By Hugo Martin
Los Angeles Time
Alhambra, Calif., secretary Laurie Casado struggles each year to buy Disneyland annual passes for herself and her family, so the park’s recent announcement that it was jacking up prices by up to 30 percent wasn’t exactly good news.
But Casado will buy the passes anyway and cut out something else.
“I’ll keep going because Disney is a big part of our lives,” said Casado, who buys annual passes for her husband, daughter and two grandsons, age 4 and 5. “But the price increase is so disheartening.”
Disheartening, perhaps, but inevitable, industry experts say.
Disneyland and other theme-park operators have learned that they can raise prices without denting attendance.
This year, modest improvements in the economy and a major new attraction at Disney’s California Adventure apparently has emboldened park operators to boost prices a bit more than usual, according to John Gerner, a theme-park consultant and managing director for Leisure Business Advisors.
“Now that the economy has improved, that in itself justifies increasing prices,” Gerner said.
Disney officials declined to explain their reasons behind the latest hike, except to say in an email, “We periodically evaluate and adjust our pricing structure to ensure we are offering a great entertainment value.”
This year, daily passes for the Anaheim Disney parks — Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park — rose as of May 20 from $80 to $87. The biggest increase hit the estimated 300,000 parkgoers, such as Casado, who buy premium annual passes that include parking. Those went from $499 to $649.
The jump last year was lower — Disney raised the daily pass by $4 and increased the price of the premium annual pass by $40.
Industry experts said the steeper hike in 2012 probably was tied to a major expansion at California Adventure, including Cars Land, a 12-acre addition with rides and other attractions based on the hit animated Disney “Cars” movies. It opened June 15.
“This is all about Cars Land,” said David Koenig, author of four books about Disney’s theme parks. “If it wasn’t for Cars Land, the increase would be $4 or $5. Parkgoers will go to see Cars Land.”
The last time prices rose so much was in 2005, before the park unveiled an array of new shows and attractions to celebrate its 50th anniversary. At that time, daily ticket prices for Disneyland jumped almost 13 percent — from $49.75 to $56.
Overall, visitation is up nationwide for Disney. For the first three months of 2012, attendance at all Disney parks in the U.S. was up 7 percent and per capita spending was up 5 percent, according to the most recent Walt Disney Co. earnings report.
“Because of all the new stuff we’re doing,” Disney’s Chief Financial Officer Jay Rasulo recently told financial analysts, the company was enjoying “a lot of demand on the annual pass programs, particularly out here on the West Coast.”
Although Disney’s ticket prices typically are the highest of any Southern California theme park, others follow a similar pattern.
At Universal Studios Hollywood, one-day passes increased in April from $77 to $80, and annual passes that include parking jumped from $149 to $169 — a 13 percent boost. Recently, the park debuted its multimillion-dollar attraction “Transformers: The Ride — 3D.”
Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, which is not launching any major attractions this summer, is keeping daily ticket prices at $57.99. Its annual passes, with some blackout days and no parking, are increasing starting July 1, from $69.99 to $74.99 — a 7 percent increase. The park’s unlimited pass with parking has not been raised — it’s $165.
Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia has a big new attraction debuting this summer — Lex Luthor: Drop of Doom. But the park is keeping its general-admission price at $61.99. For the same price, patrons have been able to get an annual pass with blackout days and no parking. That changed June 4 when the pass price went up to $71.99. However, the unlimited pass with parking remains $125.
Although the price increases may not be welcome by parkgoers, the Southern California economy benefits significantly from the presence of these venues, said Robert A. Kleinhenz, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
Theme parks in Los Angeles County alone employ about 35,000 workers, he said. The parks attract millions of out-of-town visitors whose spending helps boost local hotels, restaurants and other businesses and generates sales tax revenue for state and local government.
The price increases are not likely to dissuade foreign tourists, who make plans to visit theme park months and even years in advance, according to industry experts.
“If there is going to be resistance, it will be from locals,” said Gerner. After all, they’re more likely to go multiple times in a year.
To appease them, industry experts say theme-park operators often unveil discount deals for area residents during lower attendance periods.
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