Are Season Passes To Theme Parks Worth It?

I LOVE getting annual memberships to attractions for our family because most of the time these deals pay for themselves on the 2nd visit and sometimes offer great discounts at other attractions through reciprocal discounts.  Currently my family has memberships to our local zoo, our local children’s museum, and the Museum of Science and Industry.  Since we are planning a trip to Walt Disney World shortly I have started looking into season passes to theme parks to see what value they hold.

Are Season Passes To Theme Parks Worth The Cost?

Things to Consider About Season Passes To Theme Parks:

  1. How Far is the theme park?  If the park is more than a days drive the odds of going multiple times in 1 year are very small.  If the park is within a 2 hour drive it is much more likely you will go multiple times in a year.
  2. What other opportunities will be lost?  If you spring for season passes you will be more inclined to visit that theme park often versus exploring a different attraction.
  3. Ancillary costs: While the admittance may be free, how much more money will you spend on hotel stays, park food, parking, gas to get there, and souvenirs?  I’ve found that with our annual memberships Mrs. C. is more apt to buying souvenirs for the kids.
  4.  Theme park tickets are always individual based, not family based so there isn’t a built in discount for larger families,  the economics swing the other way since at least for my family we need to buy 6 passes.
  5. Watch out for sales: Theme parks, especially non-Orlando theme parks offer large discounts at different times of the year.  Keep an eye out for changing prices.
  6. Calendar year vs. Full year: Some season passes are good for the remainder of the calendar year, while others are good for a total of 365 days.
  7. Park days of operation:  The parks in Florida are open all year round, but many parks in the Midwest close for the winter and are only open on the weekends in the spring and the fall.

Six Flags Great America Season Passes:

Season passes at Six Flags are currently on sale for Father’s Day for 60% off.  Instead of the $190 retail price season passes are only $80.  The total cost for a family of 6 is therefore $480.  For this season pass holders get admittance to the park all season AND admittance to all other Six Flags parks.  As a bonus during this deal Six Flags is giving a free parking pass. (you normally have to buy a Gold Season Pass to receive free parking).

Daily tickets to Six Flags cost $65 and parking costs $26, which seams insane to me, as not even Disney World charges so much for parking.  Anyways,  a 1 day visit for a family of 6 costs….$416, so it is just a tad more expensive to buy season tickets than 1 day tickets.

In this instance buying single day tickets and paying for parking is the exact same cost as buying season passes at Six Flags Great America if you are going by yourself.  This is by far the best deal in theme park season passes that I have come across. Even for a larger family the season pass pays for itself on the 2nd day of visiting.  The first day for our family of 6 costs $416, while the 2nd day would cost $64, an 85% savings, and each subsequent day would be free.

Valid dates: The passes are valid from Now through the end of the calendar year.  Six Flags Great America is open everyday until August 26th, and then almost every weekend through the end of the year.  They are also open the entirety of the last week of the year to take advantage of Christmas vacation.

Note: Six Flags runs similar specials to this ALL the time.  They had a very similar deal going on for President’s day.  Six Flags great America opens for the season in late April.

 

Season Dining At Six Flags:

Six Flags offers 2 dining plans, both currently on sale for Fathers Day.  The Platinum dining plan offers 2 meals, 1 snack, and a drink cup with unlimited refills for $96 per person.  The platinum pass is also valid at all Six Flags parks.  At a rough value of $30 per day, this pays for itself after 3 days.  If you visit say 1 day every weekend for half the year, then you get 2 meals, a snack and unlimited drinks for only $3.70 per day.  For families with small kids, it may makes sense to buy 3 of these passes and share meals, saving $300 over the course of the season.  Even with buying all 6 passes, A total of $1,056 for admission, food, drinks, and parking all year is a pretty good deal compared to the $3,500 we are going to be spending for 6 days at Disney World.

The lighter dining plan offers 1 meal and 1 snack per day for $57, does not include drinks, and is only valid at Six Flags Great America.

Overall Season passes to Six Flags Great America absolutely make sense for anyone visiting for even two days.  The platinum meal plans make sense if you are visiting a total of at least 3 days, but even with that value I think it makes sense for families with small kids to forgo the plans for them and elect to share meals.  If we were to buy season passes we would get dining passes for the two adults, our teenage son, and our 9 year old, and would share meals with the 6 and 5 year old.  This would make our yearly cost $864. With the park being just over 2 hours from our house we would most likely visit 6 times for a 2 day visit each time during a membership.  That works out about $10 per person per day, including food and drinks.  We would pay for our hotel stays with points I have saved up from when I am working out of town. Of all the parks I looked at Six Flags Great America has the best value overall for season passes to theme parks.

 

Michigan’s Adventure Season Passes / Cedar Point Season Passes:

I really wish Michigan’s Adventure was as good of a deal as Six Flags, but it is far from it.  Michigan’s Adventure offers 1 season pass that is valid for just the Michigan’s Adventure park, and 1 season pass that is valid for all Cedar Fair parks and it includes free parking.  The Michigan’s Adventure only season pass costs $99, while the Cedar Fairs park pass costs $218.  For a family of 6 these total $594 and $1308 respectively.

Daily tickets at Michigan’s Adventure cost $33 when bought in advance online for those over 48″ in height and $31 for those under 48″.  Assuming all members of the family are over 48″ the total adds up to $198.  For the Michigan’s Adventure only season pass, this puts the break even point at 3 visits.  Parking is $13 per vehicle.  This still puts the Cedar Fair pass at 6 visits needed to break even.

Cedar Point Season Passes: 

Cedar Point daily tickets are understandably more expensive that Michigan’s Adventure at $50 a piece when bought ahead online.  This brings the total daily cost for a family of 6 to $300 plus $20 for parking.  Even if all visits were at Cedar Point, it still takes 4 visits to break even.

Cedar Point Dining Plan:

For people who are going to visit Cedar Point more than 5 times, then not only will the season passes make sense, but so will the season dining plan they offer.  For $99 per person you can add on a dining package for 2 meals per day.   The more you visit the park the more this makes sense.  At a rough value of $10 per meal it takes 5 days to hit a break even point, and after that the dining plan makes sense.  What if you went 1 day every weekend for half the year?  That’s 26 days or 52 meals at a cost of less than $2 per meal.  Obviously this only works really well for those who live within a 2 hour or less drive of Cedar Point.

A refillable drink cup costs $30 per person for free soft drinks all season.

Overall season passes for Cedar Fair parks only make sense for people who live within a 2 hour radius and plan to visit multiple times throughout the year. I would utilize the same dining strategy as I outlined for six flags parks at Cedar Fair parks and only buy dining plans for the older children.  For our family of 6 we would end up paying $1,764 for 6 season passes, 4 dining plans, and 2 unlimited drink cups.  This is over twice the cost of Six Flags and the dining pass is only valid at 1 park, not all Cedar Fair parks.

 

Indiana Beach Season Passes:

Indiana Beach is the lowest tier theme park you will find.  It is really small, has fewer rides than most parks, and has fairly bad reviews overall.  I wanted to include it due to my proximity to it and for a comparison to larger parks.  Season passes to Indiana Beach are only $50 each when you buy 3 or more.  For our family of 6 this totals $300.  Season passes come with free parking and access to all APEX parks.  All of these parks are extremely small and I would only visit them if I was for some reason vacationing near them for something else.

Daily tickets cost $30 for visitors over 48″ and $24 for visitors under 48″.   If everyone is over 48″ tall the total cost is $180 for a family of six, plus free parking.  The break even point is then 2 visits, not bad.

Indiana Beach Dining Pass:

The all season dining pass is $70 per person and includes 1 meal and 1 snack per day.  You can add on a drink pass for $17 which includes a reusable mug for free refills all season.  With an average value of $15 per day for the dining pass the break even point is on day 5.

Universal Studios Annual Passes

One major advantage that Orlando parks have over Midwestern parks is that they are open all year long, providing more opportunity to take advantage of a season pass.  Universal Studios has several different options for Season passes and I wrote about them in depth in a previous article entitled “Why You Should Consider An Annual Pass to Universal Studios.”

Figuring out the break even point is a bit trickier for Universal Studios and Disney because most people go to the parks for multiple days in a row, whereas all the previous parks we talked about are usually a 1 day and occasionally a 2 day destination.

Universal Studios currently offers 8 different annual passes ranging from $284 to $689 per person.

The big difference is the 2 park pass vs. the 3 park pass.  The 2 park pass lets you into Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure,  while the 3 park pass includes the new water park Volcano Bay.

After deciding on 2 park vs. 3 park passes, Universal has 4 tiers of passes, the season pass, the power pass, the preferred pass, and the premier pass.

Season Pass: This pass costs roughly the same as a 3 day ticket.  This pass has several blockout dates, including March 23 – April 7 (Spring break), July 1 – 31, and December 22 – 31.  I am certain it will also have the first part of January blocked out as well.  The season pass does not offer discounted parking or early park admission.

Power Pass: The Power Pass costs about $60 more for a 2 park pass and $100 more for a 3 park pass than the 3 day passes cost.  This pass as fewer blockout dates, with The July blockout dates from the annual pass disapearing for Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios.  (Still blocked out in July for Volcano Bay.) The Power Pass offers a 50% discount on parking and no early admission.

Preferred Pass: The Preferred Pass costs $100 more for 2 parks and $150 more for 3 parks than the 3 day tickets cost.  This pass only has blockout dates for Volcano Bay for July 1 – 31.  No other blockout days apply.  This is a major advantage because this open up spring break and Christmas break for visits.  The preferred pass provides free parking and access to select parks an hour early, with some blockout dates.

Premier Pass: This pass costs roughly $250 more for 2 parks and $350 more for 3 parks. This pass has no blockout dates at all and provides free parking and early admission.  It also gives the passholder Express pass usage after 4pm at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.  The Premier passholder also receives free Valet and free preferred parking.

Overall the breakeven for all of these passes is 2 3 day visits in 1 year.  If you can visit twice you will at least breakeven on the cost of a season pass.  I personally would only consider it if I could squeeze in 3 visits.

As an example, for my family of 6, admission and parking for a 3 day, 3 park visit with 3 days of parking is $2,109. I think the Preferred Pass is the best valued deal, so if we got 6 preferred passes our total cost would be $2,904.  If we took a second trip we would end up with 62% savings at a cost of $795. 3rd or more visits would be “free”. I would set this up to start in August, visit again during Christmas break, and once more in June once the kids were out of school.  Most likely we would stay for 4 to 5 days instead of 3 days for each trip. For families that live closer than us more than 3 visits in a 365 day period would be possible.

*To not complicate matters I am only comparing “adult prices”, which are for kids over 11.  Tickets for kids under 11 are generally $10 less expensive than tickets for adults.  

For more tips on a vacation to Universal Studios, I recommend checking out the Unofficial Guide To Universal Studios Orlando.  We used this book for planning our 2016 trip to Universal Studios and it was extremely helpful.

Disney World Annual Passes:

Currently Disney is only offering 2 season passes: The platinum pass and the platinum plus pass.

The platinum pass costs $849 and includes parking and admission to all 4 Disney theme parks, as well as photopass and magic bands.

The platinum plus pass costs $949 and included everything the platinum pass does, plus access to Disney’s 2 water parks and admission to events at Disney’s Wide World of Sports.

When compared to a 4 day adult park hopper ticket at $455 you break even after 2 visits to Disney World, but just barely.  You need to have 3 visits to end up ahead on money in any meaningful way.

For our family of 6 if we elected to get 4 day Park Hopper tickets the total cost would be $2,810 including parking.  If we bought the platinum pass our total cost would be $5,094.  Our second trip would cost $2,284, representing a savings of only 19%.  Subsequent visits would be “free”.

*To not complicate matters I am only comparing “adult prices”, which are for kids over 10.  Tickets for kids under 10 are generally $10 less expensive than tickets for adults.

 

Overall I think for a large park Universal Studios provides the best value with its preferred pass.  I love that Universal provides several options to let the customer decide how much they ant to spend and what benefits are worth it for them.  For small parks it is imperative to constantly look out for sales, because these parks run specials all the time, like the current Father’s Day sale at Six Flags Great America.  With the current discounts to Six Flags the season pass is a heck of a deal.

Have you ever purchased season passes to theme parks? Did you feel the value was worth the price? 

John C. started Action Economics in 2013 as a way to gain more knowledge on personal financial planning and to share that knowledge with others. Action Economics focuses on paying off the house, reducing taxes, and building wealth. John uses the free tool Personal Capital to track his net worth and posts quarterly updates on his finances. Check out the Action Economics archives section for all past posts.

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