Theme park annual passes under the cosh

Paultons Park

Annual and season passes have long been a staple product offered by theme parks.

In recent years, the ‘pay once and come back all year’ model has been pushed heavily by Merlin Entertainments in particular.

And Merlin’s annual passes, which allow access to all of its attractions under various restrictions, have been a key product for over a decade.

But COVID-19’s arrival changed all that, when most theme parks were unable to even begin their 2020 season.

Merlin extended the expiry dates of its annual passes to try and compensate customers, but both season and annual passes remained on sale.

Reopening challenges

When parks were eventually allowed to re-open in July, they were forced to do so with reduced capacities, and with that reduced revenues.

Pass-holders found themselves having to pre-book entry rather then simply turn up when they wished, as many had always done.

And small booking fees were applied to pass-holders in order to curtail the number of people apparently booking but not turning up.

Merlin Annual Passes
Merlin’s annual pass-holders initially had to pay a £1 booking fee to enter attractions

The move to apply fees attracted considerable negative reaction from customers, as well media coverage of which Paultons Park became an unfair focus.

The fees were later removed by Merlin, but this soon led to slots being unavailable for the rest the season at many attractions, despite standard-priced admission remaining available almost universally.

The lack of availability for pass-holders has been picked up on by the BBC’s Watchdog programme in recent weeks, in a further example of negative media coverage leading to a snowballing public backlash.

Rethinking the passes

In late September, Merlin began market research on ideas for new annual pass products, with variations including one-park only unlimited access among many other hypothetical concepts.

Then, four days before the survey was due to close, Merlin pulled its annual passes from sale on 24 September, citing guest feedback and pending new products being finalised.

New products are expected to be launched in due course, but it is not clear in what form they will appear.

Then, last week Paultons Park took its own season tickets off sale due to “the ongoing operational challenges COVID-19 poses”.

Paultons Park
Paultons Park took its season tickets off sale earlier this month

Paultons cited its reasons as being in order to protect the offering of its current pass-holders, which – like Merlin’s – remain able to renew their passes.

It has become clear that the traditional concept of a year-long access product is proving unsustainable to many parks in the midst of COVID-19 and its associated restrictions.

Annual passes for 2021 are largely not being offered by other parks, but this is not necessarily unusual prior to the end of an operating season.

But that is not the case everywhere. Blackpool Pleasure Beach has been promoting season passes for 2021 as normal, and at its usual early-bird discounted price.

The current demise of the theme park annual pass is however likely to be relatively short-lived, as the eventual arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine seems likely to make the disease manageable.

Until then, it would seem wise to apply a degree of realism when considering the purchase of an annual pass.