Maybe travelers are making up for lost time, or they simply want to escape reality. Maybe their travel patterns reflect an economic landscape where the “haves” live much differently than the “have nots.” No matter the reason, it can sometimes feel like there’s no limit to what people will spend in the name of entertainment.
Adele tickets in Las Vegas are selling for thousands of dollars. Hotel room rates are setting new records. Cruises are adding new fees that result in paying more for less. The list goes on and on.
The same is becoming increasingly true for theme parks.
Theme parks are far from alone in their decision to increase rates in recent years. Visitors are still showing up with sparkly ears on their heads, magic wands in their hands and an extra wad of cash in their wallets just to escape reality for a day or two. Many big-name theme parks have had several quarters of earnings reports that paint a picture of guests spending more than ever on a per-visitor basis.
To put numbers to it, in 2022, Disney reported per-visitor theme park spending was up 40% from 2019. Universal also saw a nearly 50% increase in theme park revenue in 2022 versus 2021 earnings, also representing a measurable increase in per-person spending.
Enough people seem willing to tolerate certain cost increases — pricier theme park tickets on peak dates, a few extra dollars for ice cream and creeping rates for reduce-the-line passes. However, over time, there’s still an invisible third-rail limit to what people will spend that perhaps can only be found by surpassing it.
Will 2023 be the year that the limit is finally hit?
Theme park expenses are currently at an all-time high
Price increases, inflation, and new and revamped add-on options for tickets mean the average theme park day costs substantially more money than it used to. In some cases, the increase in out-of-pocket expenses is dramatic.
Let’s say you want to spend three days at Walt Disney World this week. You have two adults and two kids visiting one park per day. Those tickets currently cost $1,891.92.
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It’s a busy week, and you want to make the most of your time in the parks. So, you purchase Genie+ — Disney’s pass that allows you to reduce your wait in line — for each of those three days. The price of this service varies but could cost as much as $35 per person, per day, based on recent pricing trends during busy days. That’s an extra $120 per day for a family of four, or $360 over three days.
While some visitors may stop there, let’s also assume that throughout your three-day trip, you want a Lightning Lane to both Tron Lightcycle Run and Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind. These are the two newest rides at Disney World that are not included with the $35 Genie+ pass.
If you miss grabbing a virtual boarding group in Disney’s app (which is easy to do when they disappear in seconds at the 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. release times), purchasing these Lightning Lane passes will be your only option for reducing wait times, as there are no regular lines for these attractions. However, the Lightning Lane passes don’t come cheap. Typical prices hover around $20 per person for Tron and $18 per person for Cosmic Rewind. This adds $152 to your family’s vacation.
With all of these expenses tallied up, you’re looking at spending more than $2,403 just for entry and ride-related fees.
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MADISON BLANCAFLOR/THE POINTS GUY
Related: Everything you need to know about visiting Walt Disney World Resort
It wasn’t always so pricey to visit Disney World, though.
Back in 2019, theme park tickets were a bit cheaper, and there were no such things as Lightning Lanes and Genie+. Instead, there was the free FastPass service available to all visitors, plus the complimentary Magical Express Bus to and from the airport for Disney resort guests. There were also free MagicBands and PhotoPass photo downloads for annual passholders.
But let’s not get too nostalgic for the fond memories of the past. Even assuming all other things are equal, you’ll find yourself paying an extra $512 over three days for just skip-the-line services — a perk that used to be free.
Of course, it’s not just Disney that’s putting the squeeze on visitors’ wallets.
Universal Orlando’s skip-the-line service, Universal Express, starts at $89.99 per person, per day — a fee that’s much higher than the cost of Disney’s Genie+ service. It gets pricier, though, with the perk costing as much as $349.99 per person, per day during busier times of the year. That’s far more than the cost of your entrance ticket to Universal and even more than what you’ll pay for a group VIP tour on many dates.
Luckily, there is a way around dropping this kind of cash to skip lines at Universal Orlando: You can get Universal Express at no extra cost by staying at the right Universal hotels.
Related: Universal Orlando guide: Tips from frequent visitors
Demand for pricey theme park experiences may be cracking
On the day that Disney’s Genie+ service hit a new all-time-high price of $35 per person, per day, it also sold out faster than ever before. It became unavailable for additional purchases by late morning. But while such data points may make it feel like the cash in a family’s wallet is an unlimited resource, we all know it isn’t.
Even Disney has felt the impact of visitors cutting back on vacation spending in recent months.
For example, consider the much-anticipated “Star Wars” hotel, known officially as Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. The two-night experience was initially sold out for several months — even with sky-high prices that started at $4,808 for double occupancy and $5,999 for a family of four. However, demand has tapered off because the pool of space fans willing to pay the exorbitant rates (which cost the same as a trip Europe) has gotten smaller.
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SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY
This experience is a bucket list opportunity that prior guests loved and would likely enjoy again. Unfortunately, the otherworldly price tag makes a stay at the Galactic Starcruiser a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience for most.
Only time will tell if that will remain the case, though, now that Disney is beginning to release reduced rates for the experience.
While the pricing model has stayed mostly intact, discounts of up to 30% are available for groups such as Disney annual passholders and Disney Vacation Club owners. The number of two-night experiences available each week will also decrease starting this fall. This is perhaps due to the lack of sold-out dates on the calendar, suggesting an overall lack of demand at the current rates.
Related: Disney Imagineers reveal how they brought the new ‘Star Wars’ hotel to life
Beyond the “Star Wars”-themed hotel experience, Disney has acknowledged that it may have gotten a bit too zealous about prices and add-on fees.
“In our zeal to grow profits, we may have been a little bit too aggressive about some of our pricing,” Disney CEO Bob Iger said at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference. “I think there’s a way to continue to grow that business, but be smarter about how we price so that we maintain that brand value of accessibility.”
Iger “put his money where his mouth is” when Disney, in a bit of a surprise move in early 2023, eliminated parking fees for Disney hotel guests. These fees had been in place since 2018, when a la carte add-on pricing for select services started.
What to expect for future theme park visits
So, given this fluctuation in what people are willing to spend for theme park vacations, what can we anticipate happening in the foreseeable future? For now, it doesn’t appear that travel demand is the issue.
Travel demand is on the rise, with no discernable slowdown in sight. In fact, many travelers are still trekking to places like Florida and visiting U.S. theme parks. As a result, it’s unlikely that prices for a la carte offerings like Genie+ and other theme park expenses will decrease anytime soon. If anything, they may continue to get pricier.
Fortunately, there is some good news. With the stratification we’re seeing at the higher end of theme park experiences, we are also seeing development at the more budget-friendly end of the spectrum.
One such example of this is Universal Orlando.
If you look back about five years, attendance at Universal Orlando’s two theme parks never surpassed attendance at any of Disney World’s four theme parks. As of 2021, however, Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure had higher attendance numbers than three of Disney World’s four parks.
Related: How Universal is stepping out of the mouse’s shadow to become the hottest theme park
This growth could have several explanations, but one that theme park fans have stated time and time again is that it is simply less expensive to visit Universal Orlando. While the tickets are comparably priced, Universal has several solid hotel options that start at less than $125 per night — something you rarely find at Disney.
These aren’t just glorified motels by another name. For example, at Universal’s Aventura Hotel, guests have access to a rooftop bar and restaurant, plus fresh sushi from the food hall. Meanwhile, Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort offers two pools, a lazy river and a waterslide. Starting prices at each are often less than $140 per night.
To put things into perspective, you’d need to stay at Disney’s Beach Club Resort or Disney’s Yacht Club Resort to get a lazy river and waterslides at Disney World. Both of those properties cost closer to $450 per night. For a sit-down rooftop bar and restaurant at Disney, the most budget-friendly option would be at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort, where rooms start at about $260 per night.
Related: The best Disney World hotels for your next magical stay
Beyond the biggest parks, there’s been a recent trend toward scaled-back themed experiences with smaller price tags.
For example, Peppa Pig Theme Park in Winter Haven, Florida, sells one-day tickets for as little as $34 per day. Soon, the park will be adding a likely similarly priced location in Texas.
Universal recently announced plans to open a theme park in Texas, too, to attract families with young children. The location will be smaller than its other parks and will likely be less expensive to visit. Universal is also developing a year-round Halloween Horror Nights-themed experience in Las Vegas for older guests.
These parks and attractions may not be multiday destinations, but they can provide a dose of theme park fun without breaking the bank.
An additional bit of good news is that there may be fewer logistics to sort out when visiting theme parks in the near future.
“We are listening to guests’ feedback, and we are continuously working to improve the quality and value of their experience,” Iger said in Disney’s 2023 first-quarter earnings call in February.
Based on the recent rollback of parking fees at Disney World — along with some changes regarding park-hopping and reservations — there’s hope that visits may become simpler to plan and understand, even if the pricing model doesn’t budge.
Related: It’s a changed world after all: 9 things you must know if you’re heading to Disney World
How to save money when visiting theme parks
If the lack of drastic drops in pricing is causing you to fret about future trips to the theme parks, don’t despair: There are still ways to reduce the out-of-pocket cost of your theme park trips.
To start, look into using points for your theme park tickets. Depending on which credit cards you have in your wallet, you may also find it more cost-effective to buy gift cards at a reduced rate or with a cash-back offer to use toward your vacation.
Another way you can save money when visiting Disney is to rent Disney Vacation Club points for your stay and use those points to secure your lodging. For example, you can bask in the full immersion of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge by redeeming as few as 7 DVC points (which often start around $21 per point to rent from sites like David’s Vacation Club). You could save hundreds of dollars by reserving your room with DVC points instead of cash.
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Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY
Related: What it’s really like doing Disney World 3 different ways: Budget, moderate and blow-out luxury
It’s hard to put a price on priceless family memories. Still, when you budget out that next theme park vacation — especially at the big-name parks — be ready for those “priceless” moments to cost you considerably more than they used to.
It’s hard to say how much experiencing the latest and greatest roller coaster will cost you. Hopefully, with a little luck (and some pushback from visitors), this year will be the one when the coaster finally descends from the top of the hill, bringing many of the latest add-on expenses down with it as it comes rolling back to Earth.