As a father of four, I may as well stuff all my cash in a confetti cannon and ﬁre it into the air on arrival at the next ballpark, theme park, or movie theater my family visits, simply to expedite the inevitable process by which my wallet is drained of every last dollar for the sake of entertainment. When did family fun become so expensive? VIA’s analysis of ticket prices at major theme parks between 1965 and 2011 shows an increase of more than 2,200 percent—and that even ﬁgures in the AAA discount, which has become a saving grace for card-carrying families. By comparison, since 1965 the price of gasoline has gone up 658 percent and milk is up 371 percent. Even before setting foot in most theme parks, the modern parent can feel taken for a ride.
And theme parks seem a bargain next to ballparks. Watching a game played by the Boston Red Sox, the Major League Baseball team nearest to my home in New England, cost a family of four an average of $335 for tickets, parking, food, drinks, and merchandise in 2010. This is not entirely a lament. Increases in insurance, property taxes, and consumer appetites for new attractions keep costs escalating for family entertainment providers everywhere. SeaWorld’s Shamu—and her human equivalent, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz—have to eat (if perhaps not quite so well). There may be other reasons for such precipitous increases, but the theme parks aren’t telling.
High prices haven’t deterred consumers so far. Historically, people will pay a premium to see their major Mickeys, be they Mouse or Mantle. The Red Sox have been sold out for years. Though the global economy has melted down like a $5 waffle cone in the trembling hand of my 5-year-old, the three theme parks we visited last year were bursting at the seams. In fact, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, attendance has increased nearly every year for almost two decades.
Americans show little discretion in discretionary spending, and it has ever been thus. In the United States, “we live in a society where variety seeking entails all kinds of shocking behavior,” says Sharon Thach, a professor of marketing at Tennessee State University who has studied consumer attraction to amusement parks. “It’s why we buy new clothes every season or new cereal every week.” Variety is why we go to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm and Universal Studios. It’s the only possible explanation for why we go to Oakland Raiders games.
And go we do. After food, housing, transportation, and insurance, entertainment is what U.S. consumers spend their paychecks on, in amounts just a little less than they devote to health care. Of course, entertainment is a kind of health care, diversions being necessary to keep us . . . diverted. Movie attendance bounced back quickly after the Great Depression, and in 2009, in the midst of the current economic malaise, it actually went up. The desire to escape is in our DNA. And so a modern man ﬁnds himself escaping to Alcatraz (free admission, but the ferry to get there costs $26 per adult, $16 per child), arriving almost as broke as a prisoner.
“If you look at different civilizations, people spend enormous amounts of money on ceremonies and rituals,” Thach says. “These have become American rituals: going with Dad to the baseball game, going with the family to Disney World.”
Sadly, when those diversions are most needed—during times of economic stress—we seem to have the least amount of time for them. Those Americans fortunate enough to have jobs are working an average of 44 hours per week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 10 hours more than they did in 1995.
For us, the tired masses treading water in the labor pool, diversions like theme parks, ball games, and movies have the beneﬁt of being sedentary, passive forms of entertainment. This helps explain the popularity of all-encompassing venues such as Chuck E. Cheese’s, says Jack Plunkett, CEO of the trend analysis ﬁrm Plunkett Research. He explains: “Parents can sit down and let the kids play in a controlled atmosphere without any effort other than whipping out the MasterCard.”
Any parent who has witnessed the escalating arms race of children’s birthday parties knows that the McDonald’s ball pit can lead to the backyard bouncy castle can lead to a day out at Six Flags, and on and on until your frowning daughter impatiently awaits the arrival of her pink-bowed Bentley on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16.
In this same way, amusement parks feel pressure to up the ante on thrills for a jaded populace. “If you don’t have something new, people won’t come back,” Thach says. “And many of these places have become an annual destination for families, when they used to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Our country, like the universe, is required by its nature to expand. Everything gets bigger, including—especially—our entertainments. Thach’s senior prom was held in the high school gym; her son’s was at the Opryland hotel.
In scale, then, we’re returning to the colossal entertainments of ancient Rome. At that time, admission to the Colosseum was free and the entertainment inside it was gruesome: The performers were literally torn apart. Yet in modern America, the reverse holds true: Wholesome entertainment abounds, but it costs the ticket holder an arm and a leg.
No matter. We’ll continue to shell out. I know I will. My daughters have asked to see SeaWorld, and I’m sure I’ll succumb soon. It’s nice to see something under water that isn’t your mortgage.
Illustration by Peter Hoey
This article was first published in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.