A table service restaurant at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Florida residents are receiving discounts for the attraction. Photo by Matt Stroshane

By Chad Emerson

With Disney’s recent announcement that it will lay off over 25,000 theme park division employees, large parks have experienced another industry-wide shockwave. Combined with pandemic closures and restrictions, most large parks and resorts are struggling to generate the short-term crowds they need to restore full operations. While personnel cuts are one way to address these challenges, another approach is to engage in expansive and unique promotions to salvage even a percentage of your projected attendance. In this issue’s Large Park Report, we examine several promotional and marketing strategies that large parks are implementing in this pandemic era.

Short-Term versus Long-Term
With the pandemic continuing and future treatments like vaccines still uncertain, many parks have been forced to focus on short-term survival even if it negatively affects long-term projections. Discounts and promotions are at the centerpiece of this dilemma. While discounts can drive traffic, the danger is that the consuming public can get used to those discounts and expect them regularly going forward—even after the pandemic is resolved. This is not dissimilar to the post 9/11 period where parks offered short-term discounts to convince visitors to return.
Deeply discounted hotel rooms, ticket packages and even in-park food and beverage specials can be effective “carrots” to get guests back. The trick is to make clear that such discounts are a new exception rather than a new norm. Clearly explained time limits and expiration dates can be an effective way to do this. Unfortunately, unlike a natural disaster, with this pandemic, it’s difficult to project when restrictions may be lifted, and operations return to normal.
Six Flags Over Georgia was one park that implemented an “end of summer” ticket sale. In addition to heavily discounted daily tickets, Six Flags embraced the strategy of deep discounts to its annual membership program. These year-long memberships can be effective because guests may return more frequently and, in doing so, purchase food, beverage, and merchandise during their multiple visits. To encourage this, Six Flags reduced some annual memberships over 50%. The key is to make clear that this is a special discount and not a new “re-pricing” for the annual membership program. Clearly stating this can help temper expectations that prices won’t return to pre-pandemic rates.

A resort hotel at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., with staff and guests observing distancing and mask-wearing requirements. Photo by Matt Stroshane
A resort hotel at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., with staff and guests observing distancing and mask-wearing requirements. Photo by Matt Stroshane

Focusing on Locals
For large regional parks, convincing guests to return isn’t as affected by logistical issues like hesitancy to use air travel since many guests already drive to regional parks. For destination parks like Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, the equation is not so simple since many of their typical guests arrive by plane. With plane travel still well below normal and airlines continuing to operate fewer flights, Universal Orlando focused part of its pandemic discounting on reduced prices for Florida residents.
Annual passes for Florida residents have been slashed through the end of the year with some passes discounted over $100. Universal Orlando also implemented another unique discount where Florida residents can purchase a one-day, two-park ticket and then return to the parks for free through Christmas Eve this year. This program cleverly encourages repeat visitors but with a very clear deadline. When you consider that Universal generates large amounts of parking revenue as well as in-park food and beverage sales, developing a promotion that makes it easy for local guests to “drop-in” to Universal Orlando’s parks is a strong potential recipe for capturing ancillary revenue like meals and parking.
Meanwhile, SeaWorld Orlando has apparently decided that both 2020 and 2021 will require expanded discounts and, as a result, introduced a new “Fun Card.” The premise is simple: buy a 2021 Fun Card and get near unlimited park visits until December 31, 2021. From this discount, it’s clear that SeaWorld’s primary goal is to get guests into their park (and presumably spending money while there) as many times as possible through the end of next year even if their ticket admission revenue is flattened because of this.
Ultimately, amusement facilities are going to be faced with this trade-off in terms of promotions and discounts. Lost ticket revenue will hopefully be offset with increased parking and in-park purchases. These unprecedented discounts should be clearly conveyed with time limits and expirations so guests will understand they are unique and not part of a new pricing normal going forward.