Will Disney Copy SeaWorld's $299 Trick?

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A theme park is testing a new high-priced way to avoid long ride lines, and it may be a matter of time before Disney (NYSE: DIS) and Universal Studios parent Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) follow suit at their busier attractions. SeaWorld Entertainment's (NYSE: SEAS) Busch Gardens Tampa is now selling Year-Round Quick Queue, a $299 ticket that grants park visitors unlimited access to expedited Quick Queue lines for the park's 10 most popular rides for 365 days from the time of first use.

There may be initial sticker shock at the $299 price tag for a year of waltzing around the Florida park with minimal wait times for its signature coasters, but it's an not outlandish ask. SeaWorld's animal-themed park has been selling a Quick Queue available for unlimited rides on a single day for ages. The one-day Unlimited Quick Queue passes start at $19.99 but top out at $99.99 during peak travel periods. Pricing for any day through the rest of March is between $69.99 and $79.99. In short, the pass could pay for itself after a few days for a well-heeled frequent visitor to the park. There's also a 10% discount on the new year-round pass for folks who already have an annual pass, likely the target audience for this new big-ticket option.

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Riding it out

Theme park enthusiasts may be cringing at the notion of having affluent visitors buy their way to shorter lines with even greater frequency, but paying up for quicker lines already exists across all of the leading parks. Comcast offers Universal Express on a daily basis. Most regional amusement park operators have similar offerings. SeaWorld offers Quick Queue at all of its parks, though Busch Gardens Tampa was the first one to try the year-round upgrade.

Disney stands apart in that it doesn't charge for its FastPass system, outside of MaxPass at Disneyland, where guests pay $10 a day or $75 a year for digital access to reserving FastPass return times on their smartphones. However, it's not as if guests can't get a leg up on other visitors. Disney World's FastPass+ system, which allows all guests to reserve as many as three FastPass queues a day, lets overnight resort guests square away their times a month ahead of anyone else. All chains also offer VIP packages with escorted access to the front of the line on rides and attractions. SeaWorld may seem to be going too far with its new $299 offering, but it's more evolutionary than revolutionary.

There may be too much money on the table for Comcast or Disney to ignore. If Busch Gardens Tampa can get people to pay $299 -- a big if, since regulars don't tend to spring for upgrades when they know they have perpetual access to a park -- just imagine how much Disney can charge. Theme parks are becoming a bigger part of Disney's business with every passing quarter, as the segment's revenue and operating profit are growing faster than the entertainment giant's larger media networks business. Why wouldn't it consider an option to jack up revenue with a new premium experience?

Disney will be an interesting company to watch in 2019. The arrival of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge on both coasts will force it to explore new ways to manage the already large crowds. It's on a 30-year streak of increasing ticket prices, and it's going to have to do something else next year. A larger than usual price increase next February is a given, and new premium upgrades -- including the ability to buy into the expedited lines on a daily or annual basis -- can't be off the table. Disney will never have the same kind of leverage over its park guests the way it will in 2019.

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Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool is short shares of SeaWorld Entertainment. The Motley Fool recommends Comcast. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.