Road Warrior

Theme parks 'out of reach' for some families

Rob Lovitt, NBC News Contributor
The Magic Kingdom park at Walt Disney World Resort.
Getty Images

A magic wand may protect Harry Potter fans against practitioners of the dark arts, but it won't provide any relief from price increases at the nation's leading theme parks.

Last week, Universal Orlando raised its one-day adult ticket by $4 to $96, for guests who visit either Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure. One-day "park-to-park" tickets jumped from $128 to $136.

(Universal Orlando Resort is part of NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News and CNBC.)

The move comes just days after Disney announced it was hiking the price of one-day tickets to the Magic Kingdom from $95 to $99. Prices for Disney's three other Orlando parks were also raised $4, from $90 to $94.

With taxes included, the cost of admission to any one of the above has now topped $100 per person—more than $400 per day for Mom, Dad and two teens—and that doesn't include food, souvenirs, parking or lodging.

(Read more: Middle class getting priced out of ski trips)

Depending on your point of view, such sky-high ticket prices are putting the parks increasingly out of reach for many visitors or are just the price you pay for a premium product.

Among the former are people like Vasilisa Hamilton, a children's book author in Columbia, S.C., who first went to Disney World as a child 40 years ago.

"Our first big vacation was to Disney World; it was just awesome," she said. "I still have a Polaroid picture from inside It's a Small World."

Since then, she's been back several times but has been increasingly dismayed by the costs involved, so much so that she's planning a church-group trip to Carowinds, outside Charlotte, N.C., instead of Orlando.

"We'd love to take the kids to Disney World, but it's totally out of reach for us," she said. "I'm hoping to go again before I die but at the rate it's going, that may not happen."

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For Dean Gruginski, an IT specialist for the state of Washington, it's a question of what you get for your money. Visiting Disneyland every few years, first with his wife and now with her and their toddler son, he believes that the parks' high prices are justified by the quality of the experiences they offer.

"The last time we went my son was able to sit right in front during the parade and interact with the characters; that was worth every penny," he said. "If the money helps keep the place clean and keeps the characters running around, it's worth it."

And the parks clearly feel confident that they maintain the pricing power to raise ticket fees without significantly impacting overall visitation numbers. Although specific attendance numbers are a tightly guarded secret, it's generally accepted that the industry is in the midst of a significant upswing.

During the last quarter, for example, sales at Disney's theme park division rose 6 percent to $3.6 billion, while sales at Universal's parks climbed 8.8 percent to $566 million. According to market research company Mintel, the U.S. theme park industry will likely reach a record-breaking $14.4 billion for 2013.

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"Annual price increases at the theme parks are kind of a given; the only thing unusual is that they announced them so early," said Fiona O'Donnell, senior lifestyles and leisure analyst at Mintel. "But it's not going to have much of a lasting impact on getting people in the door."

One reason the parks may have announced their increases so early this year is that they're feeling especially confident that fans will flock through the gates to get a glimpse of their newest attractions.

At Universal, the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter—Diagon Alley will link the company's two parks (requiring that $136 park-to-park ticket) while the construction of The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train coaster is expected to complete the Fantasyland expansion at the Magic Kingdom.

"Our pricing reflects the high quality and breadth of experiences we offer and our ongoing commitment to investing in our parks," said Disney spokeswoman Kim Prunty. "We offer a variety of ticket options that provide a great value and find that most guests select multiday tickets that offer additional savings."

In fact, the parks' emphasis on multiday and multipark passes provides support for the idea that the parks are targeting visitors who may reside higher up the socio-economic ladder. As O'Donnell explains it, multiday passes may offer savings off daily ticket prices but getting visitors to stay three or four days almost certainly means higher sales for souvenirs, concessions and entertainment offerings, not to mention the cost of hotels and rental cars.

"If raising prices puts the parks outside the reach of their traditional client base, it's going to change the nature of their attendance base," she said. "Maybe you no longer go every year; maybe it truly becomes a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

(Read more: How vacations can make your kids financially savvy)

—By NBC News contributor Rob Lovitt. Follow him on Twitter.