Have Disney Parks Squeezed Out the Middle Class?

You’ve probably seen the article by now, but if you haven’t, click this link.  The Washington Post recently ran a story about how the middle class have been slowly and systematically squeezed out of Walt Disney World thanks to increasing ticket prices. Not only is the article heavily flawed in logic, it’s also terribly inaccurate, deliberate in only showing one side of the story and gives a very narrow view into reality.  

Disney World E Ticket

For example, it lists the opening admission price for Walt Disney World in 1971 for an adult was $3.50, roughly the cost of three gallons of milk at the time. What the author, Drew Harrell, fails to mention was that admission in 1971 at that rate included five attractions and one ticket in each category: A through E.  If you wanted to ride additional attractions, you would have had to either buy more tickets or a higher priced ticket booklet with more coupons already inside. An eight-ticket book was $5.75 for an adult and even that wasn’t enough to cover everything on opening day. Regardless, very few people actually paid just $3.50. 

In addition, the author cites the new Bora Bora Bungalows that just opened at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, which can cost as much as $3,400 a night. He’s correct, but isn’t it a bit odd that he didn’t mention they can range as low as $2,137 a night? Or that he failed to mention that there are other hotels at Walt Disney World like the All Star Resorts that can cost around $92 a night? Or there are even more affordable accommodations off site? 

Bora Bora Bungalows Polynesian

I’m not here to debate that a Disney vacation isn’t expensive. It most definitely is. Then again, Starbucks charging $6 for a cup of coffee is pretty pricey considering you can brew your own at home for pennies. For some reason, every time Disney raises ticket prices people go a little crazy. Then there are pieces written like the recent one in The Washington Post which somehow paints Disney as a villain that hates poor people. 

Because many of my readers (and websites like Theme Park Tourist) love to count, here are my Top 5 Reasons why Disney is often treated unfairly when it comes to how much they charge for tickets. 

#5 People Are Still Coming In Record Numbers

Yes, admission for the Magic Kingdom in Florida has crested over that $100 threshold, yet every single year they have increased in attendance. In 2014, attendance was up by 4% or roughly 745,000 more people than in 2013. Maybe those price increases squeaked you and your family out of visiting as the vacation is now too expensive for you. 

The undeniable reality is that Walt Disney World is clearly affordable for millions of people around the world. Disney is a global brand and has been for many years. While Americans make up the majority of people visiting, they are far from the only. Stand in any spot in a WDW theme park for five minutes and you’ll see guests from Brazil, England, Japan and beyond. 

Those international guests arguably spent more money just getting to Orlando and arguably are spending more money than Americans. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Disney is rooted in the United States and therefore should at least make sure it takes care of those residents in the mother country first, right?

Disney World Tickets

#4 Disney Should Charge What The Market Can Bear

Pretend with me for a moment that after reading the horrendously lopsided Washington Post article, the Mouse has a change of heart tomorrow. New ticket prices would reflect an immediate $25 decrease effective immediately for both adult and child prices. The clouds have parted over the Magic Kingdom and it’s as if Walt himself were looking down and smiling because more children can be entertained by riding the Haunted Mansion and Space Mountain

One problem: where do you put everybody? According to the Themed Entertainment Association, the Magic Kingdom’s attendance for 2014 was 19,332,000. Divided by 365 days, the average day at the park has 52,964 people walking down Main Street. Now that’s a large number to wrap your head around, but anyone who has been in the park in recent years can tell you that peak periods can literally put guests elbow to elbow in certain areas of the park where its uncomfortably crowded. This is paying the current ticket price of over $100 for an adult.

Now let’s pretend they have slashed prices by nearly 25% to bring in more middle class families. At some point, the park will fill to capacity and if more people can afford it more people will come without question. If the argument here is that a more crowded park experience (than it already is) becomes more enjoyable somehow: you’ve lost your marbles. 

Universal Orlando

#3 Universal Orlando Is More Expensive

A single day admission to one Universal Orlando theme park for an adult is currently $102. Sure, that’s slightly cheaper than the Magic Kingdom, but more expensive than Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. There are a few other things to keep in mind. 

Universal Express Pass isn’t free. You’ve got to pay per person on a sliding scale price that depends on how busy the park relative to price paid. Disney’s FastPass service is included with park admission. You can get express passes included with staying at a Universal Orlando Resort hotel, but Cabana Bay (Universal’s cheapest option) will run you at least 50% more than Disney’s All Star Resorts.

Cabana Bay Beach Resort

If your claim is Universal has “better” attractions than Disney, it’s a matter of personal preference and I can’t debate you on that. In many instances, I agree. Universal is far outpacing Disney in terms of cranking out quality attractions. However, if you’re looking for bang for your buck, Disney has Universal beat hands down. Disney has far more character interactions and offers much more atmospheric entertainment. Universal offers fireworks only during peak periods whereas Disney shows them nightly (aside from Animal Kingdom) and Disney only omits these offerings during special ticketed events.

My point is, if you think Disney is outpricing the middle class, isn’t it fair to say that Universal Orlando does the exact same thing, if not more so? I will bang this drum as long as Theme Park University is alive: Disney gets beat up in the media far more than it should when other theme parks do the exact same thing, if not worse.

Walt Disney Map

#2 Walt Has Nothing To Do With This

A quote from The Washington Post article: ““If Walt [Disney] were alive today, he would probably be uncomfortable with the prices they’re charging right now,” said Scott Smith, an Assistant Professor of Hospitality at the University of South Carolina, whose first job was as a Cast Member in Disney’s Haunted Mansion. “They’ve priced middle-class families out.”  

We can’t keep doing this. Please. Stop. In 1966, when Walt passed away, the world was a far different place. Tourists traveled to Disneyland primarily by car. There was very little competition. Disneyland still used ticket books. You couldn’t book an entire vacation package online including a meal plan. Just as before, when the needs of the public change, Disney morphs to accommodate those needs as well as business demand. 

Walt’s spirit is still alive in Disney parks today. The original intent of parents and children having fun together can be seen in any direction you look. Second guessing every decision that’s made by Disney asking, “What Would Walt Do?” is simply not fair. It’s not fair to current executives and most importantly, it’s not fair to Walt.

#1 Disney Can Make All The Profit It Wants

Like any other publicly held company, Disney tries to increase its earnings from quarter to quarter and year to year. Every single business on the planet does this to some degree. You have to in order to stay afloat. Sure, you can decrease prices and reduce operating costs and if you overcompensate either of those factors, the market can come back and bite you in the ass and your fiscal results will tumble.

At this point, I often get Disney Cast Members (current and former) yelping that they don’t get paid enough. Maybe that’s true, but again, Disney pays what the market will bear. Anyone who works for the Mouse knows what they are getting paid up front from hourly to salaried. This is no secret. If you choose to do the work and you’re not happy with the pay and you stick around, you’re part of the problem. 

If Disney sees a dramatic decrease in attendance, it can run special offers to bring people back in, even perhaps drop ticket prices permanently. If they can’t fill worker positions based on the current rate of pay, they can increase the pay to attract more applicants. Presently, Disney is not concerned with either of those things.  

Haunted Mansion Walt Disney World

Bottom line: Why is Disney held to a different or higher standard than other theme parks? 

I am no more pro-Disney than I am pro-Universal (despite what the way this article is presented). Disney is allowed to charge over $100 for admission just as much as Universal does. Yet, where are the articles claiming Universal is squeezing out middle class visitors? One can easily make the claim that they are even greedier than Disney with their more expensive hotels, charging for Universal Express Pass and pays their entry level employees only 50 cents more an hour than Disney’s starting wage. 

Where is the outrage? Where are the thousands of fans freaking out about how greedy Universal is?

Magic Kingdom

My theory is this: many people see Disney to be an imaginary (yet somewhat tangible) friend. Disney, by design, gives you “the feels” and tugs at your heart strings. That feeling you get by watching a Disney movie or seeing Cinderella Castle for the first time is a very real emotion. Many people then take that emotional connection and start to crave it, almost like a drug, no matter the cost. 

Make no mistake about it, while the designers of that attraction, film or television series had very good intentions on creating an emotional connection, the company behind that film ultimately had one goal in mind: to charge you money for that connection. Otherwise, it would be free! Or damn cheap. 

Disney may be the brand you trust and love when it comes to movies, television and theme parks, but they are still a company that makes money and is very interested in financial returns. Disney is a company. Disney is not your friend. Say it with me:


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Photo Credit: All Ears.Net, Walt Disney Company, Universal Orlando

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  1. fan51
    Posted June 16, 2015 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Whenever there are articles on theme park admissions, it doesn’t often tell you how much things cost relative to other expenses and entertainment (excluding shows and sporting events). $100 for one is $400 for a family of four for just one day. Prices rise astronomically for an one week vacation to Disney World. Despite getting a cheaper room, cheaper dining options, or not buying souvenirs, admission costs are easily over $1000 for a multi-day trip. Compare costs with visiting another local park for $35 for one day. Or paying $90 for a year’s unlimited admission.

    It is true that people are still going. If I were to tell people admission costs were this much, I wouldn’t recommend it then. Things have changed with how people save their income and use it for vacations. The value proposition for a Disney vacation has also improved. In a short 10 years, Disney went from dump to pump. Thus, people believe Disney is a must have entertainment value even if they have to save much harder than ever.

    I give significantly more money to Disney. That’s the reality. Funny thing is once your money is parted. You don’t look back.

  2. Dan Heaton
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I think having an article about Disney pricing in the Washington Post still represents a big step in perceptions about Disney. In general, I feel that Disney is treated with kid gloves much of the time. So it’s refreshing to see an article that at least raises questions about Disney’s current practices. I’m not saying that it’s a great article; it’s all over the map and could make better points. What interests me is that the question is becoming more prevalent.

    I think you cite good points about Disney’s role as a public company and that it is still very popular. The part of this topic that bothers me is that prices are going up, but we aren’t seeing the level of investment into new attractions along with it. We had New Fantasyland and will have Avatar, but guests are paying more and not seeing the same return. This all depends on why they’re going to Disney of course. I expect that many visitors have an amazing time and think it’s worth every penny. My hope is that Disney will use the added dollars and invest more in the park. The DCA changes showed how adding rides that people like can impact attendance. Universal has also found that it works with the Harry Potter lands.

    • Josh Young
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for responding! My point to you is this: if Disney makes more money why do they have to reinvest at all? If United charged an extra $20 (folded into the ticket price) of all their flights, are they required to spend more money on the plane? Nicer seats? Better snacks? If United or Disney can justify the increase and people keep coming, while they should invest, I certainly don’t think they have to or even need to within reason.

      • Dan Heaton
        Posted June 18, 2015 at 11:05 am | Permalink

        From a business perspective, your points make sense. Disney’s goal is to maximize profits for its shareholders, so seeking those profits is a primary motive.

        Even so, Disney isn’t the same as a company that makes a simple product and is looking for ways to cut the price and be more efficient. There’s an emotional connection that people have with the parks. It’s for that reason that Disney is able to keep raising prices and cutting back offerings without experiencing much blowback.

        One of the reasons that Disney is in such a good spot now is all the investments that the company made in the parks during the first half of the Eisner era (the good half). He wanted to build a lot of hotels and recognized that a way to draw people to the parks was to build new attractions. Examples like the Tower of Terror and Splash Mountain were built, along with two new parks.

        To be clear, I’m not expecting another expansion on the level of what happened in the ’90s. One of the challenges with visiting Disney World is its massive size. I know that we disagree, but my feeling is that Disney would maximize profits even further by investing more in the parks. It’s not like they’re going to have big losses if they don’t, but being more forward-thinking could pay off in the short and long term.

    • fan51
      Posted June 18, 2015 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      The expectation is that you get what you pay. You don’t pay when with the anticipation of new attraction investment. Your admission fee is not a loan or a money back guarantee. Its an entertainment expense. When new attractions debut and you go back, that’s when you pay even more and suffer even worse attendance. Get it?

      The alternative is you just don’t go if you’re not attracted to their offerings. Then Disney can respond with either a price decrease or the addition of new attractions. It seems like their park is priced competitively based on high attendance and the aggressiveness of their price increases.

      Universal did more with Harry Potter because they had to. They fallen so far behind in competition with Disney. It used to be that Universal was significantly cheaper than Disney. That is not true anymore. So you get what you pay.

  3. coasterprof
    Posted June 20, 2015 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    I read this article and just had to create an account to post. Arguing that Disney World can charge whatever the market allows it to charge is a straw man argument! The Washington Post never said it shouldn’t charge what it wants. It said it’s pricing out the middle class; Disney World charging what the market allows =/= not pricing out the middle class. It’s very basic logic.

    Depending on the park you purchase it from, you can buy two six flags season passes that allow you to walk in — for free — 18 theme parks for the price of a one day ticket to Disney world. I’m not even including free parking, which is usually bundled in early season deals. Also, the All Star Resort — Disney’s value resort – costs about $20 more than the downtown Hilton I stay in whenever I’m in Atlanta. Also, I don’t see the $92 price valid very often. Checking online, staying 7/18 to 7/19 is $158/night. Staying at the Hilton in Atlanta is $121 for the night of 7/18 to 7/19. I also checked the Hilton at the Orange County Convention Center; the nightly rate is $179. So yes, Disney’s lowest tier hotel is priced about par with (at least one of) the highest tier non-Disney hotels.

    I almost spit my soda out when I read in the article that, rooms at the Bora Bora resort can range “as LOW as $2,137 a night”. Now I like to think I’m in a pretty great profession, but I would certainly not consider that a “deal”.

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