The new Six Flags should not give fans what they ask for

July 6, 2024, 3:30 PM · The one thing that fans seem to want most from the Six Flags/Cedar Fair merger is the one thing that the new Six Flags absolutely should not deliver.

The former Cedar Fair and Six Flags companies completed their merger this week. The new company is carrying the Six Flags name but retained Cedar Fair's corporate headquarters, stock ticker symbol, and most of its management. But for fans, it's business as usual for now. With the deal happening smack in the middle of the summer vacation season, the timing just was not right for a full integration of chain-wide operations on day one.

So the rest of this year is the time for fans to lobby for what they want from the new Six Flags. The number-one request that I have heard from fans so far has been for a low-priced annual pass that provides admission into all of the parks in the new Six Flags - more than 40 amusement and water parks across North America.

As someone who has been covering theme parks for more than two decades, introducing that pass would be the worst thing that the new Six Flags can do for the company, its parks, its employee and - yes - even for its fans.

A buy-one, get-'em-all pass sounds like a great deal. But the shift toward low-priced annual and seasonal passes is killing the theme park industry. Parks live and die by their per capita revenue - the average amount of money spent by each visitor. Annual passes started as a way to squeeze more revenue from the parks' most loyal fans - to sell them a more expensive ticket that allows them to visit the park more often, when they (the parks hope) will spend more money on parking, food, souvenirs, photos, line-skipping passes and other extras. It's a trade-off. Give up per capita admission revenue for a few guests with the hope that their extra in-park spending will make up the difference.

If a park's passholders account for a small minority of guests through the gate, there's a healthy margin for error on that trade-off. The park continues to bring in substantial per capita revenue from admissions, supplemented by that food and beverage and other upcharge spending. But with more and more visitors entering parks on annual and seasonal passes, many parks' per capita admission revenue is crashing. That narrows the margin for error and pushes risk-averse park executives to raise prices on parking, on food, on drinks, and wherever else they can inside the park to bring up that per capita overall revenue number.

And when they can't push that number any more, they try to balance it by cutting the park's spending. That means less money to staff attractions, less money for live entertainment, and less money for maintenance to run rides at full capacity.

Does all this sounds familiar to any Six Flags and Cedar Fair fans?

Pricing an all-parks Six Flags pass at a couple hundred bucks will amplify the company's revenue problems. Sure, go ahead and offer the pass for the most devoted coaster fans but price it like a Disneyland Magic Key, charging more than $1,000 a pass. Otherwise, limit three-figure season passes to a single park (or a combo with an on-site water park, where applicable).

Then, with less pressure on admission revenue, take the opportunity to entice new customers and chase market share by lowering daily admission prices, parking fees, and food and beverage prices. Invest in better operations for the 2025 season and get wait times down to where more people are saying good things about visiting Six Flags theme parks again.

As I discovered in my "what time is the 3:00 parade?" incident, there's often a big difference between what people ask for and what they actually want. Many fans might be asking for an all-inclusive Six Flags company pass, but I believe what more fans actually want is a new Six Flags that delivers fun experiences with short wait times, helpful staff, and good-quality food and drinks at reasonable prices.

The new Six Flags provides dozens of parks across the continent with an opportunity for a much-needed reset. This industry has gone too far down an unprofitable path with cheap annual passes. It's time to switch back to more sustainable pricing that does not leave guests feeling cheated once they actually get inside the park.

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Replies (11)

July 6, 2024 at 4:37 PM

Not sure I agree. The Merlin annual pass provides access to tons of places in the UK, and I don’t think I’d describe their parks as lacking investment right now…

July 6, 2024 at 7:38 PM

Robert - something to consider in this analysis is the geographic location of all the Six Flags and Cedar Fair parks. Most of the parks are quite a distance from the others, which will greatly limit the frequency of season pass users should an option be offered to visit any affiliated park.

The greater challenge will be limiting the significant discounting Six Flags became accustomed to over the years. Selim Bassoul attempted to reposition Six Flags from what many perceived as a “value” amusement park to an elevated “quality” amusement park. The problem with the execution of this strategy was that not enough investment in the parks was made prior to the price hikes. The combined companies will now have significantly more capital to deploy and be able to command better prices from vendors.

Season pass holders generate significant ancillary in-park spend revenue based on the variety of amusement parks and other attractions I’ve appraised over the years. To your point, it’s important not to over discount passes, which over time trains your consumers that heavy discounting should be the norm when it should be the exception. Cedar Fair didn’t seem to have this problem but I could be wrong.

July 6, 2024 at 7:43 PM

I'd be curious to know the percentage of visitors to each park, both Six Flags and Cedar Fair, come from guests using an "all-park passport." In other words, if you have an all-park passport and your home park is Knott's Berry Farm, how often are you actually visiting Worlds of Fun or Valleyfair.

Obviously, this becomes trickier when you have two parks in one market (Knott's, Magic Mountain ... kind of) but I'm skeptical that most guests, outside of power users, actually use those benefits. It's a great sounding perk, but it's more window dressing than anything else.

July 6, 2024 at 8:31 PM

My thinking is that the more likely scenario would involve a passholder with Valley Fair or Worlds of Fun for a home park using the benefit to spend a day at Knott’s or Magic Mountain during a SoCal vacation.

July 6, 2024 at 9:36 PM

I think Russell would have a good take on this because of both where he lives (the eastern seaboard) and the kind of traveling he does. Doing this kind of out of state travel is a much bigger pain for Californians than it is for people on the other side of the country.

July 6, 2024 at 10:12 PM

Not knowledgeable about overall financial issues…. What they need to do is find a way to get the parks back to a moderately respectable operating situation with the ability to improve.

The main thing is many six flags parks are abysmal. I mean they are poorly run and very, very run down. This has to change and can only do so with lots of capital. Then, they need to improve operations. The seemingly minimum wage employee working critical safety jobs should be corrected.

They aren’t going to do this with discounted passes. I don’t know what they are going to do, and I am glad I don’t have their positions…

July 7, 2024 at 10:37 AM

My first post. Enjoying the thought-provoking and intelligent coverage! I do have a thought (forgive my newbie status here, should my suggestion be a bit ignorant). I have family working in corporate at Universal and Disneyworld, but not immersed in their business intelligence. Thinking since Six Flags parks are regional, with the addition of Cedar Fair, the merged company gets closer to closing a loop of a nationally-located network of parks. Wondering if a regional park pass might boost revenue while attracting “inflation crunched” families looking for a less expensive alternative. I think it would offer more value for a variety for families, and a good way for the merged company to come out with a “bang.” It would mean a minimal investment from the company with a nice side revenue source until new attractions get built.

July 7, 2024 at 12:25 PM

@Zarex's idea is an interesting one. I think that would be smart to have an annual pass that is good for a "home park" of your choosing that gives you unlimited access to that park, but then have an option of something like 3 extra days at any other Six Flags/Cedar park of your choice per year. There could be different tiers for 1 extra day at a different park, 3, 7, etc. And the pass would also get you discounted tickets to any park in the chain other than your home park.

July 7, 2024 at 1:16 PM

An interesting study would be what would the typical local guest do? The people that I know that are theme park fans that live in a location with one of these parks tend to go once a year at best, but my information is not scientific at all. There has to be some studies. My local six flags used to have very inexpensive season passes, but they are certainly more expensive now. The people I know in SoCal would go to Disneyland and stay in a hotel nearby even though they were local due to the hassles of traffic, and that made the trips there be once a year at best.

The problem of Six Flags is I just don’t want to go due to how run down and poorly run it is. I did not go this year, and I have been almost 35 years in a row and used to have season passes. The AC does not work in the indoor areas, the lines are unnecessarily long, and the customer service is non-existent. They used to have major new attractions about every other year, television screens playing cartoons in the queues, and themed shows and the like. They used to be theme parks. Now they are amusement parks.

July 7, 2024 at 11:14 PM

I do agree pass prices have been way too low and have been for a good while. I do not see any downfall in offering a premium all-park option (at an appropriately premium price) as this would only appeal to a very slim percentage of guests, a.k.a. the die-hard theme park fans that have made a hobby of visiting different parks. Most guests only care about their local park, and maybe other parks that are a half a day drive away.

Everything should be available at a sustainable price. But first, there needs to be perceived value before raising prices. The new company may have to take a gamble, open up the checkbook, and make additions and upgrades to the various parks first, and try lowering food and parking prices to get guests back and THEN bring pass prices in line. SF did not do this when they tried to premium-up their pass prices a couple years ago and that forced them to drop pass prices back through the floor to try to get attendance back up.

July 8, 2024 at 9:10 AM

From a selfish perspective, a Six Flags all-parks pass would be a dream, and a pretty big cost savings for my family as we currently hold Cedar Fair Platinum passes and Six Flags Memberships that also allow access at all of the SF parks (we jumped on a deal with the membership, and of course they released a standard annual pass a couple of months later that included all-parks access for a slightly lower price). All told I think we have traditionally spent somewhere @$300/year for passes that allow us unlimited visits to all the CF and SF parks. Living in the DC Region, our home parks are Kings Dominion and Six Flags America, so it was always understanding why our Cedar Fair pass was more expensive than the SF one. Also, over the years we've had Cedar Fair passes, we have occasionally dropped down to a Silver pass (good just at KD) when we didn't have any planned trips to other parks within that chain in the following year. Geographically, Six Flags Great Adventure and Dorney Park are both within "day trip" distance of where we live, but any other park within the combined chain inside of reasonable driving distance in the Eastern time zone would necessitate an overnight stay (Cedar Point, Kings Island, Carowinds, Six Flags New England, Darian Lake, Six Flags Over Georgia, Michigan's Adventure, and Canada's Wonderland). To visit the rest of the parks in the chain, we'd most likely have to get on a plane.

Now, while we make it a point to travel around to the various Six Flags and Cedar Fair parks within the chains every single year (we've been to every park in the US except Michigan's Adventure), I really don't think it's something a lot of guests do. I think the desire for an all-parks pass is accentuated on websites like TPI and many coaster sites because that is the audience for an admission product like that. In general, I think most guests only visit the park closest to their home, which is why I think Cedar Fair's pass structure makes far more sense - cheaper pass for local park, but more than double the cost for an all-parks pass instead of SF's structure, which has traditionally made all parks access included in most of their cheapest season passes and memberships. I would bet that Cedar Fair probably has better data on this, because SF has only recently charging significantly more for all-parks options on their admission products.

Here is what I think the combined company needs to do with its passes...

1. Season Passes/Memberships are an essential part of the financial structure of these parks. Not only are guests used to them, but the parks themselves are used to operating with a large influx of cash at the beginning of the year and then managing that throughout the season. Both chains have operated this way for decades, so eliminating this cash flow structure would be incredibly disruptive at a time where there is already going to be a lot of disruption with the merger.

2. Six Flags has always priced their season passes too low compared to Cedar Fair. I would prefer to see Six Flags raise their prices and improve the quality of their product instead of Cedar Fair lowering their prices to match SF's lowest common denominator. While this may upset some guests in major urban markets that rely on value in their entertainment dollar, I think even those guests would trade a slightly higher price in exchange for slightly improved quality (or some confidence that their local park won't close).

3. Water parks should ALWAYS be included as part of a theme park's individual season pass (aside from the Schlitterbahn parks, which should continue to operate as individual theme parks). Whether the water park is directly connected to the theme park or a completely separate gate, if you buy a season pass for the theme park, it should include unlimited admission to the water park. Six Flags has been trying to differentiate water parks as separate gates over the past 2 years, even for those that are integrated into their corresponding theme parks.

4. The various sales, perks, add-ons, and upgrades on season passes/memberships that SF has been doing over the past 5+ years need to stop. No matter when you decide to pull the trigger on a pass/membership, it seems that a better deal or a product with more attractive features comes along 2 weeks later. Cedar Fair doesn't screw around with their pricing and pass structure. You know that if you buy/renew in mid-August/early September, you will get the best possible deal on your pass. That means SF has about 6 weeks to figure out how they're going to structure passes under the combined company. The constant tinkering that SF did with their passes and memberships is not going to fly with the Cedar Fair audience, and only create frustration from guests who feel like they're constantly being undercut from a company looking to lower the bar in order to sell more passes. I also don't really like all of the ridiculous add-ons SF has been trying to include in their passes. If they want to sell other season-long products like dining, Flash Pass, drink bottle, and other upcharges, they can sell those separately (like CF does), not try to dangle them like carrots in order to sell more passes. Also, the entire "membership" concept needs to be retired, particularly since many of the parks within the chain are giving up on year-round operations (even SFGAdv is dumping their Holiday in the Park this year).

5. Base Season Pass - Single park season passes should be the standard product sold. Even if there are multiple parks in the same region, a single park pass should be sold close to what those single park passes have traditionally cost. As noted above, the pass should include admission to the associated water park and include parking (as all season pass products should). If they want, they could allow base season pass holders to get discounts on single day admissions to other parks, but it should not be more than 30%. This base season pass should also include some level of in-park discount (10-20% off all in-park purchases including food, merchandise, and upgrades like Flash Pass/Fastlane).

6. Second Tier Pass - The chain should either offer a "regional" or "pick your parks" product that allows admission to additional parks within the chain. I would say somewhere between 3-5 additional parks could be included and/or selected. If they wanted, Six Flags could either lay out which parks are included in each park's "region", allow guests to select the parks they want to visit in the following year, or simply tell guests that they can visit 5 parks outside their home park, meaning once they walk into a 6th park, they would be denied entry on their season pass. This product would need to cost at least 2-3 times what the standard season pass costs ($200 or more). This might not work in regions where there are 2-3 really popular parks in close proximity like Ohio, Texas, and California, but I think they could figure something out given that Cedar Fair already has experience managing season pass demand for CP and KI, which are less than 4 hours apart driving. Personally, I would prefer the "pick-your-parks" or if you just get to visit 5 parks outside of your home park, over a regional approach. The other possibility here is that this level would give guests some set number of single day admissions to other parks within the chain that require you to make a reservation ahead of time (and subject to availability). You could go to any park within the chain, but instead of being able to just walk in whenever you wanted like you can now, it would necessitate some pre-planning, and if you visited one of the larger parks like Cedar Point, SFMM, SFGAdv, and Knott's, you might need to use 2 of your available admissions to see the entire park. If you need more days to visit other parks, you could purchase additional single-day admissions at a 50% discount off the standard daily admission for that park.

7. Top Tier Pass - This would be the pass that the biggest fans would want, but most really wouldn't need if SF actually offers the second tier pass noted above. This would include unlimited admission to every park in the chain, but would be priced accordingly at a cost of $500 or more.

8. However SF decides to roll out a new pass program, they need to make passes at least 30% more than a single-day admission. The current SF m/o of pricing single park season passes at just a few dollars more than a single day admission isn't helping anyone, especially that reservations are not required to visit parks anymore. For me, that's the biggest issue with season passes right now since parks just can't predict what crowds will be like from day to day because they have so many guests out there with season passes that can show up on a whim when the weather is nice. Forcing people who probably only want to visit once to think twice about upgrading to a season pass will help reduce the amount of unpredictability on the market. Guests who purchase season passes should intend to visit multiple days throughout the year, and by creating a larger price differential between passes and single day admissions should help cut down on that.

Ultimately, I have no idea what the combined company will do here, and I'm sure the SF teams are crunching data to see what makes the most sense for 2 chains that did business very differently when it came to selling these products. They're probably straining on this as much as Universal is straining on what they ultimately will do with admissions to Epic Universe.

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