DO NOT BUY MERLIN ENTERTAINMENT DISCOVERY, GOLD & PLATINUM ANNUAL PASSES before seeing this video! These passes are effectively the rebranded Merlin Entertainment Standard and Premiere annual passes of days gone by.

We’ve used annual Merlin Passes in both pre and post covid world and can see the difference. The main issue is what you discover after you’ve purchased your passes that you wish you knew before you purchased your passes. By watching this video, you’ll be able to see a couple of these key considerations and discover that what is written on the tin, may in fact not be the case.

Merlin Entertainment Passes give access to:
LEGOLAND Windsor Resort UK
LEGOLAND Discovery Centres
The London Eye
SEA LIFE Centres
Thorpe Park Resort
Alton Towers Resort
Blackpool Tower
Chessington World of Adventures
Madame Tussauds
Shreks Adventure
The London Dungeon (and other Dungeons)
Warwick Castle

Time codes to the Video:

0:00 Introduction
1:00 New Discovery, Gold & Platinum Annual Passes vs Old Standard & Premium Passes
2:45 Questionable Customer Feedback
3:35 What they don’t tell you that you wish you knew
4:00 “Throttling” / “Capping” Annual Passes – Problems booking annual tickets
5:15 Merlin Entertainments Double Dipping on Customers
5:45 Non-Disclosure of Ticket Allocation Opaque Process
6:35 No Annual Members Access vs Non-Annual Full Price Access
7:05 Queue Times at LEGOLAND Getting Longer – Removal of Hotel Priority Ride Hour
8:50 What Access do you Truly Have to Attractions?
9:28 Undefined and Ambiguous Terms & Conditions
12:00 Short Term Gains at Long Term Expense – Alienating Current Customers
13:13 Is It Worth It?
14:30 Alternative Attractions
14:48 Summing Up

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Transcript from the Show

G’day Everyone, Matt Elder of Family Bricks here. In this video we are going to ask if the newly rebranded Merlin Entertainment Annual Discovery, Gold and Platinum passes are worth it? We’ve used annual Merlin Passes in both pre and post covid world and can see the difference.

The main issue is what you discover after you’ve purchased your passes that you wish you knew before you purchased your passes. By watching this video, you’ll be able to see a couple of these key considerations and discover that what is written on the tin, may in fact not be the case.

Originally we purchased a Merlin Premium passes in May 2019 so got to experience the attractions in both pre and post covid environments, up until November 2020 (due to corona virus, the passes were extended by 5 months beyond their initial 12 month period due to attractions being closed during lockdown).

We have a number of videos on Merlin Entertainment attractions, what they were like post covid, and full time lapse walk throughs of a number of attractions. Check out our Merlin Entertainment Attractions play list for these videos linked around this video.

New – Discovery, Gold and Platinum Annual Merlin Entertainment Passes

Just this week Merlin have announced new passes and changed their offering. Their passes use to be called a standard pass, premium pass and VIP pass. The VIP pass is pretty much gone. The standard pass use to offer access except for school holidays and bank holidays. The premium pass pretty much had access all year round.

There were additional benefits to the passes which use to include 20% off food outlets within the parks, some free parking options and a number of £15 tickets for friends and family. These were largely icing on the cake as the key aspect you are paying for is access to get in the front door at attractions.

Now, the new range of Merlin Entertainment passes are called Discovery, Gold and Platinum.

The discovery pass is new and seems to offer 180 days Monday to Friday, excluding weekends and school holidays. So effectively appealing to nursery kids and family who can go during the week during slow times.

Gold pass appears to offer most days excluding bank holidays and other key dates. It is somewhat equivalent to the old standard pass but slightly  different.

The platinum pass seems to not have any date exclusions, can be offered year round. It is pretty much the equivalent of the old premium pass. The old premium pass was in the ball park of £170 a year (depending upon whether new or renewal). The new equivalent is £239 which is a 40% price increase, or a 76% price increase if you look at the post introductory price of £299.00). This is massive for effectively the same thing – granted there are some tweaks around the edges but largely the same.

The usual marketing trick of repacking something old, with a few changes so it is something new and they can distance themselves from this massive price increases and confuse the issue with it being an allegedly new product.

Questionable Customer Feedback

In Merlin’s communications they have made reference to these changes are based upon customer feedback. I do think this is disingenuous. On September 18th, 2020, we received their survey and filled it out. It was 12 questions and would offer you a choice between an A option and a B option, and was heavily skewed.

It was literally do you want horrible option A, which is a significantly restricted access to a single attraction for an expensive price, or horrible option B which is access to all parks at a significantly expensive price with numerous exclusions? You were choosing the lessor of 2 evils in essence. What they really needed was a 3rd option C allowing you not to choose either cause they were both unpalatable. But this didn’t happen.

There was no place in the survey to provide any written feedback so came across to us they have already pre-determined significant price rises and it was just what form that would take and/or what would draw the least resistance and backlash from customers.

What they don’t tell you that you wish you knew?

Have you ever purchased something and then gone to use it to discover all the little caveats and effective restrictions you weren’t really told about upfront. Or directed to the small print where there is an exemption that you weren’t told existed up front with rubbery marketing wording that is presented to be implied one thing but then actually means something else. For mine, these new Merlin Passes have a couple of these and they are significant  .

The biggest single issue we’ve experience in the post covid experience is the actual booking of tickets, This is where it becomes really murky, and where what’s written on the tin, doesn’t meet up with reality.

“Throttling” / “Capping” Annual Passes – Problems Booking Annual Tickets

The issue is around what we like to call “capping” or “throttling” of annual pass numbers to the park. Numerous times since covid, we’ve found attractions allegedly completely booked out and nothing available to Merlin Annual pass holders. However, if you were to go to the attraction website and wanted to pay full price for the day as a completely new customer, you could buy tickets without a problem.

Initially when attractions reopened July 4th, 2020, after the national lockdown, numbers were definitely restricted at attractions – but we also found shortened trading hours, many park specific attractions closed etc. See this video for what LEGOLAND was like shortly after reopening  in mid July 2020. Effectively you were getting less for the same money, so the question of value starts to arise.

By the end of summer 2020 however, you wouldn’t even know there is a pandemic and park numbers felt pretty much back to normal. You can see our subsequent LEGOLAND video for details on this. We experienced the same thing at Chessington World of Adventures and have produced a video on that at the time as well.

Merlin Entertainment “Double Dipping”

We found this throttling of annual pass holders across the board at the London based Merlin attractions – LEGOLAND, Chessington, The Aquarium, London Eye etc. To us it felt very much like double dipping by Merlin. People have paid in advance for their annual passes then, struggle to use them as Merlin show preference to non-annual passholders who want to pay.

So annual passholders have paid and not gotten what they had paid for, while Merlin in essence go and resell an annual passholders spot for a second time to a new customer. This completely undermines and destroys the value of an annual pass. Great for Merlin as they effectively get paid twice for only delivering the 1 service or product.

Non-Disclosure of Ticket Allocation

This is part of the process that is opaque. It really needs to be disclosed what percentage of daily tickets are allocated to annual members vs non annual members. Is it 10%, 50%, 80% of the daily park capacity? Pre-covid this wasn’t an issue. But in a post covid world, that allocation fundamentally affects if/how you can use your annual pass, hence its value/viability and what it is you are actually purchasing.

Even though you’ve purchased an annual pass, through Merlin Pass ticket allocation, Merlin can throttle the value of what you are paying for and you don’t actually know what you are paying for in essence. This for us was one of the single biggest factors in deciding not to renew our passes – we have no idea of what we are paying for. What an annual pass means in a post covid world is different to in a precovid world and it is going to take people getting burned by this to realise.

No Annual Members Access vs Non-Annual Full Price Access

It was always really frustrating to find days we wanted to go to attractions there was no Merlin Pass ticket allocation available. But for those very days Merlin passholders couldn’t get tickets, if we wanted to purchase tickets as one offs and pay full price, not a problem. Pre covid we’d never been denied access on any day that we chose to go, including peak times during summer school holidays.

Without some sort of disclosure of annual pass ticket holder allocation, from the outset you are sold a product that can never be honored, or the product sold can never live up to how it has been sold, and is sold under false pretenses.

Queue Times at LEGOLAND Getting Longer – Removal of Hotel Priority Ride Hour

We have pretty much been to LEGOLAND every October half term break for the last 3 or 4 years. This year, the queues throughout the day on major rides were the longest we’d ever seen. They were pretty much 90 minutes throughout the entire day, from opening time to closing time. In our 3 minute full tour video of LEGOLAND from Summer 2019 we made reference to going early being a great tip. Now it doesn’t matter. The first and last hour of opening don’t see dramatically shorter queues anymore.

One reason is people staying in the LEGOLAND hotels use to get early access and be able to ride for the first hour of the day before general crowds, as the rides would start at 9am. Now they get early access to stand in the queue from 09:30am and the rides don’t start til 10am. In essence, you get early access to stand in a queue for 30 minutes. This then has a domino effect blowing out queue times for the entire whole day. 

Merlin are obviously doing this as they can save an hour of staff wages across the park at the expense of blowing out queue times. This was a last-minute change made to hotels several days before the October 2020 half term holidays without any compensation or offset. So many people booking a hotel stay have had one of their main benefits taken away, early access to actually being on the rides, that came with staying at the hotel.

During summer 2020, Merlin also charged annual pass holders an additional £1 per ticket to book. I understand this stops people booking and taking other people’s opportunity to visit and then don’t show up, but it was an additional cost none the less.

For any annual pass holder who visited the park having paid this additional surcharge (which could be argued was outside the terms and conditions of the annual pass) should have gotten a voucher to use in the park, refund or something as a goodwill gesture. In the end, it was just another revenue stream for Merlin, over and above what you thought you’d already paid for (and in any other circumstance, would have been).

This is the other problem is beyond not knowing what access you truly do have to attractions, the variations being made to the passes feel very much like what you think you are buying and what you end up getting are two different things.

Now you have to book so far in advance, the weather becomes a real lottery and makes planning for the day that much more difficult. Previously you could get a week or so out, see what the weather is like and then plan according. You could go a day earlier or later depending upon the circumstances. School holidays we’ve found you now have to book at least a month in advance for any hope of getting a date you want. Now if you are stuck with a date that is raining, with little kids, what really are your alternatives?

Short Term Gains at Long Term Expense – Alienating Current Customers

We understand trading conditions have been tough but the solution opted for here is to massively increase prices while significantly reducing the value and experience of the product. This is very short term thinking and detrimental to the long term. The old saying, “once bitten, twice shy” springs to mind.

Merlin are probably anticipating that with no foreign travel available, everyone will be having staycations so extract maximum value from customers who probably won’t be long term customers as once they can travel again, they will.

The problem becomes in alienating your otherwise long-term customer who won’t return in 2-3 years time when things return to normal. We were a little surprised that in the lead up to our annual passes expiring and even after that had happen, there wasn’t an email or an offer to try to get us to renew. It can be said that attracting a new customer can cost 10 times what it takes to keep an existing one, so on the surface doesn’t make sense.

Maybe Merlin know with a local captive market that can’t travel, they are going to have strong demand for their passes. Why would they want to take a returning customer at a discount when they can have a new customer at a significantly higher full price? I get the sense they aren’t calculating the lifetime value of customers and interested in maximizing the short term, at the expense of the long term.

So overall, is it worth it?

From our point of view and what we’ve experience, on paper sounds brilliant, but the reality is very different. There is no point having an annual pass if due to opaque throttling by Merlin, you can never really use the thing. If you can’t get in the door, what is offered past the door has no relevance.

In a pre-covid world, the annual passes were great value. You only needed to go 3 or 4 times in a year to be in front. Having the passes also made you more inclined to visit attractions or if you did go, and felt like half a day was enough, you wouldn’t have a problem leaving a little early as you knew you had value out of the day.

In previous years we certainly made the most of the passes visiting most attractions multiple times a year and really enjoying.

In a post-covid world, having the ticket allocation throttled means it is too unpredictable and no point paying for something you can’t use. If it was a matter that once the ticket allocation is exhausted on a day for everyone, annual and non-annual members alike, on a first come, first served basis, you might think fair enough. But that isn’t how it works.

Imagine you are at the LEGOLAND gates, or any other Merlin Attraction and being told you can’t get in with your annual pass as it is full. But someone rocks up after you, pays full price at the ticket office and then can walk through the turnstiles, but you can’t. In the real world that wouldn’t be tolerated but somehow by shifting the ticket booking system online, that is exactly what is happening.

Having paid your annual membership, that leaves an incredibly sour taste in your mouth.

Alternative Attractions

We won’t be renewing and haven’t. We will look at alternatives, such as castles and non-Merlin attractions (click around the video for some of these other options), as these are proving to be much better value. When times are difficult, businesses that thrive are the ones that offer value. We think Merlin has lost sight of this and only thinking in terms of short-term wins.

Summing Up

If you’ve gotten something out of this video, don’t be afraid to hit that thumbs up button. Here are some videos on Castles outside the Merlin Entertainment ecosystem that have been great value. Here is a playlist of Merlin Entertainment attractions and quick full walk throughs. Alternatively, here is what LEGOLAND was like at the end of summer 2020. Thanks very much for watching. That’s all from us here at Family Bricks and do consider subscribing to the channel.

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