Theme Park Insider

Reflections on overcrowding at Disneyland and Disney Corp's attitude towards the visitor experience

Edited: May 26, 2017, 7:10 AM · In response to comments by other Disneyland visitors or by Disney employees (from Robert's front page story on Disneyland shutting its gates on May 20th after hitting park capacity (http://www.themeparkinsider.com/flume/201705/5579/ ) who are essentially saying that people who visited on the weekend of May 19-21 should have done their homework researching when Grad Nights would take place or when the So Cal discount ticket promotion would expire, I have the following questions for theme park fans and/or readers of this site:

* At what point are casual visitors expected to have fairly sophisticated insider information (not readily available on the park's own website) in order not to have a terrible day because of overcrowding?

* Is the Disney corporation actively encouraging the park to be crowded throughout the former "slow periods" like winter and fall by use of variable ticket pricing that encourages cost-sensitive consumers to visit during traditionally less busy periods?

* Does the Disney corporation REALLY care about the visitor experience, or are they maximizing their profits while only paying lip service to the customer experience through advertising and marketing?

* When you are paying up to $150+ for a one-day park hopper (I concede most people will buy a multi-day ticket for a cheaper per day cost, but their total ticket price is also greater with a multiday ticket) as an out-of-town or once a year visitor, how much pressure do you feel to maximize your experience and DO as much as you can during your visit (E-ticket rides, headliner shows like parades and fireworks)? And how frustrated will you be if the park is packed to capacity and you can only manage 5 or 6 rides (not many E-tickets among them) during the entire day?

* If Disney offers a fabulous deal like 3 days for $150 (one park/day) or $190 (park hopper), how many local residents are going to jump at that chance to enjoy the fabled Disney magic at that low, low price?

* When the Disney park experience is so frenzied with pressure to maximize your fun because of the high cost of visiting AND the park is so crowded that you cannot possibly feel like your entertainment dollar was well spent, why do so many people feel compelled to keep visiting a Disney theme park? (My answer to this question is nostalgia from childhood or earlier generation's visits, the best advertising/marketing that a multibillion dollar entertainment conglomerate can buy, and a decreasingly unearned reputation as a premium brand of entertainment.)

My questions are partly based on a discussion item I submitted here in late 2015 called Matt Ouimet [Cedar Fair CEO and former Disneyland Resort president] On Having Fun in a (Disney) Theme Park: http://www.themeparkinsider.com/discussion/thread.cfm?page=867.

(BTW, I am not an employee of or financially connected to Knott's or Cedar Fair (or any other entertainment company in any way, except as a Knott's Season Pass holder and frequent visitor to Knott's since 2013.)


Thanks for allowing me this time on my soapbox. :)

Replies (20)

Edited: May 26, 2017, 6:56 AM · I think it's simple economics. Good consumers will seek good deals and poor consumers will miss out. As a good consumer, you should thank the bad consumers out there, because without them, companies would not offer deals, so as much as we complain about increased prices, limitations on previously unlimited options, the deals that do exist would not if no one payed the "rack rate".

I think the issue of over-crowding it 2-fold. Disney is trying to stay accessible to the masses (keeping prices as low as they can while still appealing to the middle and lower-middle class) while trying to manage crowds. The changes in AP rules over the past few years is a clear sign that the company is struggling to strike a balance that is becomingly increasingly difficult to maintain. It's actually somewhat similar to where Apple computer is now, except Disney came from a slightly different direction.

Apple always marketed itself as a premium brand, and priced their products that way. Now as they have become more mainstream, they have tried to balance their premium brand but still profit from mass market acceptance. I think most would agree that Apple has succeeded in that, and as a result have convinced customers to purchase $600+ cell phones every 2 years and $1,000+ tablets and computers every 3-5 years, which are premium prices over competitors. Even with their high prices, Apple still has inventory issues when new products are released because their products are in such high demand. Many people will buy virtually anything with the Apple logo on it regardless of how much more it costs compared to a similarly equipped device from a competitor.

Disney has reached the same point. However, Disney started by marketing to the masses, offering a value-priced vacation for the average American. A vacation to WDW or DL used to be on par with trips to other domestic tourist destinations and cruises. They built a loyal following based on their affordable approach to vacations. Now as their demand has increased, Disney has chosen to deliver their products at more premium prices. A vacation at WDW or DL is now more expensive than other tourist destinations (in some respects more expensive than a trip to most major American cities), but because of the loyalty Disney developed through the years with their value approach, they have developed a faction of former fans that no longer see Disney as a viable vacation alternative. Disney faced a choice after the tourism downturn following 9-11 (in addition to the "Great Recession") - they could continue to offer a value-priced vacation to the same guests that had been visiting for decades, offering little profit for growth and expansion, or try to bridge the gap to attract more affluent, richer guests looking for a premium vacation experience. Disney chose the later, and brought some of the former value-conscious customers along for the ride that still find ways to stretch their budget to afford a WDW/DL vacation every year or 2. That has significantly increased profits and allowed Disney to invest much more vigorously in the parks, also giving guests more reason to visit more frequently and having the perceived
"negative" affect of increasing attendance. In a way, Disney has become the Apple of the tourism industry - highly desirable, more expensive, and yet people find ways to afford it even if they really shouldn't buy it.

I doubt Bob Iger is complaining, and people can whine all they want (just as they do about Apple and their business tactics), but as long as guests keep lining up outside the parks hours before they open their gates (just like lines outside an Apple store on a launch day), Disney will continue their transition to the premium brand that they've now become.

May 26, 2017, 9:33 AM · Disney's long-term plan here is to transition lower-tier annual passholders to discounted multi-day, "off season" tickets, marketed to locals.

But Disney is struggling with finding the optimal price point that transitions visitor load from busy days to less-crowded ones... without making those formerly less-crowded days unbearably packed. That's what happened last weekend, and - trust me - Disney learned a lesson there.

What Disney really wants to eliminate is the weekday (especially Friday) after-work rush into the parks that fill them with low-spending annual passholders, pushing out higher-spending day guests who give up on the crowds and leave early. If you're going to buy a ticket to the parks, Disney wants you there all day - spending money throughout. Taking away SoCal APs and getting those people to buy multi-day tickets would accomplish that... if Disney can get the market to bite.

Edited: May 26, 2017, 10:17 AM · I think that's true when specifically looking at Disneyland Robert, but when looking at their operations as a whole, Disney appears to have the desire to become a premium/luxury brand. They've already accomplished it with their Disney Cruise Line, with prices that are 30-50% higher than comparable carriers, and appear to be trying to do the same with their theme parks.

The TV ads playing to the "value" of a Disney vacation (WDW or DL) don't get much airtime anymore as discounts become far more sparse and Disney recognizes that they're no longer a "value" destination. With DVC expansion and numerous luxury up-charges in the parks, it's clear Disney is slowly shifting their target market while dragging whatever lower income earners that can continue to come along. At some point within the next 10-20 years, I would expect that a WDW vacation will be a once in a lifetime trip for much of the lower middle class, not the once every 3-5 years vacation it's been for the past nearly 5 decades.

May 26, 2017, 12:18 PM · I wonder what would happen if Disney stopped selling season passes...?
May 27, 2017, 7:05 AM · I think in short,

Disneyland don't care! They are situated outside of the second largest city in the US and are shoehorned into the small spot that was set up for "failure".

Disneyland is a great resort and still a theme park experience worth taking, but....

Disneyland's weakness in my opinion is that they know they have a problem, but they can't do anything about it.

May 27, 2017, 9:40 AM · If crowds are causing such inherent, terrible guest experiences ...um, why are there crowds? Wouldn't that horrible experience keep guests away?
May 27, 2017, 9:44 AM · No one goes to Disneyland anymore. It's too crowded.
May 27, 2017, 11:05 AM · @ Douglas That sounded like something Groucho Marx would say...
Edited: May 27, 2017, 11:27 PM · At what point are casual visitors expected to have fairly sophisticated insider information in order not to have a terrible day because of overcrowding?

Personally, in addition to general crowd trends I would expect someone who is planning to visit to know about anything that is posted on the website. If it isn't posted there, they shouldn't have a need to know it, and it is crazy to expect a visitor to know every single event that could possibly affect their visit. However, that does come with a caveat...the more rigidly you decide to plan your day, the more research you need to do to get a realistic idea of what to expect.

Is the Disney corporation actively encouraging the park to be crowded throughout the former "slow periods" like winter and fall by use of variable ticket pricing that encourages cost-sensitive consumers to visit during traditionally less busy periods?

Disney would ideally like to have their parks at about 80% capacity 365 days per year. They want everyone to have an equal experience, and they want to maximize profit without having so many visitors that nobody has a good time. Yes, Disney has taken steps to discourage visiting during peak periods and encourage visiting during slower periods, but it is a balancing act that has yet to be perfected.

Does the Disney corporation REALLY care about the visitor experience, or are they maximizing their profits while only paying lip service to the customer experience through advertising and marketing?

Disney cares about the visitor experience, but primarily based on what they consider to be a satisfactory experience. If I recall correctly, Disney estimates the average visitor experiences 11 attractions in a full day visit, so their goal is to get as many visitors as possible while still ensuring 11 attractions are achievable without significant stress.

When you are paying up to $150+ for a one-day park hopper as an out-of-town or once a year visitor, how much pressure do you feel to maximize your experience and DO as much as you can during your visit? And how frustrated will you be if the park is packed to capacity and you can only manage 5 or 6 rides during the entire day?

My goal is to enjoy the park as much as I can, not do as much as I can. Yes, I would be frustrated if I didn't get on many attractions or was waiting 2+ hours for each, but in my experience if you want to get on a large number of attractions it is definitely possible to do so simply be arriving early and staying late. I generally average 20-25 attractions in a full day visit (except perhaps during holidays) and can usually avoid waiting over 45 minutes except at the most popular attractions.

If Disney offers a fabulous deal like 3 days for $150 (one park/day) or $190 (park hopper), how many local residents are going to jump at that chance to enjoy the fabled Disney magic at that low, low price?

The reason Disneyland offers such good deals is because sales are extremely high. A vast majority of So Cal residents who visit Disneyland in a year but do not have a pass are visiting on one of those tickets. I heard somewhere that during the promotion Disney sells more SoCal Resident Tickets than any other type of ticket and I wouldn't doubt that is true.

When the Disney park experience is so frenzied with pressure to maximize your fun because of the high cost of visiting AND the park is so crowded that you cannot possibly feel like your entertainment dollar was well spent, why do so many people feel compelled to keep visiting a Disney theme park?

Because I still enjoy visiting and I still feel like it is a good value. In my opinion, Disneyland is currently at the price where I find it justifiable to visit, but I probably would stop visiting if the price increased significantly. Not everyone will feel the same way, but the fact that attendance continues to increase says that far more people consider Disney to be a good value or a fun place to visit than find it a ripoff or a chore.

Edited: May 28, 2017, 4:40 AM · >>> I wonder what would happen if Disney stopped selling season passes...?

Typically you're annual passholder crowd is seen like the "locals" visiting a restaurant in a tourism dominated economy. You need to attract them and keep you happy because in the quieter times when the tourists are away they're the ones helping you to survive until the tourists come back.

But does DL or WDW ever actually get "quiet enough" to the point where its only locals keeping the doors open? Is DL/WDW a big enough attractor that it can forsake them? I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest it is. In which case as Out of Towners tend to spend more money (they need a hotel, and they're going to spend all day and be pretty free with their money) maybe its time to focus on their experience, even if it is at the expense of the "locals".

May 28, 2017, 9:09 AM · "Taking away SoCal APs and getting those people to buy multi-day tickets would accomplish that... if Disney can get the market to bite."

Locals need 4 or 5 day ticket book without the 14 day fuse that tourists buy. Locals can only visit on weekends and some weekday nights. What Disney should offer is Saturdays as an option so they don't have to only visit on Fridays and Sundays as a response to the blockout limitations and thus spread out the days of attendance and offer a rolling day where the passes expire.

May 30, 2017, 5:09 AM · AJ, I found your comments insightful as always. I was especially interested in this comment you made:

Disney cares about the visitor experience, but primarily based on what they consider to be a satisfactory experience. If I recall correctly, Disney estimates the average visitor experiences 11 attractions in a full day visit, so their goal is to get as many visitors as possible while still ensuring 11 attractions are achievable without significant stress.

What I take this to mean, if it is accurate, is that Disney believes that the optimal level of crowding involves the average visitor being able to ride 11 attractions during their visit for the day.

The logical next step in this thinking is that if the visitor is able to ride 18 attractions in a Saturday in May, then the park is not crowded enough for Disney to maximize profits, and they should do something to make the park attract more visitors for that day.

This is the Disney corporate mindset that makes me not want to go to Disneyland again for a long time unless I can 1) manage to take the kids out of school on a weekday during the school year that is not a school holiday for everyone else, 2) convince my wife to take a day off from work, 3) manage to get a day off from work myself, as well as 4) roll the dice and pick the right day for a pleasant not-too-crowded day at the park. It's just not worth it considering the Disney prices. Our Knott's or Universal passes look better and better every day.

Edited: May 30, 2017, 7:55 AM · As a person that was at Disneyworld ..opening +6..and a vendor guest at Epcot ..opening day..I would say that Disney is in my blood..I never had a day that was so congested that I could not find something to do or just take in the ambiance.I am good to go from around 9Am to the fireworks.. However, that being said, my last visit to the magic kingdom this April was horrific...no, not the crowds, but the friggin strollers...NOW there are triples. The first one that slammed my leg was being pushed by the toddler that it was designed to hold. That being said..my 40+ years of Disneyworld MK are going in my memory section. I can handle the crowds, I can handle the costs, but I cannot handle the inconsiderate parents and their suv strollers.. sorry off topic a bit ..
May 30, 2017, 11:29 PM · Spaceman, I don't think that is exactly right, but you are on the right track. From what I understand, 8-10 hours in a day is considered a full day. Therefore, if you are there for at least 10 hours and utilize Fastpass, you should be able to do at least 11 attractions. That doesn't mean you'll definitely do 11 (if you pick all E-tickets and arrive late, it might not be possible), but by using Fastpasses and the app effectively it shouldn't be difficult to accomplish this goal. Note that attractions include more than rides...shows and character encounters count as attractions too.

What I interpret the statement to mean is that until it becomes impossible for the average visitor to do 11 rides on an average day, Disney doesn't believe the park is too crowded to negatively affect their visitor numbers. If that becomes the case at some point in the future, then Disney will take more aggressive crowd control measures. Until then, they will be focusing on reducing the standard deviation to bring above average and below average days closer to the mean. Disney doesn't need to increase the mean, as it is pretty close to where they want it right now, they just need to decrease the variance. Keep in mind that profits drop if the park is too crowded as well.

As someone who is a on-and-off passholder to all of the major LA parks, I will also add this: In my experience, Knott's Berry Farm's passes do offer the best value. However, despite the addition of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Hollywood remains the worst value among the parks (even including Six Flags Magic Mountain). I find it easier to have a good time at Disneyland with 50,000 "friends" than to enjoy USH on a day with just 20,000, as the latter is absolutely horrible at handling crowds.

May 31, 2017, 12:12 PM · I have the perfect option for you, Spaceman! Get on a plane, fly to Hong Kong, and go to Disneyland. Having been a handful of times, I can guarantee you that unless you're there during Chinese New Year, you will wait no longer than 15 minutes for even the BEST rides - Iron Man, I can't vouch for.

It's the most leisurely theme park I have ever been to. Almost no crowds, and it still has some awesome stuff to do. And it's gorgeous with it being right on the bay, and with a mountain backdrop.

Okay okay. Not a perfect plan, since a "full day" is about 4 hours, and then you've done everything. Plus, it's as muggy - if not muggier, than Orlando. But if you want to go to Disneyland, not pay a lot for a ticket, and enjoy almost zero wait time for everything - Hong Kong is the place for you!

Edited: June 1, 2017, 1:13 PM · Actually, Gabriel, my family and I had a chance to go to Tokyo Disney Sea and Tokyo Disneyland last year, and while our day at TDL was pretty crowded, it never felt frantic and crazy the way that Disneyland (Anaheim) does.

I don't know if you chalk it up to the Japanese being more polite and acting less entitled, especially in crowded conditions, or the more open nature of the park's walkways. We were there on a Saturday in April (my daughter and I got to spend maybe 2 hours in the park).

We tried different popcorn flavors, walked through the World Bazaar, Fantasyland, Frontierland, and Adventureland. The only attraction we got to experience was Country Bears (relatively short wait), but it was nonetheless a pleasant experience walking around and seeing how the park was different from the Anaheim version. My wife and son, who entered 1 1/2 hours before us, waited over an hour for the Pooh Hunny Hunt ride, and walked around different parts of the park.

There was a huge crowd sitting on the ground inside the entrance to the hub waiting for the parade, and once the parade started it was quite crowded, but it was not a horribly crowded experience the way an average Saturday is in Anaheim.

(continued below)

June 1, 2017, 1:04 PM · (cont.) We spent the whole day previous at Tokyo Disney Sea, and that was an amazing experience, and all the nicer because it was not especially crowded, except toward the late afternoon and evening.

But even with the crowds later on, it never felt frantic and crazy. Most of the day was like a light day at Disneyland.

So to go back to your point about how Hong Kong Disneyland is such a better experience than Classic Disneyland, I'll raise you one castle and say that Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea are a better experience than Classic or Hong Kong (even though I've never been there) AND full day experiences.

I'm sure if there were a $150 transporter room service from outside Mickey and Friends to Tokyo, the Japan parks would be twice as crowded as California parks in a matter of hours.

June 1, 2017, 1:10 PM · Having said that, I really don't see why a park like Knott's Berry Farm doesn't get more love here. They don't have multimillion dollar new attractions, but what it does, it does so well.

The park does get crowded during the holidays and summer, but the visitor experience is so much better than the Big Cheese down the highway, especially when you don't have to justify the ticket price. If you live in driving distance, you can get a season pass for about $13 per visit if you go 6 times during the year.

June 7, 2017, 5:12 AM · The California theme park game is quite different than its Florida counterpart. None of the companies have a huge resort grounds. In other words, Universal, Disney, and Knotts are all much smaller parks. It is assumed that you are going to likely go to 2 of the 3.

That might also be why Disneyland doesn't care. There isn't enough guests that stay solely at Disneyland to try and figure out the crowds.

June 7, 2017, 7:36 PM · The problem with DL (and this is by memory), it is around 80 acres where MK is 120 acres, but DL has more attractions. This makes the crowds much more pronounced. Even so, I can accomplish more at DL with a touring plan and FP than I ever could at MK. For starters, nobody in SoCal does anything early. MK is now packed sunup to sundown. Getting around DL can be a challenge, and you can be trapped at times, but even on busy days, I can avoid waiting in lines for more than 45 minutes. You cannot do that anymore at MK.

I do not think they care about guest satisfaction like they used to. And I have noticed a shift in this mindset from Disney to Universal. The Universal parks have been much more proactive with satisfaction now, when their roles were switched. I think Disney's mindset now is that as long as people are there and spending money, they will not change anything.

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