You Want How Much For That

To save money, Ray and Anita DeSilva usually vacation close to their Beaverton, Ore., home. But this year the DeSilvas decided to splurge and take their 16-year-old son to Orlando, Fla. They cashed in some frequent-flier miles and budgeted about $4,000 for the trip. The first big bill was a five-day pass for the three of them to Disney World. Cost: $790. Then they visited SeaWorld Discovery Cove. Admission: $267 for the family. And if they wanted to swim with the bottlenose dolphins? An extra $110 per person. They're now waiting to see what their weeklong trip cost them. "I'm afraid to look at my credit-card bill,'' says Anita DeSilva.

Brace yourself for a summer of sticker shock. The cost of fun--from $100 seats for the Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas to $250 Madonna tickets to $20 museum admissions--is rising more steeply than a stomach-churning roller coaster. Ticket prices for spectator sports, theme parks and concerts have soared in recent years at double-digit rates, to the point where an afternoon out with your family can mean a bigger bill than a monthly car payment. Tickets at Six Flags New England in Agawam, Mass., are $39, up 77 percent since 1997. Rock-concert tickets carry an average price of about $45, up 33 percent from a few years ago. Movie tickets are now $10 apiece in Manhattan, and popcorn, a soda and candy easily doubles the price. The average ticket to an NBA game has climbed 19 percent in the past few years to $51. Good deals for kids are hard to find, too. Theme-park operator Cedar Point starts charging the adult rate--$39--for 4-year-olds who are at least 48 inches tall (and yes, Junior is measured with his shoes on).

Prices have reached such heights that many people have decided to stay home. Attendance at Disney's and Universal's Florida theme parks is off as much as 8 percent this year. Disney executives say that widespread layoffs and economic worries are to blame for the drop, but others in the industry are worried about pricing. Concert grosses for the first two months of 2001 were down 35 percent from a year ago, and Broadway attendance has been essentially flat for the past few years, boosted only recently by "The Producers" and its $100 seats. The crowds are thinning at many baseball parks, and movie attendance is skidding again this year after three straight years of decline. Nervous entertainment companies are trying to lure customers back with unprecedented discounts. But they're not working for people like Joanne Gash, a mother of four in Oak Park, Ill., who's scaled back her spending on fun. "My kids complain all the time that we don't do as many things as we used to,'' says Gash, a cashier. "The reason is the cost."

Entertainment executives say the price hikes are justified, and that they're simply providing the bigger thrills that Americans crave (the average American family spent about $1,900 on entertainment in 1999, according to the Labor Department). The Cedar Point theme park in Sandusky, Ohio, ponied up $25 million to build the skyscraping Millennium Force coaster, with a top speed of 92mph. "It's a capital-intensive business, but that's what brings people in," says Richard Kinzel, chief executive of Cedar Point's parent company. "If the value is there, people will pay." The splashy 'N Sync concert tour (top ticket price: $90) requires 90 trucks to haul equipment from stadium to stadium. "They have to sell almost all their tickets just to break even," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, a music-industry magazine. And baseball teams have to sell a lot of tickets, not to mention $4 bottles of water and ice-cream bars, to pay salaries of players like Alex Rodriguez, the Texas Rangers' $252 million man.

Prices are also rising as the industry tries different ways to maximize its take. For one, concert promoters grew jealous of the profits scalpers were making, and started pricing tickets like the airline industry, raising them to the highest levels that the market would bear. They're also starting to offer the equivalent of first-class seating--you can pay $450 for a VIP package for a Madonna concert, complete with parking, a souvenir and a buffet dinner before the concert. Another strategy is to make the price of admission, well, just that, and keep charging once the customers are in the door. New York's American Museum of Natural History asks for a donation of $10 to get in, but if you want to see the museum's cool "Space Show" in the Hayden Planetarium and two IMAX movies, the bill climbs to $31 per person. In September the Art Institute of Chicago will charge $20 for "Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South,'' but recorded audio tours and a hardcover catalog will cost $71 more. It's no surprise ATMs have become ubiquitous in museums and theme parks. How else to pay for lunch? "The prices out here are outrageous," says Marta Garcia, nibbling a $4.50 funnel cake at Six Flags AstroWorld in Houston.

Until recently, many people didn't flinch at the prices. Theme parks wish every customer was just like Karyn Bigos, a Woodbridge, N.J., administrative assistant who spent her annual bonus and tax refund for a trip to swim with the dolphins in Discovery Cove's artificial lagoons. "I really didn't care how much it cost," she says. "It was awesome.'' But not everyone is willing to pay anything to play. Don Stewart, whose Economic Consulting Services studies demographic and pricing trends for large entertainment venues, says many clients are worried they may have "hit the wall" with price hikes. Disney, whose theme parks and resorts took in $6.8 billion in revenue last year, charges adults $43 to get into its new $1.4 billion California Adventure theme park (the same price to get into the bigger Disneyland park next door). But attendance fell far short of projections, and Disney now offers discounts to boost traffic. Despite such strategies, visitors are still cutting back. Gary and Debbie Guinn saved for a year to visit Epcot at Walt Disney World with their 4-year-old grandson. "We'd probably have stayed another week,'' says Debbie, who paid $1,531 for a five-day package that includes hotel and park admissions (and excludes meals). "But that's more than I felt I could afford."

Industry executives are betting that consumers' wallets will loosen up once the economy improves. And perhaps thrill-seekers will indeed grow accustomed to sticker shock, much in the same way they may grow bored with gut-wrenching free falls from the 310-foot peak of the Millennium Force roller coaster. At that point, only a bigger--and more expensive--thrill will put them in touch with their inner child. But for now, many people are still trying to catch their breath. "When I heard the price for the tickets, I nearly passed out," said Shirley Medina, whose grown children bought her tickets to Cirque du Soleil's $100 "O'' show in Las Vegas. "Good thing our kids gave us a little extra spending money." She'll need more than a little extra. Programs are $10, T shirts cost $20 and an "O" CD is an additional $24. Perhaps a lucky spin at the slot machines can help pay for it all.