Niles: Is Universal’s new early entry a good deal or a cash grab?
How many days are there in a year?
If you answered 365 (or 366 in a leap year), allow me to guess that you probably do not run a theme park. Because for the people who run places such as Disneyland and Universal, the answer is, “as many days as we want.”
On a growing number of dates, a theme park ticket no longer buys you admission from the moment a park first opens to the public in the morning to the final moment when it closes that night. These days, parks increasingly are dayparting their schedules with hard-ticket events and mix-ins that run outside their “normal” operating hours.
The latest? Universal Studios Hollywood is charging $20-30 for one hour of early admission to Super Nintendo World, before the park opens to other guests. That fee is in addition to whatever daily ticket or annual pass you would use to get into the park.
Universal long has extended its days in the fall with Halloween Horror Nights, where the park closes to daytime guests to open to others who buy extra tickets for the evening. Universal’s former theme parks chairman once called Halloween Horror Nights Universal’s “thirteenth month” for all the extra ticket revenue the event generated for the company at its parks around the world.
Knott’s Berry Farm started after-hours, extra-ticketed Halloween events way back in 1973, creating a model that Universal and most other parks in the industry have followed, including even Disney with its Oogie Boogie Bash at Disney California Adventure and Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at Walt Disney World. Disneyland also now runs multiple “After Dark” events in the winter and spring, further showing that parks can use dayparting to grow revenue at any time of the year.
But dayparting can inflict at a cost on park guests who do not buy those extra tickets. When Knott’s started what is now Knott’s Scary Farm, October was a slow month for parks, and they typically closed early from lack of demand. With extra events extending throughout the year, parks are now closing early on much busier dates.
On the other side of the day, Universal’s early entry for its new Nintendo land means that regular park guests can no longer rope drop into an empty queue for its Mario Kart ride, as the early entrants already have filled the land. In both cases, regular park guests get less than they would have otherwise.
Many other parks, including Disneyland, also have used early admission as a free perk for guests who book a night at the parks’ on-site hotels. If those parks follow Universal’s lead, early entry might become yet another formerly free perk that becomes an upcharge, much like Disney’s free Fastpass turned into the paid Lightning Lane.
I’m happy that parks extended their year by creating events such as Halloween haunts. And many Universal fans love the convenience of guaranteed access to Nintendo with early entry. It’s all about value. If an upcharge delivers that, fans will accept and maybe even embrace it. If not, then parks should not be surprised when fans rebel and complain about cash grabs.