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Voices: Pay more to go to a theme park because it’s sunny? Don’t make me sick

Merlin Entertainments are bringing in an airline-style surge pricing for atractions like Alton Towers and Legoland (PA Wire)
Merlin Entertainments are bringing in an airline-style surge pricing for atractions like Alton Towers and Legoland (PA Wire)

Legoland, Alton Towers and Madame Tussauds – the holy trinity for us parents when it comes to the school holidays – are going to charge more to visit on sunny weekends. Sorry – am I hearing this right?

That means that many mums like me, who plan trips to adrenalin-fuelled or fun attractions, will have to sneak our kids out of school to go when it’s “off-peak” – or when there is a downpour – to make it more affordable.

It’s the complete opposite of a “fun family day out”: imagine the kids, sopping wet and miserable, trainers leaking as they queue for five hours for a ride on the Spinball Whizzer with all the other families who have been priced out on a sunny day. Forget Lapland – we’ll be spending the winter months at Legoland... it’s the only time we can afford it!

Ugh, it makes me sick. And it’s all too familiar – parents are unfairly penalised for everything that happens in the school holidays – just look at the cost of Center Parcs. Not to mention the deeply unfair airline surge pricing that kicks in as soon as it’s half-term: prices can shoot up as much as 1,200 per cent. How have we arrived at a situation where unless you take your kids out of school a few days early before they break up for summer (like many parents I know are doing), going abroad is a distant and unattainable dream?

And now we can’t even manage our kids’ disappointment at not being taken on a seaside holiday by promising them a day trip to a theme park, either. Not if it’s a scorching weekend. What will mums like me do? Return to old-fashioned picnics in the park, or reading books at home if it’s raining – like we are living out of the pages of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women?

Merlin Entertainments, which owns the attractions now at risk of surge pricing, said it will adopt the model by the end of the year. This means it will flex prices according to changes in demand – just like Uber does when it’s pouring rain.

It puts a real dampener on visiting these places. Let’s face it: they are hell on earth anyway because they are super expensive and swarming with screaming kids. Just buying a few soft drinks and food is enough to break the bank – even if you whisk your kids through the gift shop at the exit.

A day pass to Alton Towers for a group of four already costs £148 (not including travel, food and parking) – I shudder to think what the new cost will be.

As for why it’s doing it, the company says it is because visitor numbers haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels and it is seeking to “even out demand”. Scott O’Neil, the chief executive of Merlin Entertainments, said: “If you want to go to Alton Towers and you were to go on a Saturday in August for a holiday weekend or opening weekend, it’s likely those prices will be the highest. And if you want to go off-peak or shoulder, it’s likely going to be lower.”

To which I only have one thing to say: come on! Am I destined to only visit attractions like Peppa Pig World and London Zoo when it’s raining? Or shelling out £172 for a family ticket (two adults, two children) to the Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour – because my daughter, who’s eight, is mad about Hermione Granger?

O’Neil, who admits the news is going to be “really hard for consumers to understand”, tries to lessen the blow by saying it’s to ensure “the guest experience is extraordinary”.

“What we don’t want everyone to do is go in August, on a Saturday and then you’re queuing too long for rides,” he adds. Is he joking?

There’s something deeply rotten about surge pricing, wherever we see it. I only take my children to Blackpool Pleasure Beach because their grandma lives there, but the entrance fee for a child under 11 is £40 on the day – not including the rides! It says on their website that “prices are based on demand for any particular day and will change throughout the season” – a perfect example of the madness of this policy. I understand that places like Blackpool are struggling seaside resorts – and I want to support them – but it’s just too much money.

Merlin’s attractions are ridiculously expensive anyway – a standard ticket to Madame Tussauds costs £38 per child and £42 per adult. To add insult to injury, the company is making out it’s doing us a favour by bringing in a price surge – as a way to enable guests to get discounted prices for select dates and times.

But it’s not about overcrowding – it’s about having to pay more money to take your kids on a fun day out (and speaking of crazy prices, have you tried booking theatre tickets to Matilda the Musical?)

These future flexi prices for theme parks are a rollercoaster ride – and one my kids might not end up on.