Should You Buy a Theme Park Annual Pass or a One-Day Ticket?

Inside Six Flags Magic Mountain Amusement Park Ahead Of Earnings Figures
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A day at the park has never been more popular. North America's 20 largest amusement and theme parks attracted 138.1 million guests last year -- up 2.2 percent since the prior year -- according to industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association. Last year's record showing should be shattered this year given the improving economy and consumer confidence.

Summer is peak travel season for the country's amusement and theme parks. If you haven't been to one yet, you may very well find yourself at one before long. Most visitors will come in expecting to buy a single-day pass, ideally snagging a discount along the way. However, many wind up buying a season pass instead, swayed by savings, perks or just shrewd industry marketing.

Amusement Park Math

Regional amusement parks know that they have to price their season passes aggressively. Outside of teens and select thrill-seeking adults, many guests arrive with the intention of making it their only visit of the year.

Six Flags (SIX) is the country's largest amusement park operator and it makes sure that its annual passes are reasonably priced. The pass typically costs less than two single-day tickets, and in case that's not enough of an incentive to upgrade, Six Flags sweetens the deal by including hundreds of dollars' worth of coupons, including ones for days when pass holders can bring a friend for free.

An important thing to remember is that parking often isn't included in the standard annual pass. That is true for many of the regional park operators. Repeat visitors don't tend to spend as much at the park as day visitors, so the parks may as well make that back through parking charges. However, the parks often offer premium annual passes that include parking and other perks. Cedar Fair's (FUN) flagship park -- Cedar Point in Ohio -- offers a standard annual pass for $139, but there's also a platinum pass for $210 that includes parking, in-park discounts, early entrance times and access to the adjacent water park.

Many of the annual passes also offer access to other parks owned by the same company. Six Flags passes can be used across the entire chain. Cedar Point's platinum pass is good at Knott's Berry Farm in California, Canada's Wonderland and the rest of the Cedar Fair-owned properties.

If you plan on traveling this summer to a place that's near one of the parks affiliated with your hometown park, that would be one more reason to get an annual pass at either location.

Theme Park Math

Things get more complicated with year-round theme parks, largely because they tend to be far more expensive. Outside of SeaWorld (SEAS), which offers the cheap "Fun Card" at its SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks, offering admission through the end of the year for the price of a single-day ticket, theme parks can get pricey.

Comcast's (CMCSA) cheapest pass offering access to Universal Orlando every day of the year is the $335 Preferred Pass. If you think that's a lot, Disney (DIS) annual passes for Disney World start at $529 a year.

That may seem like an outrageous sum, but if you're planning a weeklong stay at either resort, it may be worth the consideration. It's not just about admissions or complimentary parking: Both passes offer steep discounts at the growing number of on-site resorts. Trip planner site Touring Plans recently broke down the math in consideration of a Disney World annual pass.

Even if you don't plan to stay at one of the Universal Orlando or Disney hotel properties, if you make annual pilgrimages to the theme park capital of the world, you could time your trips so an annual pass covers two of those trips (one at the beginning of the year and the other at the end).

Annual passes aren't cheap, but in many instances they are the right call.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of SeaWorld Entertainment and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Looking for a winner for your portfolio? Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.
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