt Disney World, but it is not something that can be done on an annual basis by most families anymore. If, instead of going every year or every other year, you only visit once every 3-5 years, the vacation becomes a lot more achievable. And, honestly, while the Disney fan may feel differently, I don't see much incentive to visit a place like WDW more than 2-3 times a decade given their rate of additions (granted, I haven't been to WDW, but I'd feel the same about Disneyland if I moved out of Southern California).

As for the last question in the article, instead of getting a Disneyland pass every year I now just pay to visit once a year. With the money saved, I've purchased passes to Knott's Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain, and Universal Studios Hollywood. While none of those parks are individually better than Disneyland, they are all quality parks and the combination of all three provides better value for me than the two Disney parks.

July 29, 2015 at 10:34 AM · 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.
July 29, 2015 at 11:27 AM · 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.

I would love to see other parks follow Knott's lead, as I think that Disney and Universal are leaving space in the market with their aggressive pricing (and not just top-line pricing, but also in the complexity of pricing their various vacation plans). I love what Six Flags did with Justice League and hope that it encourages Six Flags to embrace the theming that its original parks once had. Busch Gardens has had success in themed rides in the past. And I hope that the lukewarm public reaction to Antarctica doesn't keep SeaWorld from giving it another go in developing a themed dark ride. The market is out there, waiting.

July 29, 2015 at 11:34 AM · Robert or others:

After reading this post plus the article, I was wondering...

Is there any real indication that the Cedar Fair parks as a whole -- beyond just Knotts -- are going to start adding more legitimate theme-park style options to their parks ?

My family are season pass holders to California's Great America, a Cedar Fair park. The season passes were roughly $80 per person, and the gold pass includes parking, so it is a very good value. The waterpark makes it worth it for our family, but the attractions at the main park are almost 100% coasters and thrill rides. They do have one great show ("Aerial Ice Extreme"), but no real dark rides and all the other show and theme stuff seems mediocre at best.

It would be great to hear that Cedar Fair as a whole was trying to up the quantity and quality on themed elements and dark rides.

July 29, 2015 at 1:14 PM · 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.

And I 100% agree. I do believe that the average American middle class family can enjoy Disney and Universal, but Knott's is still great for those who wanna go easy on their wallets (at least from what I've seen...I haven't physically been to Knott's :( ). But I ask you, will Knott's still be as affordable if they keep pursuing the themed entertainment market?

I don't think it takes a business expert to see that the reason why Disney and Universal are raising prices is not because of some economic shift, but because they know that people from all different corners of the world like going to their parks and spend loads of money there. They know people are willing to spend more so they charge more. But the reason why people are paying more there is because themed entertainment makes for a more wholesome vacation. Say that Knott's does keeping pumping out more themed rides and eventually builds something as good as Pirates of the Carribean or Forbidden Journey. That, along with the low prices,would gain the park much more recognition around the country and, if they can keep it up, the world. Then many, many more tourists will start visiting Knott's and it would get to the point where they would have built a huge fanbase that would spend lots of money. Knowing businessmen, they will see this as an oppurtunity to start raising prices.

Supply and demand 101

July 29, 2015 at 1:54 PM · 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.

The best that we can expect from the mid-level parks is a gradual movement into moderately themed dark rides with a great number of clones or near clones in different parks just to keep developmental costs down - which is a scenario that I just don't see as plausible. Mid-level parks just don't have the additional revenue streams like hotels and restaurants and entertainment districts that Disney and Universal have.

Anyway variety is the spice of life. Sometimes I want the fast food of the theme park industry like Six Flags with their coasters and spinners (and resulting brain trama), and sometimes I want the black tie dinner experience (and bank account depletion) that Disney and Universal offer.

July 29, 2015 at 9:03 PM · 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.
July 30, 2015 at 10:08 AM · Great article, Robert.

What if Knott's Berry Farm added high quality knock-offs of Space Mountain and the Matterhorn, Grizzly River Rapids and also a haunted house like Anon Mouse suggested?

How much of an attendance increase could Knott's Berry Farm expect with these additions?

How much investment would be required and would Knott's Berry Farm benefit from a new ownership with deep pockets? Blackstone, maybe?

I love Knott's Berry Farm's location and climate. It would be awesome if Knott's Berry Farm made a serious effort to cater to Disney fans who remember how great things were before Michael Eisner.

August 1, 2015 at 8:55 PM · 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!
August 3, 2015 at 4:00 PM · 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.

When Eisner became CEO of Disney in 1984, Disneyland tickets cost $14.00 per person. When he resigned as CEO in 2005, Disneyland tickets cost $56.00 per person. If Disneyland tickets had been indexed to the CPI inflation rate, they would have cost just $26.00 in 2005 and just $31.00 today. See what having a monopoly can do for your business?

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