Business Resources - Admission - February 2019

SIX FLAGS, © 2018 ROBIE CAPPS PHOTOGRAPHY

As a membership perk, Six Flags Fiesta Texas’ Diamond and Diamond Elite members were able to ride the new “Wonder Woman Golden Lasso Coaster” first. (Credit: Six Flags, © 2018 Robie Capps Photography)

Membership Has Its Privileges

Parks offer new membership programs along with season passes

by Arthur Levine

The humble season pass has remained more or less unchanged through the years, following a basic formula: For the cost of two or three daily admission tickets, parks offer guests passes that allow them unlimited visits for the duration of an entire season. 

Recently, some parks have tweaked and expanded their pass programs with innovative features.

For example, rather than having to pay the entire fee upfront, some pass holders are offered flexible payment plans. Instead of a one-size-fits-all model, a number of parks now have a range of tiers, sporting a variety of benefits. Some parks don’t tie their passes to a calendar year, but start a 12-month clock on the day a guest purchases a pass.

A few forward-thinking parks have even rebranded their passes and characterize them as “memberships.” With more loyalty programs than traditional season passes, some give card-carrying members the ability to earn points and redeem them for rewards.

SEAWORLD PARKS & ENTERTAINMENT

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay invites pass holders to take part in a complimentary Serengeti Safari experience (Credit: SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment)

Magic in Membership

Six Flags still offers season passes that are linked to a calendar year and require a one-time payment. But starting in 2018, the park chain rolled out an expanded membership program option as an alternative to its passes. Members can choose one of four levels: Gold, Platinum, Diamond, and Diamond Elite. As the names get swankier, the prices, along with the benefits, increase. 

Membership is a monthly program, similar in structure to what you might find at a YMCA or social club. After the initial 12 months guests can cancel any time they want. Monthly fees range from $5.99 to over $24.99 depending on which benefits and add-ons the guest chooses. To encourage members to remain in the program, Six Flags offers incentives such as free months and discount upgrades.

More expensive plans include perks like unlimited soft drinks, line-skipping privileges on rides, and preferred parking. But the most enticing incentives may be the exclusive opportunities parks offer to members. For example, when Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio debuted “Wonder Woman Golden Lasso Coaster,” the park’s Diamond and Diamond Elite members were able to ride first. For several weekends before the ride opened to the general public, they enjoyed exclusive ride time with minimal waits.

Jeffrey Siebert, Six Flags Fiesta Texas park president, says that the new membership program was based on years of research into how different types of guests prefer to experience Six Flags. “While some of our guests are really focused on getting as much value as they can, others want a more ‘VIP’ experience. This new program, when combined with add-ons and upgrades, is able to meet the needs of both groups.”

Membership engagement extends to the points they can earn at the parks. By simply visiting a park, members can nab 50 points. Using Six Flags’ mobile app, they can also score points by checking in at rides or shows. Buying food or merchandise at the parks yields a bunch of points. Beyond the parks, Six Flags also offers points for activities such as participating in online contests, reading a newsletter, or taking a survey. 

There are many ways members can redeem the points they earn. Awards might include freebies such as food or games. Or members could cash in points for bring-a-friend tickets. Parks also offer merchandise designed specially for members. The membership program provides “exclusivity and extreme value for our most loyal fans,” Siebert adds.

SEAWORLD PARKS & ENTERTAINMENT

SeaWorld Orlando premium Gold level pass holders can enjoy the bonus of a dolphin encounter (Credit: SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment)

Leveling Up

The SeaWorld parks also recently revamped their season pass programs and now offer an array of choices at different price points. Pass holders have the option of paying in full or by the month, although the company’s messaging leads with the monthly payments. According to Dan Dipiazzo, SeaWorld Orlando’s former vice president of marketing, guests’ passes will auto-renew on the anniversary dates, thereby making it a perpetual program.

“With the old model, the park was firing all of its pass holders at the end of each year,” Dipiazzo says. “Then, we’d have to go out the following year and try to reacquire them.” The new program, he adds, is easier for guests and better for retention rates, cash flow, and the company’s bottom line.

For one of the bonuses at its Florida parks’ premium Gold level, SeaWorld Orlando tosses in a dolphin encounter. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay invites pass holders to get up close to its animals with a complimentary Serengeti Safari experience. Across its portfolio, the company also offers a top-tier Platinum pass that includes admission to all 11 of its parks.

As SeaWorld was developing its new pass program, it looked at other subscription-based models such as Netflix, satellite radio, and health clubs. 

“Ultimately, we realized that we are a unique industry,” says Dipiazzo. SeaWorld’s parks adopted the membership concept that businesses such as health clubs embrace. For now, only Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia designates its passes as a “membership plan,” although the distinction is largely a semantic one. Some parks, including Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Busch Gardens Williamsburg, offer instant rewards to active pass members. These might include Christmas ornaments in December or extra discounts on in-park merchandise for another month.

Merlin Entertainments doesn’t have a membership program, but it does offer different levels of passes and the option to pay on a monthly basis. In addition to individual passes, the company offers a U.S. Annual Pass that allows holders unlimited visits to all of its attractions, including Legoland theme parks, Legoland Discovery Centers, Sea Life aquariums, Madame Tussauds, and The Dungeons, in the States. For globetrotters based in the U.K., the company has a super-duper VIP Annual Pass that includes admission to all of its parks and attractions around the world.

Dipiazzo says SeaWorld is wary of offering too many choices for its passes. “[The company wants] clear, meaningful distinctions, not levels of confusion.” For the future, he envisions a pass program that would allow guests to customize the benefits they would want instead of conforming to a pre-formed package. “Parks would need to do it in a way that would be simple, intuitive, and seamless,” Dipiazzo notes. “All operators want to offer the best value.”


Arthur Levine covers the attractions industry for USA Today and authors Funworld’s “The Art of Attractions” column each month.