Where Do Fans Want to Spend Extra Money at Theme Parks?

May 15, 2021, 6:01 PM · What's the most important number to watch when looking at a theme park company's financial reports?

We just wrapped another round of earnings reports from Disney, Six Flags, Cedar Fair, SeaWorld, and Universal owner Comcast. It's easy to get lost in these reports, with their many lines describing revenue, income, spending, and business-school alphabet-soup items such as EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization - if that helps].

But one item I always find interesting is in-park spending per capita. Basically, that's the amount of money that a guest spends beyond admission. It includes your spending on food, merchandise, line-skipping passes, on-ride photos, or other special activities, including character meals. Parking fees also can be included in that figure, as well.

Obviously, theme parks want to drive that number as high as they can. In the past, companies even have been willing to give up revenue on admissions, with lower ticket and pass prices, if they thought they could get it back with higher in-park spending.

So where are you willing to spend more? What things can parks offer inside the gate that tempt you into getting out your cash, card, or phone to spend more money?

With reduced capacity, parks have been focusing on driving higher in-park spending per visitors to help make up for big drops in ticket revenue. Higher prices are one way that parks can do that, but if parks raise prices too aggressively, fans often find ways to avoid them. You stop buying souvenirs. You eat lower-priced snacks rather than more-expensive meals. You skip the on-ride photos, upcharge attractions, or line-skipping passes. Everyone is experimenting right now, so I would love to hear from you about ideas about things you actually would welcome spending more to get or experience.

What's been your favorite thing to spend money on in the parks recently?

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Replies (12)

May 15, 2021 at 6:32 PM

Something has to be spectacular for me to want to spend money on food in a theme park. The cut down fast food menus and reheated crap that’s in your average park definitely doesn’t cut it, but who doesn’t enjoy butter beer, dole whip, or the food and wine festival?

May 15, 2021 at 6:38 PM

Food is a definite buy for me. I love it when theme parks offer a variety that isn’t just Burgers and Fries. My favorite is at Knott’s due to their food festivals that I wish some of those exclusive food items were sold year round.

May 15, 2021 at 7:35 PM

Booze ... Hootch ... The demon elixir ... Grog ... Other colloquium for alcohol ... And maybe a pair of ears.

May 16, 2021 at 12:54 AM

I always spend money on food, but more out of necessity than because I really enjoy doing so. Most theme park food is averaged at best, overpriced at minimum, and is often something I'll get to supply needed energy than because I'm seeking a good meal. The exception is seasonal food festivals, which I'll usually participate in if my visit lines up with the event.

Skip the line passes are something I only consider on a case by case basis at non-local parks, particularly those I don't expect to return to for a while. For example, when I get the chance to do an international trip, I'll absolutely buy any skip the line offering available to ensure I get the most out of my day. However, it's rarely something I'll buy on a return visit, and I'm even considering going without on this year's Cedar Point trip (the one park I usually get a skip the line pass at).

Merchandise is a bit of a mixed bag, as it needs to be high quality, relatively cheap, and fairly unique for me to be interested. I'm not a big souvenir guy, so I don't buy much inside most parks. Same goes for the other options on this list...I rarely feel my enjoyment of them would be worth the cost.

So, where do I prefer to spend my money? Outside the gates, on other aspects of travel, to enable visiting more destinations rather than going all out on one. This is probably a decent explanation for why I generally prefer more ride-centric rather than experience-centric parks as well, as I'm looking to get inside and spend as little as possible within the gates.

But if money was truly in excess supply to the point that I didn't need to conserve on spending to make trips happen, I'd definitely load up on the park and ride merch.

May 16, 2021 at 8:47 AM

I'm bad -- I'm a sucker for food AND merch in parks. Partly because a trip to Universal often winds up as a our big vacation for the year, so I don't mind spending the money. We really like a lot of the table service restaurants at USO, and classic monster or Harry Potter stuff is usually guaranteed to take my money. It helps that we have an annual pass, so sticker-shock at the gate isn't an issue and the discount we get on food and merch takes the sting out of the prices a bit :-)

May 16, 2021 at 9:34 AM

I can only think of two times in the last fifteen years where I bought food at a park, those being Knoebels because I heard the food was good and relatively affordable, and Cedar Point opening weekend 2018 I bought the unlimited meal wristband. Cedar Point was a huge mistake as thats when the labor market was really heating up and with it being opening day the place was packed and very under staffed, so all the food lines were at least 30+ minutes from opening-closing. TBH I would never buy a food pass at any park ever again, they suck you in with what seems like a good deal online but then when you get there and realize thousands of other people have them as well and the food places are always understaffed it makes it not worth it. Every Six Flags park i've been to over the last 10 years, even when they are slow and the coasters have no lines, always have long food lines because of the season food pass. Also parks are typically surrounded by places that have better food for cheaper prices so I have no issue either waiting until after leaving to eat or leaving during the day and going back.

Being a parks fan since I was a kid [many moons ago] I accumulated lots of random stuff from parks which I have no space or use for, so a while back I just gave up on all of that and just now enjoy my memories in my head of visiting, and can look back at my pictures.

Also preferred parking is a scam and only exists because so many people have the more money than brains thing going on. I guess it can make sense if you are going to a sporting event or concert at a venue that's in a city and parking is hard to come by and the alternatives are not appealing, but with parks they all have huge parking lots and you are paying a higher price to literally park in the same parking lot and save like 1 minute of walking if that. The sad thing is that this actually works there are tons of people out there that assume just because something is more expensive it automatically must be better without doing any kind of research whatsoever and companies rake in huge $$ off of this.

May 16, 2021 at 9:48 AM

Non of the above would be my option. I think a theme park visit is expensive enough as it is.

May 16, 2021 at 1:03 PM

Thanks a lot for pushing my big red button, Robert, and I just finished my anger management class via zoom!

Every time I go to a Disney Park, I enter with a fat wallet, hoping for a good dinner. Disney sure makes this hard. My wife and I are admittedly picky eaters. We want to eat a meal where we can taste the ingredients and experience the craftsmanship of the maker. We expect to be able to include a quality wine. Finally, we expect to begin our meal no earlier than 7:30 pm, 8:00 pm would be better, and not feel the bum's rush an hour later. We get that there are all kinds of people in the world with different priorities, budgets and tastes, and that Disney needs to cater to them as well. We just wish Disney catered a little bit more to us.

Truth is there is no restaurant in Disneyland or Magic Kingdom were we will eat. California Adventure has Carthy Circle (which often times closes too soon), Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom have some good choices. They are impossible to get into after 7:00 without a reservation, which only goes to show that we are not alone.

So here, Disney, is my fat wallet. Take whatever you want, but but it needs to be in a good restaurant that meets my needs.

May 16, 2021 at 2:34 PM

For me, it's all about the souvenirs. What am I gonna do, remember a Pecos Bill's meal forever? No, I'd rather have something tangible to remember my trip by.

I mean, food IS a good choice for some people, but I want to look up at a shelf at home and remember a specific experience (rather than sitting on a commode later in the day remembering the experience for hopefully a less-long amount of time).

May 16, 2021 at 3:50 PM

I lean more toward souvenirs as don't need a serious meal at a park but would love some nice affordable merchandise to take home.

May 17, 2021 at 6:07 AM

It depends on the quality of the food. I would rather eat my own socks than food at Six Flags. Universal’s food is average and the parks close earlier, so a quick bite there to get the most out of the day. But Disney… At WDW we actually get good mileage out of the dining plan. A quick bite a lunch to get back in the crowds is important, but since the parks stay open longer, it is nice to relax before the crowds soften up, and the food is excellent. Not Michelin Guide good, but very good, and there is something to seek out at every park. EPCOT is wonderful. There is not a better Monte Cristo than at DL. Some of the resort restaurants are to be sought out as well. I stay away from alcohol due to the fact that I do not want it to impact my ability to rise early the next day, and a headache at a theme park is not pleasant. My family does get a souvenir or two, and the ones at Universal are much higher quality than Disney on average (I am not going to pay thousands of dollars for some high end replica). One thing that is somewhat disappointing is that it seems like every Disney store is exactly the same or at least substantially so. The Potter shops are all very unique and true to the theme. I doubt if you flew to the planet Pandora they would sell you cheap plastic toys. On the whole, for extras other than attractions, Disney gets the win due to the quality of the food and beverage. Universal gets an A for effort, but some of there food is not great (I am looking at you, Moe’s Tavern).

May 17, 2021 at 10:17 AM

There have been a lot of stories lately about the pent up demand for vacations and the extra money that a lot of Americans will have to spend when they start traveling again this summer. Some of that extra money will get spent on rental cars which have seen rates explode to all-time highs, while some hotels and resorts are increasing charges and introducing new fees due to increasing demand.

However, I think there will still be plenty of extra money lying around that will be spent in ways to make trips extra memorable. If parks have one-of-a-kind or unique souvenirs that can't be found anywhere else, there may be some that will spend they extra money on those (like Galaxy's Edge goodies and other limited time/edition items that Disney excels at). However, so few parks sell those types of souvenirs, and it would take too long to launch limited edition/supply products to take advantage of the demand for these unique items.

I think food may absorb some of the extra disposable income Americans will be traveling with this summer, but I think that will be focused in the high-end/gourmet segment. Average, run of the mill theme park food is going to take a back seat in guests' eyes to menu items and experiences that will make your first vacation in a couple of years feel like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Even those mid-range restaurants probably won't be enough to draw attention unless they exist in an extremely unique location (like Cinderella's Castle or Blue Bayou). I would not be surprised to see parks offer unique dining events that take the food to another level for which guests would pay a sizable premium - think of the Wishes Dessert Package without the fireworks/projection show but instead the show happening on the Tomorrowland Terrace with stepped up food, beverage, and presentation. Restaurants that offer chef's table and rotating tasting menus will be a tough ticket as guests look to spend their extra money on an improved dining experience.

However, I think most people will be looking to spend money to improve their overall experience in the parks. While I personally derive some satisfaction and thrill from working strategies and park systems to my advantage without spending extra money, I think guests with extra funds in their vacation accounts will want to make their upcoming theme park trip the "Best Ever". Avoiding lines, VIP tours, concierge service, and any other product parks sell to guests as ways to make the experience better and more efficient are going to be incredibly appealing to guests with some extra disposable income saved over the past year where those of us that were able to keep working saw discretionary expenses drop like a rock. Those guests have money to burn, and will want to spend it to make their vacation as easy and fun-filled as possible. VIP tour guides, front of the line passes, and planned itineraries are going to be immensely popular.

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