What's the best theme park to visit in a recession?

September 11, 2019, 9:50 PM · The recent dip in Disney's U.S. theme park attention has attracted a lot of attention not just from fans, but also from many outside the industry. I've lost count of the interview requests I've gotten from reporters who want to talk about Disney's theme park attendance. It's definitely news — Disney hasn't had an attendance drop that wasn't connected to a big economic downturn in a generation.

But what if, rather than pointing fingers at Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge or Disney's incessant price increases, we considered that maybe this summer's attendance dip wasn't something out of the ordinary? What if this latest attendance decline is connected to an economic downturn, after all? It's just that perhaps this time Disney's attendance has become a leading indicator of a coming recession rather than a lagging indicator that only shows after the downturn.

More than a few analysts have suggested that a recession might be coming in the year ahead. Whether that's likely or not is a subject for an economics website, not a theme park one, but since I believe in always helping you to plan ahead, let's look at some options if you need to save some money on your summer vacation next year.

Obviously, the most effective way to save money on a vacation is to not take one. But as a dedicated theme park fan, that's the option of last resort for me. I'd much rather substitute destinations or accommodations so that my family can continue enjoy some fun time off and away, even when money gets tight.

So what would some of those "recession friendly" destinations be?

Here are five theme parks that will be offering new attractions in 2020 that also offer admission and accommodations for less than you'll likely find at Disney or Universal. And once you're done at the parks, you can find other attractions nearby, helping to make these destinations great places for a vacation.

RMC Tampa

Busch Gardens Tampa — If you can't bear not to visit Florida next year, why not head west toward the Gulf Coast for a visit to Busch Gardens Tampa? Florida's original major theme park next year will open the nation's tallest and fastest hybrid coaster, Iron Gwazi — the first Rocky Mountain Construction coaster in the state.

Visiting Tampa instead of Orlando also puts you a lot closer to the beach if you'd like to extend your vacation with a great Florida attraction that doesn't charge admission.

Pantheon

Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia is offering another Orlando alternative in 2020 with the debut of Pantheon, which will be the nation's fastest multi-launch coaster when it debuts. If you've enjoyed Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure this summer, Pantheon will offer much the same ride system, including the spike track and backward segment.

Busch Gardens might be the most "Disney"-like of all regional theme parks, with outstanding theming and decoration throughout. And it lies just down the road from the wonderful Colonial Williamsburg as well as Historic Jamestown, offering several days of additional vacation activities to area visitors.

Hersheypark is opening the park's tallest, fastest, and longest roller coaster next year — Candymonium. The Bolliger & Mabillard Hyper will anchor a new entry area for the park.

In addition to the 15 coasters that will be available in the park next year, don't miss the Hershey's Chocolate World attraction next door. The Hershey's Chocolate Tour dark ride is free and other experiences are available with ticket bundles.

Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana is declaring itself the world's water coaster capital in 2020 with its opening for Cheetah Chase, the park's third water coaster. This ProSlide RocketBlast racing coaster will feature a flat launch and several interaction moments for the two slides.

Holiday World also stands just a few miles from the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, where the future president grew up. Located just off Interstate 64 west of Louisville, Holiday World can be a nice summer roadtrip stop as you drive through the Midwest.

Mystic River Falls

Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri will open Mystic River Falls in 2020 — featuring the tallest drop on a rapids ride in North America. Themed to the discovery of the park's Marvel Cave, the ride will feature an 82-foot, four-platform rotating elevator lift tower and an elevated river channel on a nearly half-mile, five-and-a-half-minute adventure.

Branson is also one of the Midwest's top tourist destinations, with multiple attractions. For more money-saving tips and links for theme park vacations, please see our guide below.

Replies (17)

September 11, 2019 at 10:02 PM

I mean, that's a stretch. Disneyland had a drop in attendance because they blocked out most of their annual passholders all summer long and Disney World had a drop because everyone was/is waiting for all of the Star Wars land to be functional.... Then we almost got hit with a category 5 hurricane a month after Galaxys Edge opened. Lol.

September 11, 2019 at 10:38 PM

I don’t think Disney’s drop in attendance is due to a recession as most non-local park goers plan their trips months in advance. If there is a large decrease next spring as compared to this past spring, then a recession may have something to do with it. It’s likely a combination of factors: high prices, weather, and fear of crowded parks with Galaxy’s Edge’s openings with only one ride and knowing the second E-ticket ride opens in a few months.

While I reading the article, I was thinking what I would write about Silver Dollar City if it wasn’t included. Glad I don’t have to write all that now! I will add that Branson is very family friendly with inexpensive, clean lodging and many different ways to entertain a family in and out of the park. And don’t forget about Time Traveler, a very unique spinning, looping roller coaster that provides an insane amount of air time!

September 12, 2019 at 7:34 AM

I think that Disney's attendance drop is not because of a recession, but because of other factors. The recent price increases, the crowds, the long lines, and the need to plan every minute 6 months in advance, are likely some of the reasons for the attendance drop. Disney has turned a "vacation" into a frustrating chore, chasing a schedule that takes many hours of planning over a span of months to create. The value of a Disney vacation, relative to the cost, just isn't there any more. I have absolutely no problem spending money on a good experience, but Disney has jacked up the price astronomically while at the same time making the experience worse.

I quit going to Disney a couple of years ago in favor of Universal. I went to Disney at least twice a year for about 20 years prior to that. Now, I am a Universal Orlando Annual Passholder and I visit 2 or 3 times a year. The food prices at Universal are better, the hotels are actually better and less expensive with more guest amenities, and express passes make your day in the park much more relaxing. No pre planning, no schedules, no waiting in line for hours... As a Vacation should be.

I am coming down in two weeks for HHN, staying 5 nights at the Portofino with my whole family. (9 of us) No Disney involved.

Are you paying attention Disney?

September 12, 2019 at 7:37 AM

Best theme park to visit in a recession? Bay Beach Amusement Park in Green Bay, Wisconsin. All rides are $0.25 to $1.00. What's the theme you say? Frugal fun.

September 12, 2019 at 8:12 AM

SteveEldredge Spot on in couldn't agree more. Time for Disney to wake up.

September 12, 2019 at 9:12 AM

I think Robert is right in hypothesizing that the lack of intense crowds for Galaxy's Edge along with modest summer crowds at WDW are a leading indicator of recession. There are plenty of other signs out there indicating that a financial downturn is on the horizon, and that in a way Disney stepped in it by trying to manipulate the economics of vacations to their parks and resorts. While it's true that guests typically plan Disney trips far in advance, I think the reported slight downturn in WDW attendance is still a leading indicator. The attendance decline at Disneyland was of their own doing by severely restricting AP visits and significantly increasing daily admission prices following the debut of Galaxy's Edge and throughout much of the summer. However, the story in Florida paints a far more objective picture with fewer guests mustering the resources and effort to take a vacation to Orlando, which was BEFORE Galaxy's Edge debuted at DHS.

The simple fact is that when financial resources start getting tight, the first things to get cut are discretionary spending on vacations and entertainment. I have no doubt that many families were "pot committed" to WDW vacations before the first signs of economic downturn first started appearing, but there are still tens of thousands of WDW visitors that don't plan their trips quite as far in advance, and likely pulled back or delayed trips based on individual financial situations. This story has carried through the fall despite the introduction of Galaxy's Edge in Orlando as Disney still has resort discounts and free dining promotions available even through the confirmed opening of Rise of the Resistance. The admission prices to WDW did not increase nearly as much as they did in Disneyland, so combine that with the lack of interest even with aggressive discounts being advertised nation-wide, it's pretty clear to me that a lot of families around the country are thinking twice about spending the kind of money it takes to visit WDW or are worried about spending reserves now on the potential cusp of a financial downturn. The current financial climate is a bit different than it was in 2008, when there was a sudden drop, which affected nearly every industry on the planet, but hit the tourism sector particularly hard. This has been a much more gradual decline, but the signs are there indicating that the rate of the downturn may be increasing.

However, what should be noted is that despite the lower attendance across the entire Parks division, Disney reported increased revenue. That places Disney at a crossroads, and one that I think could dramatically affect the theme park industry as a whole. Disney has slowly but deliberately changed the focus of their marketing to court more affluent and financially robust guests. There might not be as many of these type of people in the world, but there are more willing to spend money and simply have more of it to go around. Does Disney continue to target these bigger spenders by continuing their trends over the past few years, or do they go back to their former core, blue collar guests that were so loyal to the Disney brand that they would drain their life savings to spend one more day at WDW? The decisions Disney makes over the next few months in response to the financial realities they face and with numerous predictions of a global recession growing could forever alter the industry. Will Disney become a luxury theme park catering to the rich and making money hand over fist from an exclusive class of guest (like many Vegas casinos along the Strip), or do the continue to broaden their fanbase, appealing to the everyday person looking for that one day of fantastical escape from reality?

This will definitely be an interesting story to follow over the next 12-18 months, especially as Disney prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of WDW.

September 12, 2019 at 9:20 AM

Disney has been raising prices relentlessly the last decade and then flops witht their biggest expansion/land ever. Meanwhile Disneys Star Wars has been underperforming both at the box office and with merchandise and has been controversial with the fans to say the least. Blaming the not surprising attendance drop on a nonexistent recession seems to me like leading the evidence, not following it.

September 12, 2019 at 9:49 AM

"Meanwhile Disneys Star Wars has been underperforming both at the box office"

I'll agree with you on Solo, which was a troubled production from the start. However, the other 3 Disney-produced Star Wars movies are #1 (TFA), #9 (TLJ), and #12 (Rogue One) on the all-time domestic box office list. Even adjusted for inflation, TFA ranks as #12, while TLJ is #44, and Rogue One is #62, all above Revenge of the Sith (#69) and Attack of the Clones (#99).

There's definitely more going on here than Galaxy's Edge/Star Wars flopping. You can ignore or dismiss the clear evidence of a coming financial downturn if you want, but it doesn't alter the fact that those signs are there. Also, the attendance decline is not isolated to Disney either, there are plenty of other theme parks around the world that are trying to figure out why perennial double digit year over year growth seen over the past 5-8 years suddenly stalled this summer.

September 12, 2019 at 1:13 PM

It really is amazing to me how many people (almost always white male Boomers and Gen-Xers) want Disney's Star Wars to fail so desperately that they're willing to invent false realities to make it so.

September 12, 2019 at 2:46 PM

@Russell Meyer: Will an economic downturn really effect a Disney vacation that much if Disney is now catering to the upper-middle and higher classes? We know in the past that recessions have hurt Disney at the turnstiles, but with the cost of a Disney vacation outpacing inflation and Disney still reporting record profits in their theme park divisions, I'm not so sure.

@Evanweston: I agree! I think Disney may have overestimated the power of Galaxy's Edge, but even so, the C-ticket attraction that is Smuggler's Run is now drawing longer lines and a larger crowd the the former E-ticket king, Flight of Passage. Prediction: When "The Rise of Skywalker" becomes the second highest grossing film of 2019 (behind only "Avengers: Endgame"), the anti-Disney fanboys will still blame Disney for the "failure"!

September 12, 2019 at 5:58 PM

Wow people want a recession soooo bad. Even to the point of making light attendance at a land in a theme park proof that a recession might be on the way. Unreal. Come on.

September 12, 2019 at 10:12 PM

What if people aren’t going to Disney because it is not as fun as it once was? Certainly UO’s numbers are somewhat tied to WDW’s numbers and many people may not want to drop $10,000 for a family of four until Star Wars is actually finished. I went to WDW in the spring, and we were very frequent visitors, and I have to say I will not be going back soon. It was simply more trouble than it was worth. Maybe their pricing and politicos are affecting attendance and it is spilling over elsewhere, but I am not saying other market factors may be factors as well (Robert could be onto something).

September 13, 2019 at 8:37 AM

@Russell

Citing data for TFA and Rogue one only proves the point that interest in Disney Star Wars is in steep decline, and it all goes back to the Last Jedi, which was a complete disappointment or at least controversial to the fans. This is why Solo and Galaxys edge flopped. Even Iger himself had to come out and acknowledge this. If you look at Disneys Star Wars pre TLJ and post regarding film, merchandise, theme park performance etc then you notice a massive drop. It all goes back to TLJ thats where all of this starts and thats what the evidence shows.

September 13, 2019 at 8:44 AM

Literally inventing reality. You hate to see it!

September 13, 2019 at 9:56 AM

@Daniel Galvan - What "evidence" are you talking about? TLJ is the #9 movie ALL TIME in domestic box office (above Rogue One FWIW), so I'm not sure how that constitutes as a "massive drop" in performance. A bit down sure, but ESB, fraught with similar fan complaints and lower revenues when compared to ANH, followed the same pattern succeeding its history-making predecessor. I think we can all agree that Star Wars has a fickle fanbase, and no matter how amazing a movie is within the Universe, it's going to be criticized by some group of uber fans. Even TFA received its fair share of bashing as a faction of fans roundly, and perhaps justly, hammered JJ Abrams for essentially turning TFA into a shot for shot remake of ANH. There's just no way of pleasing every Star Wars fan on the planet, but I don't think there's a single Disney executive that's disappointed in TLJ's financial performance. Again, Solo is another story, and the issues with Lord/Miller probably had a lot to do with that film's disappointing performance, but Disney has clearly learned from their mistakes, and are re-calibrating how they approach the peripheral stories outside of the core trilogies.

Galaxy's Edge has not "flopped". I'm not sure where you think Iger admitted to this, because he hasn't. He noted in the Q2 financial performance call that US park attendance had declined but revenue had increased in year over year comparisons. If fewer people, meaning shorter lines and less crowded spaces, are combined with higher revenues, I don't think that's a "flop" at all. Disney achieved the exact results they wanted, and if empty shelves, backordered SKUs, and near record revenues aren't enough evidence to suggest Galaxy's Edge at the very least has not been a "flop", then I suggest you look at the lines for MFSR at DHS, which often match FoP for longest lines in WDW on most days now. You can cite all the "Disneyland is empty" stories you want, but who's laughing when they're still making money hand over fist because of strategies deliberately put into place to manage overcrowding?

Have you even been to Galaxy's Edge Daniel?

September 13, 2019 at 2:49 PM

@Map: Agreed. Some people are really hoping for a recession heading into this election year that it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

@JC: Not everyone spending that much on a Disney trip. Last year my wife, 9 year old, and I spent two days at Busch Gardens, 3 days at Universal with park to park, and 5 days at Disney with Parkhopper Pluses with lodging for those three weeks. Counting everything, and I mean EVERYTHING right down to the last pressed penny, we spent under $6,000.

September 13, 2019 at 3:12 PM

@Russell

The evidence is there for everyone to see and attribute as they choose. You can brush off Solo, Galaxys edge, Smugglers Run, TLJ 68% 2nd week decline, Merchandise decline and Igers admittance that its not going well. But the sound proof that you havent realised is that a few people like myself predicted Galaxys Edge sub par performance while the overwhelming majority of people like yourself asserted that it would be a massive success where people couldnt even get into the land. The theory with the most accurate prediction is the superior one.

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