Disney fans say fees and rising prices are taking the ‘magic’ out of parks

Even though his 2-year-old is young enough for free admission, Day said, the cost of tickets for three days would amount to $1,455 if his family wanted to visit multiple parks in one day. A hotel on the sprawling Walt Disney World Resort around Orlando would set them back at least $500 a night. In all, his estimates placed the trip between $4,000 and $5,000, with the family driving from Bowling Green, Ky. — an “incredible investment,” he said in an email.

“I understand inflation and all of those things. I understand cost increases,” he said. “I always had the impression that Disney was a family-vacation destination, and that impression is why I was surprised to see how expensive it truly was — and how out of reach it is for most American families.”

Complaints about the price of a Disney vacation may sound like a tale as old as time. But as masses return to the world’s most popular theme parks following pandemic closures, they are finding fees attached to perks that used to be free. And some of the most frustrated fans are voicing new levels of disenchantment.

“It’s really unprecedented,” said Len Testa, president of the theme-park trip-planning site Touring Plans and co-author of the Unofficial Guides to Walt Disney World and Disneyland. “We haven’t seen this sort of anger about price hikes in — we can’t remember the last time something like this caused this much anger from Disney fans.”

Robert Niles, founder and editor of Theme Park Insider, said in an email that many fans are in a worse financial position than they were before the pandemic, “so every Disney price increase hurts even more.”

Niles said the pandemic-era requirement for advance reservations has also been frustrating for guests who hold annual passes but might not be able to find a spot when they want to go.

“That difference makes a Disney pass feel like much less of a value,” he wrote.

At a time when inflation reached a 40-year high, the entertainment giant just launched its interactive two-night Star Wars experience, which starts at $5,300 for a family of three.

The company has raised prices for some multiday theme-park tickets on both coasts, according to media reports, and it increased the cost of entry for all but the least busy days in California. A site devoted to Disney dining, the Disney Food Blog, has tracked hundreds of increases at parks and hotels at the Florida resort.

According to data Testa compiled from archived price-tracking sites and guidebooks, the nightly price of the cheapest room at Disney World’s Pop Century Resort rose from $95 in 2013 to $168 this year. That $73 difference is a 77 percent increase, more than three times the rise in inflation over that span. The nightly rate at two other Disney World hotels — Port Orleans Riverside and Animal Kingdom Lodge — increased more than 60 percent since 2013.

At domestic parks, entry-level tickets — priced at $109 in Florida and $104 in California — haven’t increased since 2019, even if they are only available on limited, off-peak days. Historic data tracked by Testa shows that those $109 tickets were available on 47 days in 2019, compared to 22 days in the years since.

The parks are running specials with discounted tickets for Florida and Southern California residents. According to Disney, the company has spent more than $20 billion over the past several years to build new attractions and experiences at parks around the world.

“We continue to invest in creating attractions and services that wow our guests and enhance the experience, and we offer a wide range of options to match different budgets and interests,” Disney told The Washington Post in a statement.

While data from this past year isn’t available yet, Disney parks around the world saw more than 155 million visitors in 2019, according to an attendance estimate published by the Themed Entertainment Association. According to Disney, negative comments — many from vocal superfans — are far outnumbered by positive comments about the theme parks.

Testa doesn’t see that attendance falling away. He said he is not sure if the company has neared its price limit — or if it’s even clear where that limit is.

“They can continue to raise prices 5 to 10 percent a year for the foreseeable future and there are still enough American households making enough money to visit,” he said.

The danger, he said, is if public opinion turns against the company.

“I think Disney’s worst nightmare is if Walt Disney World isn’t considered an aspirational destination for most Americans, but if it’s instead viewed as Ibiza — something that rich people go to,” Testa said.

The new two-night Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser experience — which includes a themed hotel and food, role-playing adventures and a trip to the Star Wars section of Disney’s Hollywood Studios — starts at $4,800 for two people on weeknights in the slow late-summer season.

Citing 2010 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Testa said the Star Wars jaunt, which he recently took, costs “more than [what] 80 percent of Americans spend on vacation all year; it’s even higher than the top 20 percent.”

The era of line-skipping apps

For now, devotees continue to descend on Disney World, forcing parks to limit access on their busiest days to manage crowding. And when fans get past the gate, they have been spending more money than they did even before the pandemic.

On Disney’s first quarterly earnings call for the 2022 fiscal year, CEO Bob Chapek said the company’s domestic parks and resorts “achieved all-time revenue and operating income records despite the omicron surge.” Over the quarter, per-person spending was up more than 40 percent compared to the same period in 2019, chief financial officer Christine McCarthy said in a call on the company’s first quarter.

The company said the increase was driven by ticket revenue, higher hotel prices and more spending on food, drinks and merchandise.

One big contributor: last year’s addition of app-based ride reservations. One option, Genie Plus, allows people to tack on $15 in Florida or $20 in California to skip lines on multiple rides except the most popular attractions. Another feature lets guests pay a la carte for ‘individual Lightning Lanes’ to access shorter waits for those desired rides.

Chapek said during the first-quarter earnings call that more than a third of domestic park visitors bought line-skipping services. During the extraordinarily busy holiday stretch, more than half of guests paid for those add-ons.

“While we anticipated these products would be popular, we have been blown away by the reception,” he said.

Andrea Sylvester, 37, went to Disneyland last month with her family of four and spent about $1,100 for tickets, the line-skipping privilege, food and merchandise. She said the system was hard to use and kept her on her phone constantly — so much that she needed to charge her phone throughout the day.

Sylvester grew up in Florida and went to Disney every other year. She wanted the same experience for her children, 14 and 9. But the logistics specialist from Fort Worth said that won’t be the case.

“It will have to be an every-few-year experience because we cannot justify spending 1,100 dollars on a day and still not be able to see everything we hoped to,” she wrote in an email. She said the looks on her kids’ faces were “priceless” when they saw mascots dressed as their favorite characters, but higher costs mean “we will have to hold those memories a bit longer and experience them less in person.”

‘It’s not fun anymore’

Testa said he believes that the latest rash of discontent bubbled up after the company started charging for the formerly free FastPass and doing away with Magical Express, the free airport shuttle for hotel guests, at the beginning of the year.

Those changes can add up: a new shuttle similar to the free version costs $16 each way for every passenger older than 10 and $13.50 for children ages 3 to 9. For a family of four adding the FastPass replacement, the cost would amount to an additional $60 a day.

“Disney gave away FastPass for more than 20 years,” Testa said. “Now it’s individual Lightning Lane and Genie Plus, which is not only a complicated system, but two separate charges for what used to be free.”

“With all the price hikes and the money stuff, it’s just like I don’t even want to go back.”

— Marie Shumate

According to Disney, the service was designed based on guest feedback. A free version (Genie) creates itineraries and makes suggestions, while the upgrade (Genie Plus) lets users select an arrival window to skip the regular line. The company’s survey results show those who use the paid version have a better experience than those who don’t.

Marie Shumate, 47, of Rural Hall, N.C., started planning her January trip a year ago with free FastPasses in mind. Then the new system rolled out, and despite watching several vlogs, she had trouble figuring it out.

She and her husband paid to cut the line for the big-ticket Star Wars ride, Rise of the Resistance, and loved it. But they were less enthralled by the rest of the visit. Shumate, who works in transactions at a scrap yard, said she had to stay glued to her phone the whole time to keep track of information on the Disney app. The tickets and hotel stay at the Pop Century Resort, considered a value resort, cost nearly $2,000. Food was another $600.

“The magic’s gone; it’s not fun anymore,” she said. “Then with all the price hikes and the money stuff, it’s just like I don’t even want to go back.”

Theme park expert Scott Smith, a former Disney cast member who teaches classes on theme park management at the University of South Carolina, said parks are facing huge pent-up demand that is colliding with labor shortages; parks haven’t fully staffed back up after laying off employees earlier in the pandemic.

That combo, he said, hurts the value proposition of a trip to the parks. Customers might feel better about spending huge amounts of money for a Disney trip when everything goes well.

“But when you spend the most amount of money you’ve ever spent and you go and have a substandard experience worse than before — and this is multiplied by the fact that it’s so crowded — these are all things that kind of entice this … extreme dissatisfaction,” he said.

He suspects many loyal fans will continue to visit, even if they “scream and cry” about rising costs and changes at the parks. But, he said, everyday travelers might avoid the vacation option, especially as social media amplifies the displeasure from critics.

“I couldn’t imagine the average working-class family being able to afford it”

— Morgan Summers

Morgan Summers, 27, spent Saturday at Disneyland — and about $300 on top of her ticket, line-skipping and parking. In an email, she called it an “insane amount of money” for lunch, dinner, snacks, drinks, merchandise and a premium ride, but she said she had a great time.

Summers, who is preparing to move from Los Angeles to Texas, said she can afford the visit because she has a decent job and only has herself to support — but she said she couldn’t fathom the costs for a family, especially if they needed to travel and stay at a hotel.

“I was just so shocked,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine the average working-class family being able to afford it.”

In an interview with CNBC last month, Chapek, the Disney CEO, said demand is driving those prices.

“We have a fixed supply and we commit to our guests to give them the absolute best Disney experience no matter when they come,” he said. “One of the ways that we do that is by taking those guests that want to have a more bespoke, more personalized, more customized, more expensive day and using that essentially to keep the lower prices on … the second Tuesday in September.”

Disney isn’t the only pricey entertainment game in town: The cheapest one-day ticket to Universal’s domestic theme parks in Orlando and Hollywood start at $109, the same entry-level price for Disney’s Florida parks and slightly higher than the cheapest ticket in California. The Comcast-owned company has been charging parkgoers to skip the ride lines for years.

Matt Heitzmann, 49, started visiting Disney World as a kid growing up in New Orleans; he later worked for the company for 12 years, including at Disney World in Florida and Disneyland Paris.

But after a visit with his wife and three children early last year, the Louisville man said the family’s Disney days are done.

It’s not just the prices — though Heitzmann said the price of the deluxe hotel they splurged on felt like a “gut punch.” He said he feels like the company isn’t giving guests what they want, instead investing too much in technology that keeps people on their phones instead of delivering long-awaited rides on schedule.

Heitzmann also took issue with comments McCarthy made during an earnings call in November in response to a question about inflation. She said the company was considering reduced food portions, which she suggested could benefit people’s waistlines.

“You admitted you’re going to price-gouge us,” Heitzmann said. “On top of that, you kick us in the teeth.”

For the Heitzmann family, future vacations will include national parks, museums and historic sites, and eventual trips to Universal theme parks. Heitzmann said he wants his children, who are 11, 7 and 3, to have a learning experience on vacation — like the Epcot park in Florida was meant to provide when it opened.

“Now we see it as the world is our Epcot,” he said. “Let’s go see real bears that don’t sing and trees that don’t talk.”