Which Is Better: Pay at Once or Monthly Payments?

May 8, 2020, 4:10 PM · Have you bought a seasonal or annual pass to a theme park? If so, how did you pay for it?

Many Theme Park Insider readers have annual or seasonal passes to their favorite theme parks. And I suspect that many of you also paid for those passes by taking advantage of parks' monthly payment plan offers.

Most parks now allow their passholders to spread their payments over a year with no interest charges. Without having to pay the full price for a season or year-long pass up front, fans have responded by driving pass sales to record levels across the industry. That, in turn, has helped push record attendance and revenue at the parks as fans spend more on food, drinks, and merchandise during their extra visits.

But are monthly payment plans really the best way to buy a theme park pass?

The first question to ask whenever you're offered a monthly payment plan - whether it's for a theme park pass or anything else - should be, is there interest? When you buy a theme park pass on a monthly payment plan, you're essentially taking out a loan for the cost of the pass. The down payment might be the cost of a one-day ticket, but technically the park is loaning you the balance of the pass price.

I haven’t heard of a park doing it, but if a park were to charge you interest on that loan, I would 100 percent recommend that you walk away from that offer and pay the full price upfront, instead. Why end up paying more for a pass than you have to? This isn't a car or a house - something that few people have enough cash on hand to buy up front. It's a freakin' theme park ticket. If you can't afford to pay for the whole thing up front, perhaps you should reconsider the purchase.

That said, if the park is offering what amounts to a no-interest loan, why not? Especially for relatively expensive passes, such as those from Disney, a payment plan can free you from having to take a big cash hit of hundreds of dollars, or more, in one month during the year. Spreading the cost over the year can make paying a lot easier on your budget, at no cost to you. That's a much better deal than charging the pass on a credit card, where you would have to pay interest if you didn't pay off the full balance right away.

Is there any downside to a monthly payment plan? Up until about two months ago, few of us would have said so. But then the coronavirus happened, and millions of theme park fans found themselves being charged monthly payments to visit parks that weren't open. Granted, those of us who paid in full were holding passes to parks that weren't open, too. But at least those passes were paid for so there wasn't any problem with a pass payment hitting your bank account while you were laid off or facing a big loss of income.

Ultimately, all the parks ended up suspending the collection of monthly pass payments, but that took awhile. And most chains also have extended the validity period for their passes, too. But the experience highlights the potential risk of taking on another item of consumer debt. What happens if you lose your job or take a cut in pay? If you pay for a pass up front, you can forget about that expense and just enjoy the rest of the season or the year.

Monthly payment plans are evolving into open-ended memberships, which bring with them the potential additional hassle of getting out of them some day. Ask anyone who's trying to cancel a gym membership how that went. Some chains have tried automatic renewals for their passholders on monthly payment plans, which effectively turn them into memberships. For people who don't visit a park on a regular basis, a monthly payment plan can too easily become a forgotten payment plan - a monthly drain on your bank account for something you rarely, if ever, use.

Paying upfront removes that risk, as the transaction is over once it's made. There's nothing to cancel.

So, again, how are you paying for your passes? I'd love to hear your thoughts about pass payments and memberships, in the comments.

Replies (12)

May 8, 2020 at 4:35 PM

I love the no interest monthly payments, and have yet to renew in consecutive years.

The best is when you can take advantage of a season pass for the following year, during the current year, and get the rest of the current year included.

May 8, 2020 at 4:44 PM

As delusional as it may sound, have mental justification for the one time payment. I tell myself that the full price I pay was for the first day's admission. Then every other visit the rest of the year is free. I know that's not how it works, but I feel better going when I can get into the park for "free". Please do not try to bring me down out of this self imposed fantasy.

May 8, 2020 at 5:17 PM

If you pay it all at once, you don't have to worry about it anymore!

May 8, 2020 at 5:51 PM

The only park I ever use the payment option for is Disneyland, and that's primarily because of the cost of the passes. I much prefer making a one time payment, and with other chains generally charging $200 or less for a pass the option to pay monthly is not one I've ever considered. The only way I'd consider a monthly payment option for any pass under $500 or so (unless it was the only option) would be if a membership was offered at comparable cost per year to a season pass but had the rate locked in indefinitely.

May 8, 2020 at 7:04 PM

We have passes to Universal Orlando that we have always paid for all at once. We look at it sort of like Rob does — they’ve practically paid for themselves after the first day of park-hopping and restaurant/merch discounts, so the rest of the trip and/or future visits that year are basically “free”.

May 8, 2020 at 8:21 PM

It depends on the company. I'll never do monthly payments and auto renewal at Cedar Fair again, after I paid for a renewal that started charging monthly payments but my pass didn't get renewed, it got deleted. As far as their computer systems were concerned, that pass had never existed despite the fact I had been using it for two years. They also charge more for online than in-park, so now I just renew it every fall at the park and pay it in full.

But my SeaWorld Platinum has been on monthly renewal since 2006 without a hitch. I just log in to the website every few years to update the expiration date on my debit card.

May 8, 2020 at 9:35 PM

Usually we pay in full, but for seaworld we were platinum passholders from 2000 until 2018, I think. Our credit card had expired and I didn't notice and they wouldn't let me renew the pass at our grandfathered 2000 rate so I just didn't renew it at all. That had happened before and they always let us catch back up and continue at our normal rate. Funny thing is, we didn't even go there that often and only averaged a trip once or twice every three years. I always liked it because we were supporting the park, but the person we dealt with was kind of obnoxious about it so I'll just pay as I go and it'll be cheaper, too.

May 9, 2020 at 12:08 AM

I would NEVER have signed up for a Six Flags membership. I much prefer to pay upfront and be done with it. However, Six Flags started offering additional perks for being a member versus a season pass holder. And for those of us that visit the park 20+ times a year, those added benefits were far too valuable to ignore. So I took the plunge and signed up for (Diamond Elite) membership. I have not regretted it (yet).

In all fairness, the SF chain has offered the option to pause monthly memberships during the COVID19 pandemic. Those that choose to do so have the monthly payments suspended. On the other hand, those members that keep making the payments anyway will have a suite of extra perks waiting for them when the parks do reopen.

Short and simple: do I like memberships? Not really. Throw in great benefits and I will consider it!

May 9, 2020 at 8:51 AM

You never know what life will trow at you. That monthly cost could one day be too much to handle so I always pay up front for everything.

May 9, 2020 at 10:09 AM

All but one pass with SeaWorld is prepaid. The one pass that we have that is on a monthly plan, they've continued to charge every month while the park is shut down. Universal and Disney have suspended monthly payments, SW continues to milk their passholders. Our monthly pass has met the one year commitment, so it is month to month payment and park access until we cancel. There is no way for SW to "extend" a month to month pass (as they've promised for all passes.)

SW posts on their website/FAQ section that if you are a monthly payment customer who's met their one-year commitment to contact them via phone or email. No indication of how they intend to handle it, just call or email. Guess what? I can't get anyone to respond now for weeks. Be careful of monthly payment plans, they can do whatever they want. I plan to dispute with my credit card company. I didn't want to go that route, but they won't respond to my request.

May 9, 2020 at 12:25 PM

I get my SeaWorld Platinum pass through Sesame Place. It’s cheaper, and goes by the calendar year, with no auto-renewal. You don’t have to visit Sesame Place either.

Last year we got our passes in August, and got the rest of 2019 as well as all of 2020. 4 passes came to a little over $1K, and the passes are good for 17 months. Interest free monthly payments for 12 months.

If I remember correctly though, this won’t work for Central Florida residents.

May 11, 2020 at 12:46 PM

I'd rather just pay up front and not have to add passes to a monthly budget. If you have to come from out of stat you have other things such lodging, transportation, food to think about. Plus, there are always in park expenses.

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