A year later, is Disney World's variable pricing strategy working?

October 8, 2019, 1:11 PM · One year ago this month, the Walt Disney World Resort introduced a new variable-pricing system for its multi-day theme park tickets. Disney for several years had been pricing its one-day tickets into one of three tiers, based upon expected attendance in the parks on those days. But the 2018 switch applied that model to all theme park tickets. Since then, there's been no easy answer to the question, "how much does it cost to buy a Walt Disney World ticket?"

Under this ticketing system, multi-day admissions are priced based upon the first day of your visit, and there are more than three pricing tiers. Ticket prices ranged from $44 a day on a 10-day, one-park-per-day ticket bought for the slowest times of the year up to $184 for a one-day Park Hopper ticket bought for the busy Christmas season.

Has this worked out for the resort? In Disney's most recent quarterly report, the company reported lower attendance at its US theme parks, including those at Walt Disney World. Still, Disney reported increased average per capita guest spending at its US parks during the period.

With so many factors affecting Disney attendance and revenue, it's hard to assign credit, or blame, to any single factor, including the resort's new pricing structure. But Disney implemented variable pricing on its theme park tickets because it wanted to "manage" attendance by encouraging visitors to move from traditionally crowded days to traditionally less-crowded ones. In Disney's ideal world, attendance would become constant 365 days of the year — balancing at a point each day where the parks are full but do not feel crowded, allowing all attractions to operate at capacity but without having to turn anyone away at the gate or pushing anyone to leave in frustration.

Disney changed its pricing system in part because it anticipated hordes of fans cramming the resort when Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge opened, and the resort needed new tools to manage that demand. But Galaxy's Edge did not open until the end of the summer, and even then did not open its biggest attraction. Many fans postponed their visits as a result, while others stayed away due to what some analysts suspect is a weakening economy, keeping fans from being able to afford what can be an expensive vacation.

And Disney's competition is selling against the complexity of Walt Disney World's pricing system, too. Universal Parks and Resorts chairman Tom Williams has cited the relative simplicity of Universal Orlando's ticket pricing as a selling point for Universal Orlando's theme parks. Even Disney CEO Bob Iger acknowledged that Universal Orlando's discounting cut into Walt Disney World's attendance this summer.

If Disney wanted its new pricing system to take some of the pressure off its busy summer operations, the combination of factors at play this summer meant that the new system worked too well in doing that. With attendance slipping, Walt Disney World introduced several limited-time discounts over the summer, hoping to boost attendance that it had previously tried to "manage."

So let's get back to the original question. Did Walt Disney World's variable pricing strategy for multi-day tickets work out for the resort? The discounting that the resort introduced this summer suggests that this system has not yet reached its final form. Disney still needs to tweak this complex system to produce the attendance patterns that it wants.

But does tweaking the system mean introducing more price points... or fewer? Which days need to go up in price and which ones need to come down? One year on, will we see price changes this month or will Disney make changes in February, which had become the traditional month for WDW ticket price increases?

So what do you think? Is there a problem with Disney World's ticket structure? And if there is, what is the problem? Is it complexity or just the overall price? Have Disney's pricing changes prompted you to make any changes in how, when, and where you book your theme park visits?

Replies (19)

October 8, 2019 at 2:21 PM

"Many fans postponed their visits as a result"

Do we really know that? I know some people delayed planning their visits because RotR was not opening until December, but I don't think guests had vacations booked for the fall that cancelled or postponed them because the marquee attraction was not going to be open. In fact, most people weren't expecting Galaxy's Edge to even be open this fall, so if you already had a vacation booked for September-November before Disney announced when Galaxy's Edge was open, RotR not being ready until December probably didn't change anything. In fact, most people were thrilled when they found out that not only were they able to take advantage of the traditional fall room discounts (and free DDP), but they got to see Galaxy's Edge as a bonus.

I think the WDW pricing structure adds unneeded complexity to the process, and essentially has become a revenue maximization tool for Disney. Most guests are not going to shift vacations because of a minimal difference in ticket prices. The variation in the per day price shown here ($44 for 10-day non-hopping off-peak versus $184 for 1-day peak hopper) is a bit of an exaggeration, and the reality is that moving your vacation from a peak period to off-peak is only going to save a family of 4 @$80/day on average (based on a 7-day ticket). Now, $80/day over a week-long vacation could go a long way for those budget-conscious travelers, but in the grand scheme of things, it's pretty small compared to other considerations like airfare, school schedules, time off allotments, weather, crowds, etc... I just don't think most guests have the ability or flexibility to move their vacations by months to save a few dollars on tickets. Maybe when you combine those lower ticket prices with savings on hotels, airfare, and other promotions, it can provide enough incentive to overcome other factors that influence vacation timing. I think WDW guests are getting smarter (I know, blasphemy), and have started to shift vacations to avoid the crowds. The cheaper ticket prices and other promotions help to soften the blow of having to take vacations at less advantageous times, but I think crowds are the driving factor.

Unfortunately, because guests are adjusting to the crowds, vacation timing is based on historical data, not real-time data, meaning that just because someone reported low crowds in September 2 years ago doesn't necessarily mean it will be quiet this September (ended up being surprisingly crowded, most likely attributed to Galaxy's Edge and discounts). This ends up creating a moving target, and why we're seeing such a wide fluctuation of crowds, especially during the fall as guests trying to avoid the old crushing summer crowds are encountering the same crowds they were trying to avoid in the fall.

As with so many aspects of the Disney experience, I think theme park ticket price is one of the last things guests consider when planning a WDW vacation. Disney has trained its guests to not expect discounts (or at least has a very predictable plan for when discounts are available), and so they accept whatever the price it is to get in during the day(s) they are able to spend at WDW.

October 8, 2019 at 2:21 PM

Yes, the new system worked for Disney. Attendance may be down, but profits are up, and that is Disney's number one priority.

I think the next step in this new model will be dynamic pricing of theme park tickets much like how airline and professional sports teams now sell tickets. Since a visitor now has to identify the date of their first park visit, Disney has a very good estimate how many people will be in a park on any given day or week, so ticket prices can be raised and lowered to either make people pay even more for crowded times or to steer guests toward less crowded times of the year.

October 8, 2019 at 2:37 PM

The prices are fine. But ban local residents getting absurd cheap annual passes. All they do is contribute to vast overcrowding, without contributing anything (be it hotels, dining, etc)

October 8, 2019 at 2:45 PM

My Silver annual pass is $39 a month with no down payment. If you don't like it, move to Florida, everyone else is.

October 8, 2019 at 3:46 PM

Russell, I absolutely did cancel my family's vacation due to ROTR not being open. We started the process to come in July but then it was announced that ROTR would be opening "later in the year" so we started changing everything to come down in the first week of December. Then finally they announced it would be (fingers crossed) opening in January and we completely cancelled the whole thing and decided to go to an all-inclusive in Mexico instead. I'm a second-generation theme park fanatic but I just can't see spending all that money to not get the full experience. I'm sure I can't be the only one...

October 8, 2019 at 4:04 PM

@Andrew ... same old line and complaint ... Yawn.

October 9, 2019 at 5:39 AM

I am a SoCal resident and I know from my own experience and talking to my friends that the price hikes at Disneyland has locked many middle income SoCal families from going to the parks, even for a day.

For example, if I wanted to take my 2 kids to Disneyland (1 park only) on a Saturday in October, that's $150 a person, so $450 just to get into the park! That right there is waaay out of my budget, and that doesn't even take into consideration food and drink, which are now astronomical in the park thanks to their recent price hikes. Oh, and let's not forget about parking @ $25 a car a day.

For the exact same day, I can prepurchase tickets for Knotts Berry Farm online for $53 a person. (Food is around $15/ meal - ouch - and parking is $20/car.) For those of us who are on a budget but want to treat their kids to a day of fun....well, I think you can see who would win my money.

And that's not all. Universal Hollywood usually offers 3-day tickets through Costco for around the same price as 1 day at Disney. The other parks in this area KNOW who their competition is and is using ticket prices to slowly pull people away from Disney's clutches.

Add in the fact that Disney keeps adding on "additional experiences" that cost not just extra, but LOTS of extra money.....you can tell who their target is now. A far cry from the days of Walt, who wanted to give ALL families a safe and fun place to play.

October 9, 2019 at 7:17 AM

I have noticed a definite downturn in the Orlando market since last October, a lot of people tell me they simply can't afford more than one, maybe two days at the Disney parks anymore. December was nowhere near as busy as we thought it would be and I won't even talk about this year so far. Friends who work at other companies tell me they have noticed the same thing and a lot of guests complain about all the price increases especially for MNSSHP and MVMCP, it's gotten unaffordable for a lot of families. I realize Disney is all about making money for the stockholders but I wonder if they have finally reached the tipping point for prices where people decide to go to other parks now. Universal ticket specials and Sea World/Busch Gardens discounts have resulted in a lot more sales of those tickets so far this year.

October 9, 2019 at 7:30 AM

My take on this is that Disney has done all it can to push people away.

First the dining plans that started up years ago made it necessary to plan dinning 6 months in advance. Plus the plan started the vast increase in dining prices so that Disney could justify the cost of the plan.

Fast Pass was a great idea when it was introduced, but Fast Pass Plus also requires planning months in advance. It has also increased the wait on standby lines considerably.

So, in my opinion, all these "improvements" have hurt the experience in the park, requiring advance planning and longer lines. Now add to that the vast price increases over the years.

Obviously, the parks are full of paying customers, so it must not make that much of a difference. However, I think we may be seeing the beginning of a tipping point. Disney might have overplayed their hand. I think a recession might do them in.

For me, if I want to go to Disney. I will go to one of their limited time night events. There are less people and you can just step onto many rides.

October 9, 2019 at 9:18 AM

The prices are fine
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manga 365manga.com

October 9, 2019 at 1:55 PM

There may be 2 different reasons at play in each coast. Disneyworld may be down one percent due to the European economy being very weak. Someone can chime in how the Brazilian economy has been the last year. It is NOT the American economy. Just the other day unemployment went down (again) to the lowest level since the 1960's. The American economy has had a greater wage gain for workers than has been seen since the 90's too. For the west coast, it is the larger increases in annual pass prices than they did for the east coast. Plus. Of the American states California has not enjoyed as much prosperity as most of the nation. Probably due to the oppressive regulatory environment of the calif gov't

October 9, 2019 at 2:53 PM

The American economy is absolutely a potential problem. The "boom" is being propped up nearly entirely by gains among the very wealthiest Americans, while wages for the large majority of workers (who would make up most of Disney's crowds) have stagnated since 2008. It makes sense that Disney is attempting to get more money from fewer heads, as there are fewer heads to actually get the money from.

October 9, 2019 at 3:18 PM

The Fed meeting notes suggest a lot of worry:

“Trade policy concerns continued to weigh on firms’ investment decision,” the Fed wrote, citing those tensions and a global economic slowdown as its reasons for cutting rates - albeit not by as much as Trump, a persistent critic of the Fed, had wanted.

But really you can pull almost any statistic or two out in isolation and say "its that".

October 10, 2019 at 7:36 AM

@chriswaffle - I could see that, but this article is specifically about the new admission pricing strategies for WDW, not Disneyland. I have heard of quite a few people who planned trips to DL near the end of 2019 and had to re-book, which based on rumors in the spring should have given plenty of time to allow for RotR to open (until Disney announced the January 2020 opening, I still had my fingers crossed that it would be open for our visit in late July/early August, but with a trip to WDW planned for late January, I was not upset when the attraction was not open in California - in fact, I was a bit happy since it would make our visit to Galaxy's Edge in Orlando unique and fresh with the new attraction). However, with Disney being definitive over the summer that RotR would not open in California until January 2020, it leaves any guests planning late 2019 trips to the resort missing out on the marquee attraction.

Guests who were planning trips to Galaxy's Edge at WDW were purely speculating if they booked fall trips early in the year, and they honestly should not have had any expectation for RotR to be open for an October or November trip. Certainly Disney dropped the ball in California (word is that the entire vehicle tracking system had to be torn out and redone, which is why the DHS version is able to open first since those components had not yet been installed when the flaw was discovered in California), but it simply wasn't an expectation in WDW, which is what this article is trying to highlight since the Florida resort took much more drastic measures towards true dynamic pricing than the California parks.

October 10, 2019 at 1:00 PM

@evanwinston and @chadH Simple basic economics dictates that as unemployment does down substantially, wages go up. If it goes down 1/2 percent nothing may happen. But. When it is down to historically low levels. As is from 2017 to now. Basically, once the tax cut went through the economy. It may now be as high as it would be because (if you remember) tons of workers
including Disney workers got large one time bonuses last year. Due to the great economic growth! Regarding the Fed they always, always cite a couple things to be concerned about, now matter how good the economy is. They do this because they don't want irrational exhuberance in the stock market. It's better to have a more even return over time.

October 11, 2019 at 8:25 AM

Galaxy's Edge was a disappointment. The big thing there is the shops and food. The Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run ride was good, but a big disappointment compared to what I expected.

The parks are covered with construction. Why would people want to visit Disney with all the construction going on? Why wait? More construction will be going on soon.

I used to visit Disney from Maryland (28 times for a week or more each time). Now I live in FL. I am surprised that during the week, I talk to more people from FL than any other place. Why? The annual passes do bring in a LOT of guests. And I still buy food there (high prices and all).

My friends in MD often say that they can have a lot of fun without paying Disney prices. So, I'd say that Disney has priced itself above the average intended guest's reach. But the guests I see there are great people. Maybe Disney has priced themselves at a good level. Even the local residents support Disney.

October 11, 2019 at 8:34 AM

Yes, planning ahead isn't much of an option any more. It's a requirement. That means that guests have to pick their fast pass rides 60 days in advance... and they don't even know what the rides are that they're picking. Dining reservations are another planning issue. People who have not been to Disney, don't know what to pick. Sure, they can research the various restaurants, but that requires time. Disney isn't the relaxing adventure that it used to be.

Without the fast pass planning, our daughter and her family went to Disney and saw that the line for Flight of Passage was 245 minutes. One big disappointment. She will be back, but how many people decide that Disney just isn't for them.

October 11, 2019 at 2:09 PM

At what point does all the planning, crowds, and cost add up to not being fun anymore? I just can't justify going to a US Disney Park anymore.

My wife and I just went to Universal Hollywood this past July for the first time in 20 years. It was so enjoyable to just kind of meander through the park without racing to any rides or having to pre plan our entire day. I felt like we were discovering new little places and locations all around the park. It was relaxing and fun.

Disney is just too much effort to visit these days. It doesn't feel like a vacation anymore. It feels like work.

October 11, 2019 at 3:50 PM

I agree Court E, it's hard to have fun at Disney these days compared to the way things used to be (lament of the old man).

But we're the ones that made Disney the way that it is today. Pretty much everything Disney does is either being reactive or proactive to our demands.

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