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.
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