Busch Gardens’ initiative to phase out season passes in favor of memberships may be unique among amusement parks, but it’s also about a simple thing — trying to increase repeat attendance among its most loyal visitors, according to an industry expert.
Susan Storey, communications director for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, said Busch Gardens is simply repackaging the name of its pass plans more than anything.
“Parks are always looking at ways to encourage new season pass sales or return season pass sales,” Storey said. “And a lot of times, if you use the word member ... it’s a way to be part of an exclusive group … and what that does is it allows the park to create unique benefits, or exclusive benefits.”
Cindy Sarko, Busch Gardens director of consumer activation, said the park spent more than a year studying the move to a membership program. She said feedback from park passholders was that they wanted more value and simpler choices, and the response was positive to move from a pass program to a membership program.
The park’s new membership plan comes in basic, unlimited and premier categories, with a $2 per month discount offered on each plan if purchased by March 31, when prices revert to the regular price.
All three plans offer admission to Busch Gardens and Water Country USA, as well as Howl-O-Scream, Christmas Town and other special events, though the basic plan has blackout dates. General parking is free on the unlimited and premier plans and is discounted by 50 percent with a basic membership.
Moving to a membership plan and including special events, Sarko said, rewards the loyalty of dedicated park visitors.
“We looked at all scenarios,” Sarko said. “But it was the goal to bring together all events. We wanted to include everything in an all-inclusive membership program.”
Busch Gardens spokesman Ron Vample said no other SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment location has a membership program, adding that each park has its own annual pass program. Storey said she wasn’t aware of other amusement parks offering membership programs.
Storey said the memberships give the park’s loyal visitors something and the park gets something in return: the incentive for those people to return more often. While Busch Gardens does not provide attendance totals, SeaWorld Entertainment’s parks had 20,796,000 visitors in 2017, a 2.7 percent drop from the previous year and its lowest visitor total since 2010, according to the company’s annual report.
“This is a way that allows your fan, or your customer, to customize and to actually utilize visiting your parks the way that best serves (their) family,” Storey said. “So by being able to combine two parks — two parks for the price of one — we see that a lot at regional parks.”
Busch Gardens’ plan is similar to that of Kings Dominion, an amusement park about 25 miles north of Richmond. Kings Dominion offers three tiers of passes — silver, gold and platnium. All passes there can be paid in installments or all at once.
Current yearly pass holders have a choice on whether to keep their current pass until it expires or switch over to a membership plan. Those currently paying for their pass on an EZPay plan can keep that plan indefinitely. Single-day admission to either Busch Gardens, Water Country USA or both is also available.
“There will be a time when the pass will dissolve,” Sarko said. “But that hasn't been decided yet, and people will have plenty of time. They can stay with what they like, or what they’re comfortable with. “We think we have added a lot more value to membership.”
2018 Busch Gardens membership prices
For those with questions about the new membership plans, Busch Gardens has a section on its website — buschgardens.com/bgwmembership — that offers specifics on the plan and answers frequently asked questions. Anyone with additional questions can call the park at 229-4386.
The membership plans:
Basic: $10/month, or $120/yearly through March 31, then $12/month or $144/year. Pass includes admission to Busch Gardens and Water Country USA (blackout dates apply); Christmas Town and Howl-O-Scream (blackout dates apply); 50 percent off general parking; half-price one-day tickets to any SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment location (excluding Discovery Cove and Virginia parks); guest ticket discounts; member sneak peeks and in-park discounts.
Unlimited: $15/month or $180/yearly through March 31, then $17/month or $204/yearly. Pass includes unlimited admission to Busch Gardens and Water Country USA; free general parking; Christmas Town and Howl-O-Scream; half-price one-day tickets to any SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment location (excluding Discovery Cove and Virginia parks); two free tickets and discounts on additional tickets; member sneak peeks and in-park discounts.
Premier: $20/month or $240/yearly through March 31, then $22/month or $264/yearly. Pass includes unlimited admission to Busch Gardens, Water Country and nine sister parks, free preferred parking when available, otherwise free general parking, Christmas Town and Howl-O-Scream, three free single-admission tickets plus discounts on additional tickets, member sneak peeks and in-park discounts.
Those who pay monthly can use the park’s EZPay program and must commit to it for at least 12 months; after that, people can opt out at any time.
For comparison, regular prices for 2017 Busch Gardens season passes were:
- Pass to Busch Gardens or Water Country USA: $12/month or $144/yearly
- Two-park pass to Busch Gardens and Water Country USA: $16/month or $192/yearly
- Platinum pass: Access to all parks except Discovery Cove: $19/month or $228/yearly
- Busch Gardens: $90
- Water Country USA: $60
- Both parks: $100 ($90 when purchased online at least 14 days in advance)