Who's doing date-variable pricing better: Disney or Universal?

July 25, 2016, 1:21 PM · When Disney and Universal introduced date-variable pricing for one-day theme park tickets earlier this year, the two companies took different approaches. Disney assigned different prices to different days, setting one-day ticket prices at one of three levels based on estimated park attendance for those days, whether you bought your ticket in advance online or in person at the gate.

Universal Studios Hollywood, however, kept its front gate walk-up price the same for every day. Instead, Universal offered varying discounts off that price for people who bought their tickets in advance on universalstudioshollywood.com, based on the date of their planned visit. That not only allowed Universal to try to redistribute crowds to less crowded days — as Disney also is trying to do — it also created a financial incentive for fans to commit in advance to visiting on a certain date. At Disney, there's no such price incentive to buy in advance and commit to a date, as the price is the same in advance online as it is if you just walk up to the ticket booths on the day of your visit.

So how's that working out? This past weekend might have provided some insight.

Last weekend was a miserable time to be outside in Southern California. A now-30,000-acres-plus wildfire, burning just a few miles east of Six Flags Magic Mountain, darkened skies across the Los Angeles metropolitan area, dropping ash across many communities and making the whole town smell of smoke. And, by the way, did I mention that high temperatures on Saturday topped 100 degrees across much of the area?

And yet, Universal Studios Hollywood was packed all weekend.

The temperatures (and the smoke) weren't as bad down at Disneyland in Anaheim as they were up in Universal City, so it's not a true apples-to-apples comparison. But one has to wonder if so many people would have turned out at Universal over the weekend had some of them not committed to the dates by buying their discounted tickets in advance online. Neither Universal nor Disney report daily attendance, but wait times at the Disneyland parks seemed a tick or two less last weekend than the previous weekend, which offered better weather.

And, for what it's worth, various apps reported that wait times at Magic Mountain — which was much closer to the fire — were way below normal for the weekend, suggesting that crowds did bail on visiting the Six Flags park.

Weather affects theme park attendance at parks throughout the world. But the Orlando theme parks, which rely on out-of-town guests who commit to their visits sometimes months in advance, typically have been able to avoid weather-influenced swings in attendance, as people who've spent money to come to Central Florida to see the parks tend to show up, rain or shine.

Like at regional parks around the country, attendance at the Southern California theme parks is driven much more by locals than it is in Orlando. And locals can afford to be fickle about coming out the parks when the weather is less than ideal. But with its advance-purchase discount plan, has Universal Studios Hollywood found a way to bring some of that Orlando-style attendance resilience to Southern California?

That's another factor to consider as we continue to watch the effect of date-variable pricing on theme park attendance.

Replies (6)

July 25, 2016 at 3:43 PM · Robert, did you also take into account that Universal Studios Hollywood has a smaller capacity than Disneyland's two parks?
July 25, 2016 at 6:41 PM · Is there a return or refund option if you can not come to the date you committed to when buying the ticket? It sounds like Disney's model is better for consumers.
July 26, 2016 at 9:45 AM · Better to just buy the 2 day tickets to avoid variable pricing. Single day pricing is just not worth it and I don't know who's buying it.
July 26, 2016 at 11:15 AM · I know quite a few people who went to a convention (like E3) and had one day to spent in a park...
July 26, 2016 at 12:43 PM · I say it's a good Idea to keep the full price at the gate and online cheaper for Universal. They have a small front gate versus Disney and their huge esplanade between the two parks so having a line for those ticket booths can be a pedestrian traffic nightmare. Having the prices cheaper online keeps those lines more manageable and less crowded (if possible) in that small entrance plaza.
July 26, 2016 at 1:26 PM · Adding to O T, there are many people in the California market who may only have a single day to spend in a park. Therefore, a single-day ticket is the most economically sound option for those who can only have a day to spare. There's no need to buy time (e.g., 2 day tickets) that they cannot use and cost more. Convention-goers, tourists who allot a DL or USH day in their California trip, and locals who are making a once every-so-often amusement park outing, all are customers for single day tickets.

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