The most talked-about addition at Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio isn't the supersized swing that catapults thrill seekers 125 feet into the air. It's the drop in prices -- from a $5 cut in admission for adults, to cotton candy that now sells for a quarter. Just about every food item is cheaper or the same price as last year.
Cedar Point hopes the moves will increase attendance after a down year in 2005. Knott's Berry Farm, owned by the same company, has made similar price reductions at the theme park near Los Angeles after a disappointing year.
Six Flags, meanwhile, has increased the gate price at most of its parks. Adult admission at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey is $59.99 (that's up $11) but the price does not include a number of discounts the park is offering.
The nation's biggest theme park operator says in return it is adding more entertainment and Looney Tunes characters roaming the midways. The company also is trying to reduce the waits for rides and food.
Park operators are watching closely to see which pricing approach will work. "We'll see which one caves first," said Tim O'Brien, a longtime theme park observer and author of "Amusement Park Guide."
Universal Orlando, Walt Disney World and SeaWorld Orlando all now charge adults more than $60 for a one-day, one-park ticket. The prices drop per day for multiday tickets. Disney this year revamped its pricing to offer lower admissions for longer stays.
Nearly all parks offer savings for anyone who buys tickets online, and most have discount tickets available at local gas stations or groceries. Some parks offer discounts to any visitor who brings a certain type of soda can to the park, often with the coupon printed on it.
"Almost all of our guests have a discounted admission," said Will Koch, president of Holiday World in Santa Claus, Ind. "We look at it as inexpensive advertising."
Holiday World a few years ago began offering free soft drinks throughout the park, which turned out to be huge hit. "It was one of the best marketing things we've ever done," Koch said. He thinks Cedar Point's discounting cotton candy from $3 a stick to 25 cents will impress parents.
"Our business is driven by positive experiences," he said.
Attendance at Cedar Point has fallen off the last two years, dropping 3 percent a year ago to 3.1 million people. The park, which primarily draws from northern Ohio and the Detroit area, has been hurt by the loss of auto industry jobs, said John Hildebrandt, general manager of Cedar Point.
That's why park operators decided to cut prices -- an adult ticket is now $39.95 and a junior ticket is $9.95.
"Everybody does coupons and those kinds of deals," Hildebrandt said. "We thought this would shake things up a little more."
Cedar Point's owner, Cedar Fair LP, took another step to boost its finances, announcing this past week it will buy the Paramount Parks business from CBS Corp. for $1.24 billion. The deal includes five parks: Canada's Wonderland, near Toronto; Kings Island near Cincinnati; Kings Dominion near Richmond, Va.; Carowinds, near Charlotte, N.C.; and Great America located in Santa Clara, Calif.
Cedar Point this year also added a swinging ride called Skyhawk that propels riders up to 60 mph.
Six Flags is sticking with a myriad of discount ticket promotions for its 13 U.S. theme parks, which will help offset the admission increases at the gates.
Bring your gas receipt, or a pizza box
Taking along a gas receipt will knock off $15 at the gate of any of its theme parks through August. New company President Mark Shapiro said he hopes that because of rising gas prices, families will stay closer to home and visit one Six Flags' regional theme parks.
Ticket coupons also are now included on Papa John's pizza boxes, and Home Depot stores will soon be selling discount Six Flags tickets.
"Any guest paying full price at our parks is probably not doing their homework," said Steve Brown, vice president for ticket strategy and sales at Six Flags.
The company hopes most of its visitors will have their tickets in hand before they arrive at the park so they don't start the day waiting in line, Brown said.
It revamped its online purchasing system in mid-May to allow for faster ticketing. Guests also can make reservations to have brunch with Bugs Bunny and the other characters at selected parks.
The company now is researching other ways it can allow visitors to plan their day online. "Anything we can do to reduce the hassle or make it easier," Brown said.
Dennis Speigel, a theme-park consultant who is president of Cincinnati-based International Theme Park Services Inc., said park operators also should look at new pricing structures, including ticket plans that allow visitors to pay as they go.
Such a system would give more flexibility to visitors who just want to ride roller coasters or watch the shows, he said. It also would allow for shorter daytime or nighttime visits.
Families no longer plan visits weeks in advance, he said. "Now it's 'what can we do this weekend.'"
About 335 million people visited U.S. amusement parks a year ago, generating $11.2 billion, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
Not many parks are looking to go away from the one-price tickets, said Beth Robertson, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
"Pay as you play used to be the center of the industry," she said. "But parks are going farther away from that."