Traveling from Boston to New York City by bus recently to visit my son, I was able to book a seat on Megabus for $4. Using a concept known as variable pricing, the bus line offers a few seats on each of its routes for insanely low prices thereby rewarding customers who make reservations well in advance. Other industries, such as airlines and hotels, have been using the concept for years. Taking into account factors such as demand for seats, proximity to travel dates, and competitor's fares, the price of airline tickets on the same flight can vary widely.
While there has been some talk lately about adopting variable pricing at theme parks, there hasn't been much action. Until now. Legoland Florida just introduced a variation of the concept. Called Pick-a-Date and Save, the new program gives customers the option to buy tickets online and save up to $15 on each one by specifying the days they plan to visit. But there is a catch: If guests aren't able to make it to the park on the date stamped on their tickets, they are out of luck. All of the discounted ticket sales are final, and the passes are non-refundable and non-transferable. To me, that's a pretty big catch.
Megabus has the same no-refund policy for its advance-sale tickets. But risking a $4 bus ticket is quite different than risking the $236 a family of two adults and two children would pay in advance for Legoland passes. The $60 savings might look attractive to Mom when she purchases the tickets three months ahead of her Florida visit. But when her daughter gets the flu a few days before the trip, and she has to cancel or reschedule the vacation, she's probably not going to be too happy about losing her money.
I asked Kim Isemann, director of sales and marketing for the park, how strict it would be in enforcing the no-refund policy, and she indicated there might be some leniency. "We understand that situations come up that may prevent you visiting on the day you selected, and we'll look at those on a case-by-case basis." Still, the onus would be on customers to provide documentation and plead their cases. And there's no guarantee they would get their money back. Isemann says that Legoland will gauge customer reaction to the new program. "If we see situations reoccurring, we might make changes [to the no-refund policy]."
I once took advantage of a hotel deal that offered a discounted rate for paying in advance with a no-cancellation clause. Once. When I had to cancel the trip, I was out hundreds of dollars. Adhering to the fool-me-once maxim, I'll never fall for an offer like that again.
It is not as if the Legoland deal is that unique. Parks have been offering discounted online tickets for a long time to customers who plan and pay in advance. But the tickets aren't generally tied to any date. They may be non-refundable, but ticket-holders can use them for a future visit if their plans suddenly change. Even airlines don't ding passengers for the full fare if they miss a flight. At the least, it seems that Legoland might consider charging an airline-style rebooking fee so that guests wouldn't lose all of their money if they have to cancel their day at the park.
Legoland's Isemann points out that customers have choices. Instead of planning months in advance, they could wait and choose a date as close as eight (or more) days away from their visit to receive the full $15 discount. If they purchase tickets two to seven days in advance, they would receive a $10 discount. Tickets purchased within two days of a visit or at the gate would be at full price, but wouldn't be tied to any specific date.
Legoland is among the first theme parks out of the blocks with variable pricing. That's going to make a lot of guests -- and their wallets -- happy. But as with many special offers, buyer beware. That's my take, anyhow. What are your thoughts about Legoland's new ticket pricing? Click on "Comments" below to weigh in.
Photo: Legoland Florida. Used with permission.