The VIP Treatment


Red carpet. 3D image.

By Chad Emerson

With several major theme parks recently crossing the $100 per day threshold for a daily ticket, visiting some of the industry’s signature parks can seem like a high-end experience for many families these days.  Yet, even with these unprecedented admission costs, today’s typical theme park cost pales in comparison to some of the most luxury offerings that the same parks have to offer.

Indeed, a survey of the industry’s large parks and resorts reveals that, while middle class America may be increasingly price sensitive, there remains a large market for the highest-end theme park experience.

This issue, The Large Park Report examines how theme parks are capitalizing on the luxury market and how even the smallest of facilities can create a strategy for attracting these high-end dollars.

Swimming with the Dolphins

Dating back to Disneyland and its exclusive Club 33 (and its multi-thousand dollar yearly membership fees), theme parks have regularly offered exclusive experiences within their gates.  Even in those instances, though, the park as a whole remained primarily focused on the less-than-luxury experience.

Little Smiling Girl Swimming With The Dolphin

That trend largely changed in the summer of 2000 when SeaWorld opened its Discovery Cove park adjacent to SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla.  Unlike previous parks, Discovery Cove incorporated several features that made it the most expensive theme park in the history of the industry the day it opened.

Much of this cost was the result of Discovery Cove’s extremely limited daily attendance.  Similar to a cruise ship excursion, SeaWorld placed hard limits on the number of daily guests in order to maximize the individual experience.  From day one, Discovery Cove’s daily admission measured in the hundreds of dollars in even the slowest seasons.

Thought the cost was high, so were the benefits for the select few guests who entered its gates.  Limited admission meant large amounts of individual time snorkeling among exotic fish and swimming with the park’s signature dolphins.  Private pools and other highly-individualized experiences were also available including premium tickets that offered all-inclusive food, beverage and other high-end amenities.

The park’s opening unfortunately preceded 9/11 and the industry’s massive travel slump by just mere months.  As a result, the extreme reduction in leisure travel post 9/11 struck this limited attendance park especially hard.

The park, however, worked through these challenges and ultimately returned to being the most expensive and most luxurious ticket in Central Florida in due time.

Much of this can be attributed to its commitment to preserving its high price point even in the face of major discounts throughout the industry.  By keeping its value high, guests never became accustomed to waiting for discounted tickets for this unique, high-end experience.

Indeed, the ability of Discovery Cove to persevere through both the 9/11 tragedy as well as the 2007/2008 financial crisis demonstrated to many that high-end theme park offerings, if backed by excellent service and unique experiences, can be extremely durable regardless of financial and geopolitical challenges.

Building on Luxury

If nothing else, industry leaders such as Disney and Universal are adept at uncovering revenue opportunities that other parks have previously realized.  The durable success of Discovery Cove led both of these major players to consider high cost/limited admission parks for their own resorts (with one of the most advanced Disney concepts being a revamped experience at its Discovery Island facility just a short hop from the Magic Kingdom).

While neither company elected to open such a facility as a standalone park, Discovery Cove arguably served as a transformative model nevertheless. Indeed, in the post Discovery Cove days, nearly all large parks and resorts began to aggressively introduce or expand their high-end offerings. These luxury experiences focused on an important equation:  limited admission coupled with unique experiences can justify higher admission charges.

Portrait Of Happy Mother And Baby Girl Riding On Carousel

By strictly limiting the size of behind the scenes tours, interactive experiences (often involving animals) and other opportunities not included in a general admission ticket, operators like Disney, Universal, Six Flags and others discovered that, even in otherwise challenging economic times, the highest-end guests remained very price insensitive.

That is not to say that separating these guests from their money was easy.  Just like any luxury purchase, limited supply and exclusivity remained paramount.

To accomplish this, several of the large parks resorted to offerings laced with luxury—some of which were never even advertised on websites or other promotional materials.  In the end, both Disney and Universal parks ended up with several ultra-exclusive park and resort experiences that even exceeded an average daily cost of over $1,000 per person per day.

While these costs were hardly the largest revenue streams, they did provide some of the highest net profits for any guest categories in the history of the resorts.

Attracting High End Guests on a Non-Large Park Scale 

For smaller amusement facilities, the prospect of attracting high-end guests may not seem initially attainable.  That type of thinking is a mistake though. While your facility might not be able to attract guests willing to pay thousands per day, you can still offer high-end experiences that offer high revenue potential.

The key is to identify what types of experiences at your facility can be effectively limited in supply to increase demand (and, as a result, admission charges).  This often centers on behind the scenes experiences, after-hours experiences, and experiences involving animals or creative talent such as in-park musical or other performing talent.

The key is to keep providing the general admission guest with access to these rides and attractions while carving out special access (typically more than just front of line access) to a very limited number of guests.  Whether that includes lunch with an entertainer, late night roller coaster rides, or personal time with animal trainers, the most important feature is to make the experience special enough that the uniqueness outweighs the cost.

Whether large or small or in-between, all parks can learn from the Discovery Cove model and provide limited access/higher cost experiences that guests with the largest budgets can purchase and create high margin revenue lines for your facility.

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