Why do theme parks' child discounts stop at age 10?

June 2, 2016, 8:34 PM · A reader recently emailed with a question: "Why can't my middle-school children get child discounts on theme park admission anymore?"

It's a fair question, especially from parents who are looking for the best deals they can find on a vacation. Ten- and 11-year-olds are by no means adults, but they're charged like ones at many theme parks' front gates. With all the available discounts, perks, and incentives that parks sometimes make available in an attempt to lure families to book a trip, why not extend the simplest discount of all — the child's price for admission?

Ultimately, theme parks do what they want in setting their admission prices, and the only we vote we get on that decision is whether to buy the tickets or not. Disney used to apply its child discounts to any kids who hadn't hit their teens yet, but years ago started limiting the discounts to children under age 10, instead. (Children under age three get in free at almost all major theme parks.)

So how did age 10 become the magic moment when a child becomes an adult in the eyes of those who run the big theme parks? Perhaps the easiest way to understand this is to stop thinking about child prices as an age-based discount and to start seeing them as a height-based one, instead.

With height restrictions on most popular thrill rides, young children simply can't enjoy all that most major theme parks have to offer — they're too short to ride these attractions. That's the strongest logical case for parks to discount child admissions. Since kids are only getting part of the park, they should pay only part of the price to get in.

Parents who visit a lot of theme parks mark their children's growth in part by when they grow tall enough to get on certain rides. A few, smaller thrill rides will have height restrictions of 36-38 inches, which many three-year-olds can make. But the big milestones, at least at the Disney theme parks, is the 40-inch height restriction, which covers many popular attractions, including Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, and Space Mountain (at Disneyland). Most kids pass that one around age four.

From there, it's a yearly progression up the height chart, as children become eligible to go on more and more rides in the park. Generally, the tallest common height restriction is 54 inches, which covers many of the biggest, fastest and wildest roller coasters. Once you pass the 54-inch mark, you're pretty much go to go ride anything in most major parks.

And when do kids hit that 54 inch mark, on average? Well, that's between ages nine and 10, according to average height/weight charts. So if you're working for a theme park and trying to decide at what point to cut off the kids' admission discount, doing that age 10 makes some sense. And adopting ages 3-9 as the ages for children's prices as an industry standard makes some sense, too, as parents learn what to expect from park to park, regardless of the specific line-up of rides and restrictions at any one park.

Of course, height isn't the only consideration in play here. And parks don't offer discounts to people who can't go on certain thrill rides for other reasons, including pregnancy, back and heart conditions, etc. But if you wanted to make an argument for where the "you're grown up now" cut-off should be within the world of theme parks, age 10 is a pretty good place to make that cut, based how much more the average child that age can do in most parks than they could before they hit that age.

So there's my somewhat simplistic answer for why theme parks start charging full admission to children at age 10.

Replies (12)

June 2, 2016 at 8:54 PM · You know, it is really easy for a parent to lie about their child's age. Maybe she's 11, but mommy says she's 9.

However, a child's height is easily verified.

Due to height restrictions, a shorter individual can experience less of a park's attractions than a taller one. Thus, it makes sense to charge different prices. But then, why not charge by height?

Ol' Tyrion Lannister can get half-price tickets at age 46, while little 4-year old LeBron James pays full price.

I mean, it makes sense, doesn't it?

June 2, 2016 at 9:32 PM · Parents can lie about a kid's age up to a point. Only works if the kid is smaller than the median age of 10 or 11. Nonetheless, parents who want to save money should wait until they are capable of experiencing the more thrilling attractions. Yet on the other hand, most of the Six Flags type parks aren't as expensive as Disneyland. They are usually half as cheap so their cost is almost not a factor between adult prices and children prices.
June 2, 2016 at 10:06 PM · Many parks do charge by height, specifically for the reasons you note.
June 3, 2016 at 12:01 AM · I was curious, so I took a look at the child requirements for the various So Cal parks...

-Disneyland, Universal Studios, and SeaWorld all offer a child's ticket for children aged 3-9.
-Knott's Berry Farm sets their child age range as 3-11.
-At Legoland, an adult is ages 13+.
-Unlike the others, Six Flags Magic Mountain requires that holders of a child ticket be under 48" tall.

Interestingly, from a small amount of additional searching I also found that most other Cedar Fair parks use the 48" rule, and many independent parks used this system as well (sometimes with different height restrictions...54" also popped up). Those that used age generally had a later cutoff than the destination parks, and I even found a couple that had no differentiation between adult and child tickets. Lastly, with few (if any) exceptions, the more major a park was the less difference between the adult and child prices.

What's the takeaway (at least in my opinion)? Destination parks often have stricter cutoffs, likely because they are often visited by families who will be traveling together regardless of member ages and because a very small proportion of attractions are height restricted. At these parks, the child's price is more marketing than anything. Regional parks often have a larger percentage of attractions that require visitors to be of a certain height, and smaller visitors cannot experience everything in the park so they are charged less. At these parks, it is not uncommon for smaller children to be mostly "quarantined" to a kids area when it comes to rides, and since their experience will be limited the child's price makes sense. Personally, I feel that using a height rather than an age is the better option for different prices as it can be based on how much a visitor could potentially experience. I also wouldn't be opposed to parks offering the discounted ticket to those with disabilities preventing them from experiencing a fair number of attractions, but only if there was a system that would prevent abuse.

June 3, 2016 at 3:05 AM · All marketing ... plain and simple. The difference beteeen a 3 year old and an adult at Universal Orlando, for example, is about a 3.5% discount for the child ticket vs. the adult ticket. Needless to say, a 3 year old can probably do (at most) 40-50% of everything on offer at a major theme park - rides, shows, shopping, dining etc. SeaWorld and Legoland are examples of the exceptions, where the same 3 y/o can do significantly more.
June 3, 2016 at 5:37 AM · I know some UK parks use a "wristband" system (Blackpool pleasure beach, and some B-grade parks) allowing non riders to come and supervise kids (medical conditions, etc) and experience a range of free shows, free rides, or maybe pay ala-carte for the few rides they might want to experience. It does involve a few extra logistical issues in verifying wristbands at the time of ride, but for grandparents taking young kids out it can be an advantage.
June 3, 2016 at 8:11 AM · It's all arbitrary. With the current trend, most parks are pushing people to purchase tickets in advance on-line. For those who do purchase tickets at the gate, how is the person inside a locked ticket selling booth suppose to check the kid's height accurately and QUICKLY enough to satisfy the height restrictions AND keep the line moving.
I always hated getting called to an attraction when I was a Duty Manager for Ride ops to face the fury of a parent who paid adult price for a child who was still too small to ride all of the rides in the park. I have to say I felt badly for them, but safety is always the primary driver of who gets to ride and who does not.
Getting caught in that position of being 10 or older, but still too small to ride is another of those parts of childhood that sucks, but many must endure.
June 3, 2016 at 8:18 AM · I could never understand why places start charging for tickets at 3 years. I think the ticket age for any type of place should be 5 and the adult tick price should be at least 13, maybe higher. I started to get into an argument at a movie theater when my oldest was 3. I did not want to pay for her, because she was going to sleep through the whole movie. I lost though, and had to pay for her.
June 3, 2016 at 8:35 AM · Should be height based. This causes a nightmare for guest relations... If its height based then there is simply no way to argue with the rule.
June 3, 2016 at 9:04 AM · Lying about a child's age really sets a great example to your child. The world really needs more liars and cheaters! Parents who do so are are of the lowest class of society.
June 3, 2016 at 8:01 PM · I like the idea of charging less for children who aren't tall enough or for those who can't go on rides for whatever the reason as mentioned above. I also like the idea that these people wear special bands so that they may be easily identified. As for the logistics of how you manage this and still maintain the lines and the sanity of those who have to manage the incoming people....good question. Guess it makes sense as to why businesses manage by a simple cutoff by age.
June 4, 2016 at 1:21 AM · @Rob

The parks I've seen that charge child price based on height just had a height stick on the ticket booth, same as the height stick that is outside the ride. The ticket seller could clearly see through the glass where the cut off mark was and charge accordingly. Was probably easier than trying to work out if a parent is lying about their child's age.

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