July 6, 2024, 3:30 PM ·

The one thing that fans seem to want most from the Six Flags/Cedar Fair merger is the one thing that the new Six Flags absolutely should not deliver.

The former Cedar Fair and Six Flags companies completed their merger this week. The new company is carrying the Six Flags name but retained Cedar Fair’s corporate headquarters, stock ticker symbol, and most of its management. But for fans, it’s business as usual for now. With the deal happening smack in the middle of the summer vacation season, the timing just was not right for a full integration of chain-wide operations on day one. So the rest of this year is the time for fans to lobby for what they want from the new Six Flags. The number-one request that I have heard from fans so far has been for a low-priced annual pass that provides admission into all of the parks in the new Six Flags – more than 40 amusement and water parks across North America.As someone who has been covering theme parks for more than two decades, introducing that pass would be the worst thing that the new Six Flags can do for the company, its parks, its employee and – yes – even for its fans.A buy-one, get-’em-all pass sounds like a great deal. But the shift toward low-priced annual and seasonal passes is killing the theme park industry. Parks live and die by their per capita revenue – the average amount of money spent by each visitor. Annual passes started as a way to squeeze more revenue from the parks’ most loyal fans – to sell them a more expensive ticket that allows them to visit the park more often, when they (the parks hope) will spend more money on parking, food, souvenirs, photos, line-skipping passes and other extras. It’s a trade-off. Give up per capita admission revenue for a few guests with the hope that their extra in-park spending will make up the difference.

If a park’s passholders account for a small minority of guests through the gate, there’s a healthy margin for error on that trade-off. The park continues to bring in substantial per capita revenue from admissions, supplemented by that food and beverage and other upcharge spending. But with more and more visitors entering parks on annual and seasonal passes, many parks’ per capita admission revenue is crashing. That narrows the margin for error and pushes risk-averse park executives to raise prices on parking, on food, on drinks, and wherever else they can inside the park to bring up that per capita overall revenue number.And when they can’t push that number any more, they try to balance it by cutting the park’s spending. That means less money to staff attractions, less money for live entertainment, and less money for maintenance to run rides at full capacity.Does all this sounds familiar to any Six Flags and Cedar Fair fans?Pricing an all-parks Six Flags pass at a couple hundred bucks will amplify the company’s revenue problems. Sure, go ahead and offer the pass for the most devoted coaster fans but price it like a Disneyland Magic Key, charging more than $1,000 a pass. Otherwise, limit three-figure season passes to a single park (or a combo with an on-site water park, where applicable).Then, with less pressure on admission revenue, take the opportunity to entice new customers and chase market share by lowering daily admission prices, parking fees, and food and beverage prices. Invest in better operations for the 2025 season and get wait times down to where more people are saying good things about visiting Six Flags theme parks again. As I discovered in my “what time is the 3:00 parade?” incident, there’s often a big difference between what people ask for and what they actually want. Many fans might be asking for an all-inclusive Six Flags company pass, but I believe what more fans actually want is a new Six Flags that delivers fun experiences with short wait times, helpful staff, and good-quality food and drinks at reasonable prices. The new Six Flags provides dozens of parks across the continent with an opportunity for a much-needed reset. This industry has gone too far down an unprofitable path with cheap annual passes. It’s time to switch back to more sustainable pricing that does not leave guests feeling cheated once they actually get inside the park. * * *
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