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Passport to Neverland

If you love Disney – I love Disney – then you will be as annoyed as I am to hear that Disney is raising the price of a one-day theme park ticket to over a hundred dollars, following an increase by Universal.  The price of tickets has been on an upward curve above inflation for decades now.

By comparison, a three-day passport, as they were then called in 1982, only cost a little more than thirty dollars, ten dollars a day.  It allowed unlimited access to The Magic Kingdom and the brand new Epcot Center on any three days you chose.  They never expired, come back two years later and you could use that unused third day.  It would not surprise me if inflation from 1982 to present might bring that price up to forty or fifty dollars a day, but not a hundred.

Whenever Disney is asked about ticket prices, they always defend it by saying that there is so much more to do now, with four theme parks and two water parks.  Okay, except that the answer does not make much sense.  A person can only do so much in one day and building more parks and things to do does not help any.  The reason they built more parks is not to get people into more parks per day, it is to get people to spend more days overall.  Used to be that you could do most of what they had to offer in three days, now you could spend over a week – and many people do.  That’s the point.  More days means more meals, more hotel nights, and more spending in general, per guest.

Now, they could make the point that they used to be under-priced – that could be true.  In the days after Walt and before Michael Eisner, the company operated as a sort of mausoleum to Walt.  It was during the Eisner years that the ticket prices jumped quickly, but the purpose of that was to use the funds to greatly expand the complex – and build other theme parks around the world.  Now that expansion is mostly done.

Yes, they are charging what the market will bear.  More power to them.  However, I would suggest that they have taken what was a high-volume, low-margin business and turned it into the opposite, making the parks seem more like a playground for the rich and bored.  If they went back to the old model, they could conceivably make more money.  But there is a problem that needs to be addressed first.

I was last at Disney World last May, just before the summer rush, and the parks felt oddly crowded.  Wait times were long, even though there did not seem to be that many people overall.  I think I might know what the problem is: in a word, Fastpass.

Used to be, during the busy season, Disney had ways of dramatically increasing the throughput of their major rides.  Mostly, this was done with a second queue leading to a second loading area.  A few more cast members to load the extra guests and away they went.  So, for an example, Thunder Mountain would run trains at closer intervals, because they were loading on both sides of the platform as quickly as they could.  It also used to be that, if the lines for a particular ride were long, you had two choices: stay on the line or come back to it at another time.  I usually opted for Judo,  coming back later, and it usually worked out.  If not before, most of the major rides started to clear towards the end of the night.

They can’t really do that anymore.  The second queues have been converted, in most cases, to Fastpass return lines.  This has been going on for some ten years now, since 1999.  Want to ride a major ride and the line is long?  Queue up in a smaller line, get a Fastpass, which will have a time window some hours in the future, then go off and play somewhere else.  When the time window arrives, go back to the ride, get on the return line, and you are whisked to the front of the line.  Sort of.  You will often still wait ten or fifteen minutes, though not forty minutes or two hours.  There are pluses to this and there are ways to game the system, but I am not overly enamored with the thing.  Can’t we all be smart enough to realize that long lines are bad and not stand in them?

But Disney has other plans.  Word reaches us that they have started enforcing the time windows rigorously, where they used to let you come back late.  This is supposedly a precursor to a vastly expanded reservation system, where you will not only reserve your hotels and meal reservations, but also reserve ride times, weeks or months ahead of time.  Probably, the Disney computer will plan out your whole day for you, routing you efficiently, I hope, and keeping all the guests from tripping over each other.  Still, it is something of a letdown for those of us who liked to use Judo – “I will bend like a reed in the wind” – and delighted in being able to out-think the crowds and have a full day without waiting in long lines, all on our own.

The real problem I have with all this, however, is that it will further cement the Disney parks into being upper-class playgrounds, where only the connected – electronically, in this case – will be completely comfortable or welcome in such an environment.  With still higher prices and a larger degree of internet savvy required to visit, the working-class breadwinner is going to have an even harder time trying to give his family a good time, even if he stays in the cheaper places out on Hwy 192.  Walt Disney wanted a place where families could come and do things together.  Now, fewer will be able to afford to.

Disney does have some structural problems to overcome.  They now have large numbers of employees whose tenure is counted in decades and, therefore, their payroll is much higher than it used to be.  They did grow extremely fast in the late eighties and nineties and they may still be paying that off.  The Disney World bus system seems to be at a breaking point and I wonder out loud if a major expansion of the monorail system or some other similar system is not overdue.  Still, I think the resources of the company are there should they decide to lower prices and increase guests.

Meanwhile, like many others, I am sure I will be back, though maybe not as often as I would if prices were lower.  Amaze me, guys!


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