By Chad Emerson
As we move further into 2019, many amusement facilities are honing their plans for the big summer season. That almost always includes evaluating your ticket pricing and program for guests. In this installment of The Large Park Report, we examine Universal Orlando’s ticketing strategies and how your facility might learn from their multi-pronged approach.
Universal Studios Ticket Options
With year-round operating parks in both California and Florida, Universal doesn’t have the luxury of a closed season to re-evaluate operational strategies like ticketing. Instead, they have to plan in “real-time” always with an eye toward their year-round competitors like Disney and SeaWorld.
Universal’s Florida resort operates with essentially a two-pronged ticketing approach: the base ticket and the “park to park” ticket. The base ticket allows the guest to visit one park per day. To visit multiple parks (or other resort facilities like their water park), a guest must purchase multi-day base tickets. Conversely, if a guest wants to visit both Universal Orlando parks on a single day, then the park to park ticket is required.
Notably, the park to park ticket is more expensive even though there is little actual additional cost to Universal if a guest transfers between parks on a single day (other than the incremental staffing cost of monitoring a guest’s admission at the park entrances multiple times versus just once for a base ticket). This minimal operational cost is different than their rival Walt Disney World because Disney incurs a much higher guest transportation cost between parks because most of the parks cannot be walked between (with Epcot and Hollywood Studios being an exception, though most guests use Disney water transportation between those parks). Indeed, the Universal Orlando park layout is much more similar to Disneyland in California where Disney’s two parks are essentially right next to each other.
Even though their hard costs are minimal, Universal charges a premium and strongly entices guests to purchase the more expensive park to park ticket because it is the only way to experience the highly-popular Hogwarts Express attraction which commutes guests between the separate Harry Potter attractions in their two parks. In other words, fans of the Boy Wizard cannot fully experience Universal’s interpretation of his world without paying for a park to park ticket. Considering that the Harry Potter-lands are far and away Universal’s most popular attractions, the base ticket might save money but prevents guests from enjoying the entire Universal Orlando experience.
The base ticket also comes with the disadvantage of only allowing the guest to use the value of the ticket while the specific park they select for that day is open. If both of Universal’s parks open and close at the same time, then there really is no disadvantage. It’s not uncommon though for the two parks to have different operating hours on a single day. This means that a park to park ticket, while more expensive in total cost, might end up being closer to the base ticket price in terms of total available hours to use on a single day if one of the parks opens earlier and/or closes later. A park to park ticket would allow the guest to start at the earliest open park and finish at the latest open one.
While most amusement facilities don’t have multiple theme parks on a single property, the Universal park to park ticket strategy could translate to your facility if you have any separately-ticketed venues within your facility. For instance, if you have a separate park and waterpark or miniature golf facility on property, this strategy could be used to allow guests to move between both on a single day—presumably also allowing you to charge a premium for that flexibility.
The Cost of an Enhanced Experience
Once inside the gates of a Universal Orlando park, most of the attractions don’t require an additional payment to experience the individual show and rides. This approach has basically become standardized among large parks and resorts where a single ticket provides unlimited access to the rides and shows within a park, during operating hours, at no additional charge. You can ride the most elaborate ride in the park all day long even though that ride likely cost the park more to build in the first place and more to operate each day.
Universal has discovered a way to generate significantly increased revenues without disrupting the single payment admission model. Their strategy essentially involves charging guests more to move to the front of the line—a big benefit for rides that have long lines throughout the day.
Known as Universal Express, this upcharge allows guests to significantly reduce their wait time for a ride. This is typically done by allowing the guest to use a separate, shorter ride queue that skips most of the main queue. While the Universal Express user does miss out on the full queue experience (which is not insignificant when you consider how elaborate and interactive many queues have become), they also can save hours of wait times for some rides on extremely busy park days.
Competitors like Disney offer somewhat analogous programs like FastPass but, unlike Universal Express, Disney’s FastPass is typically tied to a limited number of uses versus the unlimited nature of Universal’s program. Disney also provides guests with a certain number of “free” FastPasses that they can register to use during their trip. Universal Express, on the other hand, generally requires a purchase to use even when staying at some of Universal’s own, on-property hotels.
For the guest, the additional cost becomes another math decision to evaluate because, even though it increases the total cost of the admission, it may increase the “value” they receive by allowing the guest to ride more rides and watch more shows than they would be able to if they had to wait in the full queue line.
For parks, line-skipping upcharges should be approached with caution though. These programs typically require careful design and monitoring to ensure that too many people are not trying to use them on a single attraction at once because this would, in turn, diminish the value by increasing wait times for these premium purchases. This is why programs like Universal Express and FastPass are built on carefully constructed algorithms designed to ensure that the benefit of a significantly reduced wait is actually realized.
As a result, if your facility is considering “line-skipping” upcharges as a way to increase revenue, it is extremely important to consult with ticketing vendors who can help design a program that doesn’t leave your premium purchasers frustrated by unmet promises of extremely expedited waits for rides and shows at your facility.