Should Shops and Restaurants Refuse Cash?

May 3, 2023, 9:18 PM · As many theme park fans have learned over the past few years, SeaWorld, Six Flags, and Cedar Fair parks have gone to cashless operations. That means that if you want to buy a snack from a restaurant, a beer from a cart, or a T-shirt from a shop, you will have to pay with a card or - if they're set up for it - your phone. No cash allowed.

Going cashless delivers real benefits for a theme park, and for any other retail location for that matter. No more employees miscounting change. There's a reduced risk of theft. Transactions can happen faster with no money to count out, potentially reducing wait times.

But more important than all of those benefits, cashless operation provides a retailer with access to far better data about when and where customers spend money with them. Digital transactions leave a trail that anonymous cash does not. By tracking payment accounts throughout the day, a park can get a much clearer picture of how many visitors are buying multiple meals versus just a snack or drink, for example. Parks can determine correlations between purchases at certain locations with purchases at others.

This information simply does not show up in the raw sales numbers that parks always have had. Having this fresh data can help the park tailor its offerings and promotions in an attempt to boost sales.

Many fans might not notice when a park goes cashless. They've been paying with cards and apps for years now and many people - especially younger visitors - no longer carry cash. But cash retains its fans.

I know that I prefer to pay with bills when buying a drink or churro from a cart. But I also understand that's likely because I have been trained by years of visiting parks when carts did not accept anything but cash. I also prefer cash at table service restaurants when the only other option for payment is the old-fashioned method of the server disappearing with your charge card for a ever-varying length of time before returning with a receipt for you to sign. If I have the right amount of cash on me to cover the bill and tip, I prefer to just leave it and go, saving me time that I could better use elsewhere in the park.

Now if parks use the "rest of the world" method of bringing a card reader to the table for me to settle up in one go, without the extra wait, then I do prefer that to cash.

Many international visitors also prefer to get U.S. dollars in cash for spending on their trips, which is a large part of the reason why Disney and Universal so far have continue to accept cash throughout their parks.

Every park I know that has gone cashless will accept cash at guest services to purchase a gift card that can be used throughout the park. So you're not out of luck if you don't have a charge card or accepted app. But fans who use this option should be careful. If you don't - or can't - exchange unused funds on the card back for cash at the end of the day, you've just given the park the gift of some free profit at your expense.

Who's got the best system for taking your money these days? I'd love to hear about your experiences, in the comments.

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Replies (16)

May 3, 2023 at 9:59 PM

Food and Wine goes cash only during thunderstorms and they’re part of the biggest theme park resort in the world. There’s also some discrimination in refusing cash and more people using cash given exponential rising credit card interest fees.

May 3, 2023 at 10:07 PM

I’m okay with parks going cashless so long as they don’t beg for tips on every transaction. I relied on cash more often during my vacation last summer after having the tip option screen whipped in my direction at a couple of gift shops. It’s easier to just fork over bills than pick the appropriate tip for a souvenir magnet.

May 4, 2023 at 3:43 AM

While there are benefits of cashless policies, unless theft is a serious problem they seem to cause more harm than good. For example, on my last visit to SeaWorld, I saw multiple guests at several food and wine booths opt out of purchases after learning they couldn't make the purchase with cash, and I also saw a couple groups of teens who had only been provided cash by their parents trying to figure out how to purchase food. The worst offenders, though, are the parking toll booths, as it takes much longer to ring up a parking ticket on the computer and wait for the card to be charged than it would to take a bill and hand over change (though I guess parks are now regularly charging $20+ for parking, but that's a different story), plus there's no easy answer should someone pull up without anything but cash on hand. Even though the vast majority probably prefer card, I think it's kind of crazy that so many high revenue businesses are simply refusing to accept a physical form of legal tender and therefore literally leaving money on the table.

May 4, 2023 at 6:33 AM

Going through the toll booth at the Magic Kingdom recently, the attendant said "Oh my gosh, thank you" and smiled when we used exact cash. You could tell she was genuinely pleased to not have to run a digital transaction. We were through the toll booth in a fraction of the time of other cars paying with digital.

Digital is all fine and well ... but those processing fees need to be paid. The parks will just pass those right along to the consumer, they certainly have no intention of eating them.

May 4, 2023 at 8:18 AM

Call me a fan of cashless, and an even bigger fan of "contactless" forms of payment like Apple Pay and other NFC-enabled terminals. We had considered getting Pounds before we left on our trip to England, but decided we would just get cash at ATMs as we needed it. Ultimately, we never needed cash at any point on our trip, and only saw a couple of times where other people were using cash. In fact, I found it incredibly convenient that the London Underground used Apple Pay, which allows users to simply tap their smart device at the entrance/exit gates without the need to procure a special transit card (if you use the same card throughout the day, the system has established a maximum fare for unlimited trips in Zone 1 and 2 - kind of like a "day pass").

The obvious downside of businesses going cashless is that it is discriminatory to lower income people and the homeless that cannot afford or qualify for bank accounts or credit cards. There are some jurisdictions in the US (most notably Philly) that have established laws preventing businesses from denying cash transactions at a register. In my view, I think governments establishing these policies are actually making things worse for everyone, and instead of trying to slow or stop the ultimate transition to a cashless society, they should use those resources to support lower income residents and supplying them with the means to make cashless transactions.

I'm all for the eventual transition to a fully cashless society, but I realistically understand that it will not happen overnight and will require some government intervention to help those who currently rely on cash for their livelihood (even street performers and some panhandlers take electronic payments now). I also think governments need to ensure that as this transition occurs that businesses and the financial industry are not fleecing customers for ridiculous and unnecessary transaction fees - these fees were initially imposed to pay for new equipment/terminals, but have been maintained because banks need them to pad their bottom line. With the widespread acceptance of electronic payment systems, there is no longer a need to charge high fees to retailers or consumers, and that cost of doing business should be pretty close to what was the cost was for a business to count cash and buy change.

May 4, 2023 at 10:25 AM

At Disneyland trip in March, did find it convenient going cashless for stuff, just felt faster and easier. The only real cash I needed was leaving tips for housekeeping staff. Even in regular store trips, I'll use my card more, I keep cash just in case but it does seem digital transactions are a new way of life.

May 4, 2023 at 11:11 AM

And no Wal-Mart in my area on the east coast offers "Tap to pay"! Incredible...Wal-Mart!! The biggest retail chain in the US hasn't upgraded its terminals for tapping yet.

May 4, 2023 at 11:49 AM

Russell and I agree that eliminating cash is discriminatory to those with lower income who may not have a bank account or only use prepaid cell phone services. However, theme parks are increasingly not catering to that consumer base, so I would expect to see the theme park industry to be the next set of businesses to go fully cashless (all pro sporting venues in my area have gone completely cashless. There are some high school sporting events that have gone cashless, too.)

May 4, 2023 at 12:04 PM

Former process-manager debit/credit card payment at Rabobank talking:
Cash is expensive; making, cleaning, distribution and replacing cash is very expensive. Those costs are for a big part for the shopkeeper. Plastic payment options are cheaper and saver.
That said, Rabobank (only AAA bank in the world) urges for keeping cash as an option. A solar flair, power outage or other disaster could cripple the payment system for days or even weeks. So yeah, keep cash an option.

May 4, 2023 at 12:18 PM

@TwoBits - Totally agree, and as I noted earlier I think governments that are trying to stop or slow the evolution to cashless are going about it the wrong way. Instead of fighting and legislating against the transition, they should be putting those same resources into creating programs that can allow those unable to get bank accounts and credit cards to have a way to make cashless transactions. After all, WIC and most other "food stamp" programs have gone digital, or are in the process of transitioning to digital platforms. What's preventing those systems from having an auxiliary account for recipients to use as a debit card or checking account? Programs won't magically eliminate poverty nor put money into people's pockets that they didn't "earn", but it will provide opportunity for those people to function in the digital economy and allow the rest of society move forward.

So many businesses have taken their ordering process online (mostly to reduce labor costs, but also to streamline their services), so it won't be long until you're ordering everything through your phone with an electronic payment (not cash). Instead of trying to stop the inevitable, we need to help those less fortunate make the transition that will make things better for everyone.

May 4, 2023 at 2:56 PM

Fun Fact: Studies have shown that when people pay with a credit card they tend to spend more money than when they pay with cash.

May 4, 2023 at 3:25 PM

I have no problem with cashless. One of the biggest lies retail has told itself is that cash is free. As you highlighted Robert, it’s not. At best it only costs time, but at French it costs money to handle as well.

But yes, the issue of bankless/low banking availability and charges need to be dealt with. In the UK all mainstream banks are required to offer fee free basic accounts, and have strategies in place for low ID holders. Fees to the consumer to pay on a personal card are illegal. All solvable problems.

May 4, 2023 at 10:40 PM

As long as parks offer free cash-to-card stations, I'm fine with them going cashless.

May 5, 2023 at 12:46 AM

Living in the UK we are largely cashless already. I do keep notes in my wallet but rarely use them and the only coins I have are in the car for car parking machines. ALmost everywhere here has 'tap and go' card facilities (for transactions up to £100) so paying is as simple as tapping your card or pointing my mobile at the relevant pay point. It's fast and easy.

May 5, 2023 at 12:16 PM

I live in Brazil and don’t have a wallet. I pay every thing with the cell phone or credit card, but when traveling abroad I use cash b cause the government charges a 7% tax in all expenses made abroad in the creditcard.

May 10, 2023 at 1:08 AM

The decision of whether or not shops and restaurants should refuse cash is a complex one. Cashless businesses can offer convenience, safety, efficiency, and hygiene benefits, but they can also exclude certain groups, raise privacy concerns, and incur transaction fees. Ultimately, the decision depends on the business's specific circumstances and values. Some businesses may choose to go cashless, while others may choose to accept both cash and electronic payments.

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