Like many Disney fans, I grew up with the idea that Walt Disney World was a place for everyone. My parents took us there regularly on family vacations during the summer. Some Disney leaders still had personal connections with Walt Disney, even during the Eisner days. We’re now more than 50 years after Walt’s death, and the company is different. It was always a business, and my childhood ideas of magic weren’t really accurate. We were a middle-class family, but it still cost plenty to visit Orlando. Disney was just better at hiding profit motives.
The focus on upcharge experiences and monetizing the parks might be the real legacy of Iger’s tenure. He’s done amazing work on the entertainment side but has never seemed comfortable with the parks. My goal here isn’t to bash Iger; I still love visiting Disney World. What I’m doing in this article is analyzing recent upcharge offerings. I haven’t experienced them firsthand (my next trip is in March), so I’m considering both the message they send and the apparent popularity based on current reports.
Not all upcharge experiences are created equal. In fact, some could be a value in the right circumstances. Poor planning from Disney is often a culprit. When Disney bloggers and podcasters can point out the holes in an offer right when it appears, that’s a bad sign. Many are “tests” to see how customers will react, and that’s fine on the surface. Most businesses will try deals and prices and see which ones succeed. The danger for Disney beyond the individual offers is the message they send on the whole. The ticket prices keep increasing, and we know the parks are expensive. Fans have made peace with the cost, but extra fees can only go so far. Let’s dive into recent offerings plus some from earlier in 2016 that remain in place.
Let’s start with an easy one. On the surface, a method for saving time in park hopping sounds great. Particularly with the bus service, it can take quite a while to go from park to park. I have young kids (7 and 3), so we rarely park hop due to the effort involved. While the Express Transportation option makes little sense for me, it has promise in theory. What guests have discovered is that the time savings are minimal at best. Paying an extra $15 per day (or $24 for length of stay) isn’t bad, yet this is a per-person cost. If you only hop once or twice during a trip, the time savings must be massive to justify the price.
It sounds like this upcharge has been a complete dud. The Express Transportation buses are taking only a small number of passengers to other parks. This service will likely not be around much longer. The ability to bypass security and board in a backstage area were not enough of a draw. This is also a case where guests are okay with the normal bus service model (which is free). I’d much rather see Disney focus on making the bus service more efficient. A specific schedule for bus departures would be a great help for planning. The real problem is the size of the resort, which requires a huge transportation system. Creating an issue and then charging guests for something that doesn’t fix it was a short-sighted approach with a predictable outcome.
Star Wars Galactic Nights
This type of hard-ticketed event is different because it’s not an everyday service. Instead, it caters to Star Wars fans that miss the excitement of Star Wars Weekends. In fact, some of the special aspects of this April 14th party have a similar feeling of those past celebrations. The difference is the price; it was part of your regular admission for those days. In this case, there’s a hefty $129 ticket ($124 for kids) to access the fun. You’re looking at just over $500 for a family of four to experience Galactic Nights. That’s serious money even for well-off Disney fans.
The event sounds like a fun time, even if you aren’t obsessive about Star Wars. An actor and crew member will appear to tell stories about making the films. There will be extra costumed characters and even a scavenger hunt to complete. Along with the Star Wars attractions, popular rides like Toy Story Mania and the Tower of Terror will remain open. The key factor is whether the price tag seems worthwhile for you. I grew up with Star Wars and love the films, but there isn’t enough there for me. I might pay $65 for the event, but not twice as much.
Let’s take a moment and shift to California for the most recent passenger on the upcharge express. MaxPass is tricky to analyze because it could benefit guests in the right situations. The opportunity to book a FastPass on your phone may help avoid the scramble for Space Mountain or Radiator Springs Racers. You can still only have one FastPass at a time, but combining it with the paper system might offer loopholes. On the other hand, it’s a weird baby step towards the complexities of FastPass Plus. Is the Disneyland Resort ready for even this rudimentary system?
MaxPass is also a terrible name that seems to promise more than it delivers. When I first read the name, I expected something that gave you benefits above the normal system. It’s hard not to read “Max” and think of the word maximum. Disney needs a better way to market this change at the start. They’re charging $10 a day per person, which can add up quickly for families. This is also an introductory rate, so it’s certain to rise quickly if the service is popular.
This rate will include PhotoPass, which is typically $69 for a week. Let’s assume a family of four buys MaxPass and visits the parks for four days. That would cost $160 using the introductory rate, so it’s still $91 more in this scenario. There are so many unknowns at this point, and the price might be negligible if the system works efficiently. I’m not convinced that Disney won’t have issues getting started. They’re also adding Toy Story Mania and the Matterhorn to the system, which will be tricky to integrate with paper and mobile FastPasses.
The strangest entry in this bunch is the move to install private cabanas in Tomorrowland (and other parks). I understand that the 1% experience Disney in a different way than the rest of us. Private tour guides, back door entry, and other perks make sense to me. They’re not interfering directly with my vacation or hurting sight lines. The initial $700 price tag was a shocker, but that paled in comparison to seeing the cabanas. The white tents didn’t connect to the futuristic setting of Tomorrowland (as seen in the above photo). Disney made little effort to conceal how cheap they looked either.
The price dropped to $500, but it made little difference. Disney announced this past Friday that the cabanas were finished in February. It was a lazy attempt to sell exclusivity without any enticing perks. If Disney wants to promote something unique, then maybe the price makes sense. I’d love to spend an evening in one of the original EPCOT lounges, particularly when Horizons was open. The key is offering something with real value to the guests. A fireworks cruise tour has value; sitting in a tent near Space Mountain is not on par with those experiences.
Disney After Hours
My initial thoughts about the Disney After Hours events last year were not positive. It seemed like a way to further monetize the parks beyond the regular ticket prices. I’ll admit that I was overly alarmist. I’ve yet to experience this event, but I’ve heard enough from reviews and fan reactions to understand the allure. I’m on board and would love to experience it. This would probably be a solo venture, though. Even with the reduced $119 price tag ($89 for annual passholders), it doesn’t work for our family. Plus, my girls are too young to do well at midnight.
What intrigues me about the After Hours set-up is the chance to enjoy The Magic Kingdom with no worries about FastPass or maximizing every second. Disney is keeping 25 attractions open for the current run, which goes until March 9. Just walking through the park at night without crowds would also be amazing. I’m not sure when the opportunity will arise, but the After Hours events has definitely earned a place on my Disney bucket list.
Early Morning Magic
The situation is similar with the Early Morning Magic upcharge events, which are currently taking place at The Magic Kingdom. While they don’t offer the same time or scope as the nighttime After Hours, it’s still an interesting perk. The $69 price tag ($59 for kids) includes breakfast at the Pinocchio Village Haus, though it’s pretty basic food. The real draw is countless rides on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Peter Pan’s Flight, and Winnie the Pooh.
The downsides of this event are the limited time and early start. You only have 75 minutes before the masses storm the gates. The breakfast does last until 10 a.m, so the time is just for attractions and photos. It’s a lot for a family to spend given the time, but it’s not an outlandish amount given the costs of a Disney trip. Reviews have also been positive about this one.
Despite my interest in certain offerings, I’m still concerned about the upcharge trends. Disney seems willing to try almost anything to gain extra profits. There’s a way to build revenues while also providing value. The dartboard approach that we’ve seen with the cabanas, Express Transportation, and pricey special events makes me wonder what’s on the horizon. Disney can still do amazing things, but they’re also a little tone deaf about the perception they’re creating.
Looking at future trends, MaxPass is the one that concerns me the most. It’s fairly benign on the surface, but it’s the first indication that Disney will charge for FastPass. If the overall reaction is positive to the new service, who knows where they could go? We’ve seen with the cabanas how Disney will respond if there’s little interest in upcharge perks. It’s up to all of us to determine how far they go with each new service. Which path will we choose?