After last year’s fourth-quarter high, domestic average ticket prices dipped 2% to $7.86 during the first quarter of 2011, according to the National Assn. of Theater Owners.

That’s not too surprising — box office has struggled to keep pace with 2010, with fewer 3D hits released or carried over during the first quarter.

Also, the heavy flow of first-quarter family films — six, in fact — likely drove ticket prices down as families paid less for reduced-priced children’s tickets. Paramount’s animated film “Rango,” although not a 3D release, stands as the year’s highest grossing film so far with just shy of $120 million domestically. Another family-targeted pic, Disney’s 3D toon “Gnomeo and Juliet,” tallied $98.8 million at Stateside plexes.

This year’s current average ticket price is also slightly lower than the same period in 2010, which averaged $7.95 per ticket.

“What the lower ticket price average does show is that admissions were not off quite as much as people believed,” said NATO director of media and research Patrick Corcoran.

That’s because higher ticket prices mean fewer people bought ducats to account for the total box office, while a lower average shows that more people had to visit the multiplex in order to achieve the same total.

With last weekend’s boffo performance from Universal’s “Fast Five,” box office pundits are optimistic going into summer and expect B.O. totals to gain ground.