What on Earth is happening this summer at Disneyland?
I've lost count of the number of people who have asked, emailed, or messaged me that question over the past couple of weeks. With its new Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land, Disneyland braced itself for record-setting crowds by raising ticket and annual pass prices and remaking pathways around the park to both reduce the size and improve the flow of crowds.
But they never came.
Instead, Disneyland Resort visitors have been enjoying some of the shortest wait times in years. Increased capacity with the addition of a new ride and locations inside Galaxy's Edge have helped to dilute crowd levels, but attendance clearly appears to be down across the resort this summer. The observed decreases in wait times and crowd sizes throughout Disneyland and Disney California Adventure are simply too significant to pass off as the result of adding one new ride and a few food & beverage locations in Galaxy's Edge.
So why did this happen? Why did the biggest, most expensive expansion in the history of Disney's original theme park appear to lead to fewer people visiting?
First, I don't believe that anyone should be laying the blame for reduced crowds solely upon Galaxy's Edge. Even the land's harshest critics ought to agree that there's nothing so repulsive about this new Star Wars land that it would prevent people from visiting the rest of the parks that they so often filled before Galaxy's Edge opened. At most, Galaxy's Edge failed to entice enough people to overlook Disneyland's price increases and to come anyway... they way that Disneyland assumed many fans would do.
Last January, the Disneyland Resort raised one-day, one-park summer ticket prices by 10 percent, with annual pass prices that covered the summer season rising from 10 to 22 percent. That followed the resort last year implementing expanded blockout dates for Disneyland versus sister park California Adventure.
For years, Disneyland has been raising its ticket and annual price passes annually while attendance continued to rise at both parks. The market was telling Disneyland that it could keep raising ticket prices and people would keep coming to the parks. So if Disneyland wanted to use a price increase to limit the crowds flooding into what it expected to be its biggest hit in years (because, duh, it was its biggest and most expensive expansion ever, right?), then it needed to get super-aggressive with those price increases.
So Disneyland did... and apparently overshot its mark. Is that a rejection of Galaxy's Edge? Perhaps in part, but other factors may have contributed to this being the year that Disneyland's price increases finally drove down attendance.
Seen gas prices lately? Many stations in Southern California are charging more than four dollars a gallon now, with some flirting with five bucks for regular gas. Prices have been rising for the past two years nationwide, making it more expensive to drive to Disneyland (as well as other theme parks).
But gas prices were even higher four years ago, when attendance was booming at Disneyland. What's the difference now? Well, four years of Disneyland Resort price increases, for one reason. And escalating competition for another.
If you live in Los Angeles County, it probably costs you a lot less money and time to drive to Universal Studios Hollywood instead of Disneyland. And now with its Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal is much more competitive with Disneyland than it was years ago, when locals dismissed it simply as the place to go see the Studio Tour with friends or family from out of town.
To the south, families in San Diego County might find it more convenient just to stop with the kids at ever-expanding Legoland California rather than press on an hour north to Disneyland. Even in Orange County, Knott's Berry Farm has been keeping the pressure on Disneyland, with value pricing and special events to accommodate fans who feel like they can't afford the Disneyland parks any longer.
Across the region, California's tourist destinations are feeling a slowdown in visitors from China, who had been flooding the U.S. west coast with cash in recent years. That slowdown also affects the local real estate market, which has been bubbling up on Chinese money, too. If you've been using a home equity line of credit to pay for that Disneyland AP (which is a stupid, stupid thing to do financially, IMHO), you might be finding that your available credit isn't there anymore to keep making those payments, as home prices stop climbing. But those escalating home values did push up rents across the region, squeezing millions of local consumers who don't own their homes.
With less cash to spend, thanks to housing and transportation expenses and more competition in the market, Disneyland now faces the squeeze that it had managed to escape for so long. Look, people in Southern California still love Disneyland. But ticket prices over $100 a day and annual pass prices pushing $1,000 strain that relationship. Too many fans think it's just not worth the hassle to make the trip at those prices. Not when so many of those fans can enjoy visiting a closer park for less money.
Disneyland still has its legions of fans holding $399 SoCal Select annual passes standing by, ready to flood the parks when their summer blockout lifts September 3. But they feel the same pressures on their family budget, so Disneyland's current $99 one-day Park Hopper tickets for APs are not enticing them to flood the park during the summer as well.
And that, ultimately, falls in part on Galaxy's Edge. Earlier this year, I wrote two contrasting posts about the project: Why Disney's Star Wars land will be the biggest theme park hit ever and Why Disney's Star Wars land won't be the big hit people expect. Now that the land is open, I am hearing more complaints about the lack of original characters, unfamiliar world building, and frustrating interactivity than I am hearing praise for the land's build quality, opportunities for interactivity, and opening up of the Star Wars universe.
Ultimately, it seems to me, that most people like Galaxy's Edge but too few love it — at least not enough of them love it to create the critical mass of fans reaction that drives people to say, "to heck with the cost" and plan a visit.
So what is it? I'm throwing this debate over to you.Tweet