When the modern theme park era began in the early 20th century, the business model was generally based on a “pay-per-attraction” system where guests would buy separate tickets for access to individual rides or shows. So popular was this approach that it continued throughout the 20th century, including the 1972 opening of Walt Disney World in Florida.
This trend would wane though in the latter part of the century as many amusement parks moved toward a single admission system that included daylong access to most attractions via the purchase of a single ticket. Indeed, today, nearly all large parks in the country are firmly centered on the single admission model—an approach whose benefit is that it allows for more predictability in revenue forecasts by assuring that everyone who actually enters the park will pay no matter if they ride only a few rides or many.
Recently though, a subtle shift in the single admission system has begun to creep into the industry’s larger parks as they search for supplemental revenue streams beyond the single day-long ticket. This month The Large Park Report explores this trend and considers some of the benefits—and challenges—faced by amusement facilities that seek to incorporate a “pay-per-attraction” element into a single admission scenario.
The Return of Midway-Style Attractions
The original midway approach to amusement facilities often involved a series of games, shows, or rides that a guest would pay to participate in with a different ticket for each attraction. This approach gave guests a large amount of discretion to determine what they spent their money on. For guests who profligately participated, this was a good system because the midway operator made money on each interaction with the guest.
Not all guests played the games or visited the shows though. Some simply enjoyed the lights and sounds of the midway—a tactic that failed to produce revenue for the operator. This led to the idea of charging an admission price to capture some revenue from the guests who only passively participated. The idea often involved a hybrid approach that combined a small admission price with a pay-per-attraction ticket system.
Even this approach varied within the amusement industry as parks continued to try and figure out what was the best model for charging guests to use attractions. Indeed, when Disneyland opened in 1955, the park generally used a “pay-per-attraction” model that was based on a system of lettered tickets that corresponded to certain attractions whose use cost more or less depending on the type of ticket (with an “E” ticket eventually being the most expensive and an “A” ticket the least).
Many in the industry trace the first use of the single admission system to the Six Flags Over Texas park—a change that was premised on the idea that guests would rather know on the front end how much a day at the park would cost (and might even pay more for this knowledge) than have to consider the cost all day long as they paid for each attraction.
Eventually, large amusement facilities like Disneyland, Disney World, Universal’s parks, and the Cedar Fair family of parks moved to the single-admission approach. At the same time, most parks did not entirely abandon the pay-per-use approach for midway-type games that remained inside their park, such as arcades and games of skill.
In recent years, this pay-per-use approach has also been adopted at places like Universal Orlando and Sea World for low throughput attractions including simulators and bungee rides. According to one industry executive at a major theme park, the temptation of generating additional revenue from non-traditional (and often low capacity) attractions in addition to an admission fee can sometimes be too strong for parks to completely turn down.
If this is indeed true (which, if you survey the growing number of these type attractions at large parks—we counted over 100 in just a few minutes of web-based research—is likely the case), then the key question is how to implement this approach without causing a disruption to the guest experience.
For an answer to this issue, we looked to two former theme park executives with extensive experience in the areas of ticketing and revenue.
Implementing a “Pay-Per-Attraction” Program
If your facility is considering the introduction—or expansion—of a pay for individual use system for certain attractions then Steve Brown, a former Disney executive with an expertise in ticketing strategies, has some practical yet important advice.
“The best way to maximize capture is with a prepaid card program. Disney recently installed this at DCA and Animal Kingdom and Sea World has it in their parks,” explained Brown. “You go to a kiosk, put say $10 on the card and then play, paying with the card at each game.”
According to Brown, a major benefit of this approach is that it simplifies the process for the guest while also keeping the attendants from handling cash—an important reality since pay-per-individual use games can be a high risk for theft by attendants. The perceived benefit for the guest is also a powerful reason to implement such a program explained Joni Newkirk, another former Disney executive who has played a major role in revenue strategies for Disney parks and other large parks and resorts.
“Midway-style games can provide additional entertainment value for guests that differ from typical attraction rides by introducing levels of skill and payoffs in the form of merchandise or other rewards. Immediate gratification from ‘the prize’ creates a win for the consumer,” explained Newkirk. “Plus, don’t underestimate the nostalgic value of simple games generally associated with traveling circuses and hometown fairs. For guests, midway games can provide a nice break from the ride-to-ride rush and for park operators, keep guests in the park longer.”
At the same time, the potential turn-off to guests expecting unlimited access for a single admission ticket is a very real challenge. As Brown noted, “guests hate paying once they’ve already paid.” However, since pay-per-use attractions can be a significant revenue source, the key is to educate the guest on the value of making these supplemental payments after entering the park.
“For midway games, guests seem to understand that pay for play is the way it works. That’s different than being asked to pay for a ride,” explained Brown. “Six Flags has a huge Midway game business. Disney only dabbles in it and often more for thematic value such as the boardwalk area at Disney California Adventure. The main opportunity is making sure guests have a way to pay with a credit card as cash is scarce once inside a park.”
Clearly, the strategy behind adding midway-style and other pay-as-you-go attractions is not simply as easy as buying the game or ride and installing it at your facility. Indeed, while it may seem that simple as you walk the halls of IAAPA or other vendor conferences, the reality is that numerous operational and fiscal issues become mixed together in this type of hybrid approach to charging for admission.
Ultimately, Newkirk has identified two key issues that an amusement operator should consider before implementing a pay-per-use attraction program:
- To keep midway games popular, guests need to perceive a strong price-value proposition. How the games are packaged and priced can have a bearing on how often guests play or if they return to the games on future visits. Guests have a reference point in terms of what they paid for general admission or pay on a per-ride or per-show basis for other activities in the park and can quickly do the math to see if midway games measure up to their expectations.
- Pre-packaging the games can help eliminate the feeling of being “nickeled and dimed” as the higher the price for general admission, the more likely guests expect that price to be “all inclusive.”
If your facility is seeking to supplement a single-admission ticket revenue model with one that includes additional guest spending on select attractions once they enter the park, then the balance between added value and added expense must be carefully considered in order to satisfy the ultimate question: that is, does the guest leave with a feeling that, though they spent more, their entertainment experience increased more than their cost or do they feel that the park overreached just to gain a few extra dollars beyond the admission charge during their visit.
(Reach Contributor Chad Emerson at email@example.com.)