If you need an illustration of just how much some people love the Disney theme parks, look no further than the online reaction to Disney's latest price increases. Many fans lashed out at Disney over the higher prices for visits to the Walt Disney World and Disneyland parks, topping $100 a day for the first time. Yes, Disney continues to offer substantially lower per-day prices for multi-day tickets, but the overall trend remains higher and higher prices every year. And that's making fans angry and frustrated.
Which shows how much they care.
The worst reaction a company can elicit is silence. The opposite of love, the saying goes, is not anger. It's apathy. People are angry about Disney's continued price increase because they love going to the Disney theme parks and have expended considerable effort over the years to adjust their family budgets to make that happen.
With each price increase, however, Disney "moves the goalposts," and forces families whose incomes are not rising at the same rate as Disney theme park tickets to go back and find yet another place to cut to make their next Disney visit possible. Of course that's frustrating to people! No one likes to do the to work to figure out how to accomplish something, only to have someone else make a change that undoes all that work. That's a large part of the frustration behind Walt Disney World's MyMagic+ system, which forced many long-time fans to change their tried-and-true itineraries for visiting the parks. Throw another price increase on top of that, and no wonder that people are getting upset.
So what can Disney fans do?
One of the basic principles in consumer economics is the idea of substitution. The textbook cliche says that when beef gets too expensive, families start buying chicken for their dinner, instead. In theme parks, fans who feel that they can no longer afford a visit to the Walt Disney World Resort might instead substitute a visit to Universal, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, or some other park. Will that happen? Sure — plenty of Disney fans have visited those parks and maybe some more will join them in the near future. But many Disney fans won't be booking trips to other companies' theme parks. They'll just keep on complaining about the Disney price increases even while booking their next trip to Walt Disney World.
Loyalty. Disney has invested millions (billions?) of dollars in cultivating brand loyalty among its fans. With advertising and promotional campaigns that urge fans to show their "Disney Side," to feel the "magic," and to "wish upon a star," Disney seeks to create emotional connections between its fans and the company's parks that will lead those fans to believe that the Disney Parks provide a unique, personal experience for which there is no substitute. These fans will not — indeed, cannot — substitute visits to Universal, SeaWorld or Busch Gardens because they do not see those destinations as acceptable alternatives to a Disney vacation.
Of course, chicken isn't beef, either. But so long as people are willing to eat chicken for dinner, it remains a potential substitute for beef. That's why industry groups representing ranchers will pay for an advertising campaign to convince shoppers that they really want beef for dinner — not some cheaper alternative. And that's what Disney does with its theme parks. It looks to build customers' brand loyalty to the point where they will not consider a substitute.
If companies can pull this off, they'll reap millions (or more) in additional revenue as their customers lose their sensitivity to price increases. Companies can extract more and more and more money from their loyal customers, as those customers refuse to consider substituting other companies' lower-priced products.
This is why airlines offer frequent flyer miles and hotels, grocery stores, and other businesses offer similar loyalty programs. They want the lure of "free" trips, meals, and other rewards to keep you coming back to them, rather than having you shop around to find potentially lower prices elsewhere. Smart consumers go ahead and claim the credit they've earned by buying stuff from these businesses, but if you pass up a lower price elsewhere to chase a loyalty program reward... well, that reward is no longer "free," is it? You've paid a higher price than you needed to to get it.
At least with things such as frequent flyer programs, you might get a free (or very cheap) flight somewhere at some point. With Disney, you're not getting free stays or days, you're simply getting the intangible benefit of a visit to a place with which you're forged an emotional connection. While many fans treasure that, it's an amazing deal from Disney's perspective. It can keep raising prices, and its loyal, loving fans will keep buying. Even if they get angry for a while after a price increase, ultimately, those fans will keep finding ways to cut elsewhere, borrow the money, or give up other vacation days to ensure that the vacation they do take is spent with Disney.
Disney loses only when it raises prices to the point where fans can't cut elsewhere anymore, they've maxed out their credit cards and home equity loans, and they simply can't afford to visit Disney anymore. Even then, Disney can continue to raise prices so long as it can find new, wealthier fans to replace they ones it's priced away. (See, companies can substitute, too!) And with Disney marketing itself to the "one percenters" of Europe, central and South America, and Asia, it is finding enough wealthy tourists from outside the United States to continuing growing attendance at the Walt Disney Word and Disneyland Resorts for many years to come.
So here is your choice, if you are a Disney fan: You can either continue to look for ways to afford that Disney vacation, or you can substitute. Now, the worst thing a consumer can do is to spend money on something he or she doesn't really want. That's the epitome of waste. But there are other great vacation destinations out there. Many families with elementary-aged children actually prefer the Legoland theme parks to the more broadly-targeted Disney parks. If you love Epcot's World Showcase, you might try a visit to Williamsburg, Virginia, not just to enjoy the European-themed Busch Gardens park there, but also the historically-themed Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown Settlement parks nearby. Do some research, read about other parks, and try something different. You might find another destination you love, and, at the very least, you might save enough money to be able to afford better your next Disney trip, which you might appreciate more after having been away.
I love Walt Disney World. I visit when I can afford it, and will continue to visit in the future. But I also visit other destinations and shop for the best deals whenever I'm thinking about a vacation.
Look, big companies rarely offer loyalty to their customers by cutting their profits and executive pay to offer better prices and quality, so why should customers reflexively offer their valuable loyalty to big companies? To a big company, you're just business, regardless of what its publicity campaigns try to make you believe. Treat companies as they treat you. Don't hesitate to shop around.
No, you shouldn't spend money on something you don't really want. But you shouldn't allow your emotions to lure you into spending money you cannot afford to spend, either.
If you get to the point where a price increase — for anything, whether it's a Disney theme park vacation or something else — is making you mad, that is the point where you ought to ask yourself "is my loyalty to this company a luxury I can no longer afford?"
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