It has been monkey-see, monkey-do when it comes to theme park ticket prices among Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando for years. With some exceptions, they've been neck and neck and in lockstep, matching and raising within days of one another.
We had a twist recently with Universal moving to an $88 one-day, one-park ticket, followed by Disney practicing some one-dollar-upsmanship with an $89 one-day, one-park ticket, and then Universal turning right around and raising their tickets by one single buck to match Disney World. You decide who wins that petty party.
I'm frequently asked why theme parks raise their prices, and my standard answer is "because they can." Folks keep coming, right? One snappy comeback I get is "Well, they're just out to make money." Well, yeah, and welcome to America.
When the parks raise prices, we run a story in the Orlando Sentinel, and sometimes they include an official reason why the increase happened. When I looked back at the past decade of our ticket-price coverage, I learned that guests (guests!) apparently are behind the hikes, along with the dreaded "marketplace" and the cost of doing business and the very squishy entertainment value. Here are spokesperson quotes, along with their publication dates in the Sentinel. (I like to read spokesman quotes in monotone, but that's entirely optional.)
+ "We keep pace with the market," Universal Orlando spokesman Tom Schroder. (June 8, 2012)
+ "Our fans and guests continue to tell us that SeaWorld and Aquatica are outstanding values," SeaWorld Orlando spokesman Nick Gollattscheck. (Sept. 13, 2011)
+ "This past year has shown us that our guests are excited by the entertainment experience we provide and the value we offer. ... We worked to make sure our prices will continue to deliver the value our guests want." Universal's Schroder. (June 21, 2011)
+ "Our research tells us that nearly all of our guests agree that a Disney theme-park experience is a strong value," Disney World spokesman Bryan Malenius. (June 11, 2011)
+ "We also listen to our guests, and they tell us we are doing a great job at delivering value." Universal's Schroder. (Aug. 7, 2010)
+ "We continuously monitor the marketplace to ensure pricing that reflects a strong entertainment value. ... Our guests continue to agree that a day at a Disney theme park is a great entertainment value," Disney's Malenius. (Aug. 4, 2010)
+ The higher price is "something that not only is indicative of what we feel is the value of our parks but frankly is going to allow us to continue to invest in our parks at the level our customers expect," Joe Couceiro, chief marketing officer for SeaWorld parent Busch Entertainment Corp. (Oct. 31, 2009)
+ "We survey our guests regularly and, in our research, nearly nine out of 10 guests rate the value of our theme parks as good, very good or excellent. ... Our pricing is based on the high-quality experience we deliver to our guests, and our guests continue to agree that a ticket to Walt Disney World represents a great entertainment value," Disney spokeswoman Kim Prunty (Aug.1 , 2009)
+ "It's sound business strategy to keep prices on par with market levels ... We believe our pricing reflects the world-class experience we offer," Michael Lewellen, Universal vice president for public relations. (Aug. 6, 2008)
+ "We strongly believe that Walt Disney World represents a great entertainment value. Our guests agree. ... In our guest surveys, nine out of 10 rate their theme-park experience from good to excellent," Disney spokesman Rick Sylvain. (Aug. 4, 2007)
+ "We assign admission prices based on the cost of doing business and to the value offered to our customers, not on what it costs to enter the other parks," SeaWorld spokeswoman Becca Bides. (Dec. 6, 2006)
+ "We believe we offer a great value and remain competitive in the market," Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Polak said. (Aug. 5, 2006)
+ "It's simply sound business strategy to adjust admission prices to keep pace with the marketplace, especially when so many of your rides dominate the marketplace," Universal Spokeswoman Susan Lomax. (April 3, 2004)
This headline stands out from April 19, 2002: "Disney World won't raise ticket price." That story includes "While our business continues to improve, we realize that the soft economy has had an impact on many families. So we're doing all we can to remind them that Walt Disney World remains an outstanding vacation value," said Disney World president Al Weiss.
At the time, Disney was the cheapest theme-park ticket in town at $48. Universal and SeaWorld had just raised their rates to $49.95 a day. We're looking at around an 83% increase since the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Lesson learned: If you think the price is too high, then say so with words and dollars.