Disney considers off-peak pricing, revamps season pass price structure

Disney announced it's considering a version of surge pricing for park admission where tickets to its U.S. parks on busy days would cost extra or come with more restrictions while slower days would cost less or offer special perks.

“We have to look at ways to spread out our attendance throughout the year so we can accommodate demand and avoid bursting at the seams,” Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Bob Chapek told the Wall Street Journal.

Disney parks have been struggling with overcrowding even as the price of tickets climb. A one-day ticket for either Disneyland or California Adventure in Anaheim, California, is now $99 for anyone 10 or older, and single-day tickets for the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, are now $105.

Meanwhile, the company on Sunday quietly announced changes to its annual passes in Florida and California.

In Orlando, Disney World eliminated its $329 seasonal pass, that forbid visitation during the busiest times, such as summer.  Visitors can now pick between Silver, Gold (both are for Florida-only residents) and Platinum options, according to the Orlando Sentinel.  The Silver pass will cost $389 and have blackout dates during the summer and Christmas and spring break holidays.  The Gold pass costs $549 and allows summertime visits, but restricts trips during Christmas and spring break. Both passes include parking, the cost of which recently increased from $17 to $20 this year. The Platinum pass, which allows admission 365 days of year, has jumped to $649 from $529 for Florida residents. Out of state visitors will have to shell out $749.

In Anaheim, Disneyland announced that it will be discontinuing its top-level Premium pass, the only option that gave holders the option to visit Disneyland and Disney California Adventure every day of the year, and is introducing two new options, including one that costs at more than $1,000. The new Signature Plus pass, at $1,049, includes all the benefits of the now-discontinued Premium pass, as well as parking and unlimited downloads of keepsake pictures taken through the PhotoPass program.

The new Signature pass, costing $849, is the same as Signature Plus — except it contains about two weeks’ worth of blackout dates during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday season.

Changing fares based on demand is common in airline and hotel industries, the Journal notes. But after record attendance at Disney parks over the past three years, experts say the company could better maximize profits from the crowds --expected to grow with the coming of new attractions like "Star Wars" land.

"I do think Disney took really aggressive pricing. They had to have felt like their pass product was undervalued,” Scott Sanders, president of consulting firm Integrated Insight and a former Disney executive, told the Orlando Sentinel.

Chapek said the park will start surveying past Disney park visitors to “gauge their reactions to different variable pricing options.”

Yet, Disney isn’t the only theme park revaluating its pass programs in an attempt to boost revenue. In February, Universal also raised the cost of its annual park passes. The annual Florida resident-only Premier pass is $429.99 for unlimited access and $214.99 which comes with blackout dates.

A spokeswoman told the Sentinel that the new passes "are used to help preserve the quality of our overall guest experience by allowing us to manage attendance and traffic flow through our theme parks.”

"It's a cost-effective way to drive multi visits from residents," Sanders said of annual park passes. Theme parks "can gear their passes and their blockout days to have palatable price points to encourage visitation and upsell."

Like Disney, Universal Orlando park passes usually include dining and shopping discounts, as well as VIP access to certain park events. For example, pass holders get early theme-park admission and early access to Halloween Horror Nights during October which is Passholder Appreciation month.

While Disney and Universal Orlando have seen year over year growth in park attendance rates, SeaWorld, facing attendance woes and an image problem stemming from allegations over its mistreatment of its marine life, is also playing with its pass pricing to woo potential park regulars.

At $156, SeaWorld Orlando’s annual Basic pass has no blackout dates and includes free parking. In the past, pass holders have been offered “bring-a-friend-for-free” and beach cleanup event promotions. This fall, SeaWorld is unveiling a members-only lounge with refreshments and mobile charging stations. Disney experimented with exclusive pass holder lounges in Epcot and Animal Kingdom but has since closed them down.

So, if you're already scratching your head about what price you'll pay for your theme park vacation, get ready for it to get even more confusing.  Here's how some of the new pricing breaks down:

Disney World, Orlando, Fla.

--$749: Platinum pass, unlimited annual visits with no blackout dates, special deals on dining, shopping and park events.

--$549: Gold pass, includes summertime admission, blackout dates during Christmas season and spring break.

--$389: Silver pass, open to Florida residents only, no summer visits with additional blackout dates.

Disneyland, Anaheim Calif.

--$1,049: Signature Plus pass, unlimited attendance to Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park, discounts on some food, merchandise and parking, unlimited downloads of keepsake pictures taken through the PhotoPass program.

--$849: Signature pass, same as Signature Plus but has about two weeks' worth of blackout dates.

--$599: The Deluxe pass, admission to Disneyland and Disney California Adventure for 315 days of the year.

-- $329: The Southern California Select pass, admission to Disneyland and Disney California Adventure170 days a year.

Universal Orlando

--$429.99: Premier pass, with unlimited access. Includes free valet, free Halloween Horror Nights ticket, access to express line after 4 p.m.

--$214.99: Power pass, open to Florida residents only with blackout dates.

SeaWorld Orlando

--$336: Platinum pass allows admission to all of SeaWorld Entertainment Inc.'s parks nationwide, including admission to Aquatica and Busch Gardens (excludes Discovery Cove)

--$156: Basic SeaWorld Orlando pass, no blackout dates, free parking