Tourists getting steep discounts at attractions


ATLANTA — Hoping the prospect of sales will woo cash-strapped travelers, the nation’s tourist destinations are taking a page from the retail playbook, offering tourists deep discounts and freezing gate prices.
Free night stays at Walt Disney World in Florida. Coupons worth $15 off at Pennsylvania’s Hersheypark. Admission to the Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest fish tank, at last year’s prices.

The markdowns are enough to make even the most frugal traveler think twice about staying home.

“Given so many people have lost their jobs and aren’t getting raises and aren’t getting bonuses, it did not seem appropriate to do a price increase this year,” said Dave Santucci, spokesman for the aquarium in downtown Atlanta.

A ticket at the aquarium will cost the same this year as it did last—$27 for adults. Visit once, and you get a “bounce pass” to return any time that year for $15. And the aquarium is brokering deals with surrounding attractions like the World of Coca-Cola to offer combination tickets at discount prices.

And it couldn’t come at a better time.

The nation’s tourism industry hasn’t seen a year this bad since just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when hotel occupancy dropped 16 percent over the prior year, said Jan Freitag, vice president of Smith Travel Research, which follows the hotel industry. Hotel occupancy dropped 10 percent from November 2007 to the same month in 2008, he said.

“It’ not pretty right now, from the hotel perspective,” he said. “Some analysts out there think it’s going to get much worse.”

At Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., visitors can save $400 off the price of a seven-night stay between February and the end of June. The deal—being touted as “buy four nights, get three free”—can be booked through the end of March, said Rick Sylvain, spokesman for the resort.

He declined to give numbers on how many visitor signed up for the deal. Walt Disney World advertised the discount more heavily than usual in hopes of drawing families during typically slow times at the attraction, Sylvain said.

Hersheypark, which runs a zoo and amusement park next to the headquarters for the iconic chocolate company, is offering one the steepest coupons in its 102-year history—$15 off the $51.95 price of admission, said spokeswoman Kathy Burrows.

Some attractions, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, are offering free days once a month for local residents. Others, like Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., are teaming up with hotels and other attractions to offer discounts on package deals to tourists who travel to the retiree Mecca for a few days.

And many attractions—like Sea World in Florida and the San Diego Zoo—are freezing the price of their annual passes, a small gift to visitors faithful enough to come back more than once a year.

“These are our most loyal customers,” said Joe Couceiro, spokesman for Busch Entertainment Corp., which owns 10 theme parks from Florida to Pennsylvania, including Sea World and Bush Gardens.

For parents like Amber Barrow, discounted tickets are welcome news when she’s trying to entertain three small children on a trip. The Barrow family stopped at the Georgia Aquarium on a recent afternoon—with Joseph, 3, David, 1, and Hannah, 4 months—as they traveled from their home in Savannah to Nashville, Tenn., for a Titans football game.

Despite the economic downturn, “we still have to do stuff with our kids,” Barrow said as she watched the beluga whales do flips and turns. “I think with the economy, attractions are going to have to offer discounts unless they don’t want business. People aren’t going to go if prices go up.”