Like the airlines, the amusement parks have learned that the way to pad the bottom line is to hit customers with a shower of microcharges. Prepare yourself to be taken for a ride:
Until recently, these were optional. If you didn't use the ones by the front gate, you could usually leave your stuff in a bundle on the loading platform of whatever ride you're on and pick it up 180 seconds later when your vehicle came back into the station.
But in the past few years, seizing another income opportunity (and avoiding potential theft/bonked-head lawsuits), more parks now require riders to put their loose items in a locker. If you try entering a line at Six Flags with a bag -- or that stuffed animal you won -- you'll be directed to a bank of money-munching lockers nearby, where you'll pay $1 every time you ride something, with a two-hour limit for each.
Universal's lockers, required for the most thrilling rides, are usually free (the ones for water rides aren't), but only for for the duration of the nearest ride's estimated wait time plus 20 minutes. After that imprecise time limit expires, the expense for getting your stuff back soars: $3 for each half hour, and you can only open the door once. The fingerprint-recognition technology is also painfully slow and crowded, so switching lockers between rides may take as long as 10 minutes. If you want to ride something twice in a row, better to shell out the $8 for an all-day locker.
Among the major themers, Disney's parks stand alone here, it seems. Few of its rides are rough enough to require bag checks, and for the few scary rides that do exist, there's usually a family member who would rather watch the bags from the sidelines. I also don't think the company would go for nickel-and-diming guests this way even if its roller coasters were fiercer. And it's not as if its steep admission prices don't more than make up the difference.
Let's work up a running tally of behind-the-ticket expenses. Assuming you ride five roller coasters at Six Flags, you can add $5 to your daily bill.
Waiting in line is what the little people do. Six Flags will sell you something called the Flash Pass, which holds your place in line and sends you an electronic alert when it's almost time to ride. A basic one, which comes with some limitations, costs $30 for the first person at one of the chain's flagship parks, Great Adventure in New Jersey, but if you want the absolute minimum of waiting time, you have to buy the Gold Flash Pass for $80.
Universal Express grants a similar privilege (access to a shorter line), but again, you have to pay. Guests at its three Orlando hotels, which cost a lot more than hotels just outside the resort, are given the bonus automatically, or non-resort guests can pay between $20 and $46 (depending on how busy it is) for one day and one park of the Express Plus pass.
Among the big brands, Disney stands alone in this, too. Its Fastpass system is available to all, although the catch is that you can only hold one pass at a time, and if you have one, you must wait hours before obtaining the next one. If you're unlucky or a bad planner, you might end up cutting the line only twice in a fully loaded day.
So add another $30 for a basic Flash Pass at Six Flags. At least.
The big amusement parks have realized that guests will pay extra if they don't have to worry about shelling out for meals during the day. Disney's Dining Plan is heavily subscribed, which spoils the park experience for guests who haven't been smart enough to make restaurant reservations long in advance. The standard package costs $40 a day for adults or $11 for kids aged 3 to 9, which buys the equivalent of one sit-down meal, one counter-service meal, and a snack. (You can buy a day of only fast food meals for $30/$9.)
Is it worth it? Figure that a full counter-service meal will cost adults about $10 no matter which park you're visiting. Universal's Meal Deal costs $20 for adults and $10 for kids (SeaWorld's are $22/$10) but outside of summer, the parks may only be open from about 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.. You would pay the same price for two meals anyway, unless you're such a big eater that two $10 meals won't be enough for you. Besides, are you really going to eat dinner at a park if you're about to leave at the end of the day anyway?
All-day meal passes, which are only good for a few of the restaurants anyway, are appealing mostly to the tapeworm-afflicted.
How else do park meal plans cost you? In opportunities. They prevent you from bringing your own food. But more importantly, they dissuade you from leaving the park. That's why Disney's meal plan, popular as it is, can be so insidious: Once you've paid your money to eat your two-and-a-half daily meals, you're not likely to leave the resort grounds to see anything else in town, especially the other attractions. Through your investment guilt, if that's the phrase, you become a willing member of a captive audience.
If you get one, then, add another $22 to your bill for the day.
Twelve dollars is the standard rate now. Really? Twelve dollars? Does my spot really cost $12 a day to maintain? Certainly not, but it's a charge the casual tourist is forced to add to the tally. Unless you're an annual passholder, you're stuck with this one. Yeah, you could take the city bus to Knott's Berry Farm, but are you really going to?
That's $12 more you're out.
Two years ago, Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa Bay began offering a unique kind of souvenir: DVDs that included video of guests' rides on its marquee coaster, SheiKra. The experiment has revolutionized post-ride souvenirs. Almost every ride these days offers a snapshot of riders at a peak moment ($17 for a 6"-by-8" image is standard), but now, video of the whole ride is becoming essential.
Universal Orlando's new roller coaster, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, was built expressly to support this feature, with cameras fixed everywhere: including along the route and on the cars. So when you get off, you'll be able to purchase a movie of your entire trip, from start to finish. The coaster's undergoing testing this week, so it's not yet open and Universal hasn't announced how much it will charge for the souvenir.
Considering that Busch Gardens has been charging $25 for DVDs that contain only five moments from your ride, spliced together with stock footage, it's reasonable to assume that Universal's can and should cost more. It'll be pretty hard to resist adding that 30-odd extra bucks to your final bill.
Some major theme parks also have roving professional photographers who will take your photo and sell it back to you for a high price. That's been going on for a while, and you can always bring your own camera for less snazzy, but perfectly acceptable, snapshots.
Add it all up. If you fully enjoy a theme park these days, before the cost of getting there and before sundry souvenirs, an adult is already spending another $94. And that's the bare minimum.
Keep your arms and hands inside the vehicle? Indeed. But keep your head down, too, and your wallet firmly planted in your back pocket.