Does Disneyland Need Annual Passes?

April 14, 2021, 4:02 PM · Disneyland is about to start selling tickets again. But one type of ticket you will not be able to buy starting tomorrow is an annual pass. The Disneyland Resort ended its annual pass program earlier this year, refunding passholders and promising a replacement program at some point in the future.

But does Disneyland actually need one?

Today is the anniversary of Kings Island's first use of season passes, in 1979. (That's the first example of their use in the theme park industry that I have found.) Disney started selling annual passes at the Walt Disney World Resort in 1982, with Disneyland introducing them two years later. Annual passes were designed to help fill the park during less-crowded days during the school year. By offering a year-round pass at a reasonable price, the parks could increase their revenue from all the additional food, drinks and merchandise that annual passholders would buy on their extra visits. It's the same principle as a loss-leader sale that gets people inside the door at a grocery or other retail store. Theme parks give away the gate to get money back inside.

It's a proven concept that has helped drive profits at many theme parks over the years. But what happens when there are no slow days when you need to give away the gate to keep driving food and souvenir sales? What happens when a park has enough full-price daily ticket buyers to keep the revenue coming? Does it need to offer annual passes anymore?

Disneyland was filled beyond a lot of guests' comfort on many days before the pandemic. With the parks now forced to operate at no more than 25 percent capacity under California's pandemic rules, Disneyland faced some hard choices to accommodate its annual passholders while still keeping space available for daily ticket purchases before it decided to pull the plug.

Fans love the value of annual and seasonal passes, but they can create a classic usage problem. The more that other people use the passes, the less value they have to you, by making the parks so crowded everyday that you no longer get as much enjoyment from visiting. That's what was happening at Disneyland. By ending the program, Disney gets a chance to reset and maybe establish a new program that could please its most devoted fans in a way that the original annual passes did a generation ago.

But Disneyland has another tool now that can help it fill the park - and drive revenue - on traditionally less-crowded days. The resort's new advance reservation system can drive fans from crowded days to less-crowded ones, even when capacity is not drastically limited by the state. With the pressure of the annual pass program now gone - not mention the addition of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge plus Project Stardust and all the other changes around the parks - I hope that Disneyland will take this opportunity to redefine the maximum reservation capacity for the parks at a level that would be comfortable for all visitors, even if that is less than the fire marshal's official capacity.

California is supposed to exit its tier system on June 15, potentially freeing Disneyland to admit more guests. But if Disney keeps its reservation system beyond then, while also holding off on the introduction of new annual passes or a membership program, it could collect some hard data on just how much a new pass or membership program is needed to keep revenue flowing at the parks. Continuing to require reservations could help shift some traffic from peak days while also preserving a comfortable experience for all and allowing to Disneyland to see just how much excess admission inventory it has on a daily basis before trying to fill that with a new pass program.

I suspect that years of admission data has given Disneyland some pretty strong ideas about what to do next with annual passes or memberships. But that data was collected while the AP program was running, and the flood of APs had become so bad that I believe it was actually discouraging daily ticket sales to non-AP potential visitors. It also will be interesting to see how many former passholders now will be willing to pay full price to visit the parks once they reopen.

How quickly Disneyland introduces a new pass or membership program might just tell us how well daily ticket sales are going as the parks return. If Disney moves swiftly to offer a new plan for repeat visitors, that might suggest that daily ticket sales are not bringing park attendance close to Disney's desired capacity. But if Disneyland holds off for a while - perhaps even until the end of the summer or beyond - that might suggest that Disneyland's ticket sales are doing quite well in filling the park without APs.

Update: We just got word that our travel partner will have Disneyland and Disney California Adventure theme park tickets on sale starting tomorrow. Just follow that link to order.

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Replies (11)

April 14, 2021 at 8:57 PM

No!

April 14, 2021 at 9:00 PM

No! Stop the AP madness!

April 14, 2021 at 10:29 PM

Disneyland is more of a local park than WDW. I’m sure Disneyland will introduce a new AP program within this year due to the current state regulations only allowing CA residents. As for what I would like in the new AP program, just keep it for SoCal residents only to keep the number of pass holders low. I never understood why people from Northern and Central California, Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon bought APs to the park(If it’s more than a 2-hour drive for a theme park, it’s not worth buying a season pass).

April 14, 2021 at 11:14 PM

I would love nothing more than to get rid of those AP passes.

@AgustinMacinas. I’m from Northern California and I have cousins who were season pass holders. They went 3 to 4 times a year. BUT THAT”S ALL THEY DID!!! They are exactly the type of people Disney want! I always felt bad for their kids being Disneynized at such an early age and never got a chance to experience other great theme parks.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the reason the park was always so packed was due to SoCal residents who were season pass holders? I thought I read somewhere on this site that over 50% of them were session pass holders?

April 14, 2021 at 11:44 PM

With So Cal residents making up approximately 80% of the Disneyland Resort's attendance, I don't think they can maintain their desired visitor level without some sort of annual pass or membership option as most locals aren't going to go for $150 a day. However, I don't think they need an unrestricted AP like they had before the pandemic, as I think that's really what got them into so much trouble in the first place. Instead, I'd like to see one (or both) of the following sorts of systems take their place:

-Multi-visit tickets that are good for an extended period. For example, replace the passes with a five visit ticket for $400 ($80 per visit), a ten visit ticket for $800 ($80 per visit), and a twenty visit ticket for $1400 ($70 per visit). This would allow for a reasonable number of visits at a reasonable price while still encouraging full day visitors over those dropping by for a few hours.

-A membership program where different levels entitle the guest to a different number of visits in a certain period. For example, $50 a month gets you two visits in a three month period ($600 per year, 8 visits per year at $75 each), $90 gets you four ($1080 per year, 16 visits per year at $67.50 each), etc. Like the Six Flags memberships, this would likely have a minimum of a one year commitment, then you could end it at any point. The advantage of this is it's a monthly charge even though the total cost is higher, which makes it much more affordable. However, by limiting visit frequency, monthly payments could be kept without resulting in the parks being overrun perpetually.

Regardless of what Disney decides to do, my guess is that they'll only sell tickets this summer, then start sales of the new pass program this fall. Not only will it be well timed for the holidays, but it's a good way to give FY2022 numbers a good boost right off the bat.

April 15, 2021 at 2:12 AM

@AJ

That’s some good ideas, I like that.

Though I read that the second Disneyland allowed monthly payments, it’s what caused the AP program to go crazy.

PS: I’m not trashing the people who were doing this option(For many, it was more affordable this way than paying up front).

April 15, 2021 at 2:18 AM

@Madvaz: That and sometimes the 3-Day SoCal ticket offers that were offered on a yearly basis. It was always insane when these ticket holders go on the last day of this promo due to it also one of the many Grad Night days(Worse decision Disneyland ever made was to have grad nights take place during the day with the normal operational hours).

April 15, 2021 at 5:09 AM

Agustin, while the monthly payments were a major contributing factor, it's more the type of passholder that they brought in that caused the problems. Disneyland's "ideal passholder" is someone who visits approximately once a month for a majority of a day, and many passholders do something along those lines. However, the inexpensive monthly payments (especially on the So Cal passes) led to locals who started treating the park as a hangout spot, and would visit weekly (or even more often) for just a couple hours, taking up space while bringing in no additional revenue. One of the big reasons for all the AP exclusives in recent years has been to get more revenue out of that type of visitor, but that has also created a problem of rabid fans and the resale market. Disneyland has been trying to rework their pass system for years to eliminate those who primarily visit in that manner, but it's a challenge as too much change too quickly could alienate a sizable chunk of their visitors. Fortunately, the pandemic gave them an out to significantly change things without as much negativity as would have likely resulted otherwise. Therefore, my thinking has always been the same...create a program that many of the "ideal passholders" would likely go for, but that would strongly discourage those who use the park more like a shopping mall.

Also, as for your comment about keeping it to SoCal residents, that'd maybe cut their passholder numbers by 10% at best, with the 10% cut among those who bring in the most revenue. That logic doesn't add up, plus from the guest perspective, it absolutely makes sense to buy a pass no matter where you are provided you'll visit enough over the course of the year to justify it. For example, I'm a Universal Orlando AP despite living across the country because if I do two trips within 12 months of each other it's much cheaper than getting a 2 day park-to-park each time (plus I can add a third or fourth day if I like at no additional cost). If someone is within a day's drive of Disneyland and enjoys visiting the place, it's perfectly reasonable to assume they'll be doing the same, particularly if they've got friends or relatives in the area.

Also, Madvaz, I think you might be confusing that with the fact that roughly 80% of Disneyland's visitors come from the region they define as SoCal (i.e. the zip codes that qualified for SoCal promotions/discounts). The resort had roughly a million passholders prior to the end of the program and Orange County alone has triple that population, not to mention the 10 million living in LA county (plus another 10 million or so in the surrounding counties combined).

April 15, 2021 at 9:23 AM

I think season passes/memberships are necessary for any business that encourages multiple return visits over a short period of time. Before the advent of monthly installments and modern membership programs, businesses used season passes as the primary budgeting tool as the number of passes sold would be used to fund improvements and determine the level of interest for the upcoming season. However, as the costs of passes are more frequently spread out over monthly installments or guests are sold memberships, using pass sales to fund improvements and set budgets is no longer feasible because revenue is collected throughout the year instead of all up front.

Nonetheless, the ability to visit multiple times and with few restrictions are key benefits to develop and maintain customer loyalty. Yes, Disneyland (and Disney as a whole) has massive brand loyalty, especially within its Parks Division, but much of that loyalty was created through AP programs. It's absolutely true that the Disneyland AP program got too good for its own britches, and far too many APs were sold each year that caused uncontrollable crowding and limited additional revenue generated from APs. The issue was that passes were too affordable, and did not adjust to changes in the ways the people were using their APs.

If I were to develop a new AP program for Disneyland, here is what I would do...

The first thing that needs to happen is that Disneyland needs to more tightly control nighttime pop-ins. The lowest level of AP/membership needs to explicitly prohibit use for any weekday park entry AFTER 3 PM. The only exception would be if an AP has a confirmed reservation at a Disney restaurant (including Downtown Disney). If necessary, Disney could allow the highest-priced APs/members to avoid this restriction, but I would envision these passes/memberships to be priced well over $1,500/person.

Eliminate free parking perks for the lowest AP/membership levels. Disney could go a couple of different ways here by either selling season parking as a separate add-on, or just not including parking except on top tier AP/memberships. Not only would this reduce the number of pop-ins, but it would further encourage guests to use public transit.

Eliminate the SoCal passes altogether. There should not be specific pass levels for SoCal residents. Instead, APs/members that can demonstrate that they live in the SoCal area would receive a discount on APs/memberships, just like it is in Florida. The fact that there were specific passes for SoCal residents never made any sense to me, but I do think it's important to give locals, who are more apt to use public transit and frequent local businesses, a discount on all pass levels.

The last thing I would do is to create a punch-card style tier of AP/membership. Instead of giving guests at the lowest tiers unlimited visits with blackout dates, these guests would instead have a specific number of visits either per month or per term/year. Those visits would be further restricted based on their tier, and would work like timeshare points where visiting on certain days would cost more "points" than others. Let's say the lowest level member receives 1,000 points per month that accumulate every month you maintain your membership, and you can carry up to 12,000 points at any time. A visit on a standard/non-holiday/non-summer weekday would cost 750 points, visiting on an off-season weekend or summer weekday would cost 1,000, visiting on lesser holiday weekend would cost 1,250, while visiting on a major holiday or holiday period would cost 1,500. Guests that pay their for their AP/membership up front would receive all their points up front (and perhaps a bonus). Disney could start by requiring reservations as they are now, but I think once guests get used to a points system (or other ways that limit their visits), making reservations probably won't be needed anymore to spread visits out to avoid the overcrowding that was happening before the pandemic. APs/members could also purchase additional points if they don't have enough on the day they want to visit. The cost of those additional points would vary depending upon what AP/membership tier you belong to (maybe $1/10 points for the lowest tier and $1/20 points at the highest tier). You could also purchase points for guest visits, which would essentially allow you to provide discounted single-day tickets for friends and family. APs/memberships at higher tiers would receive more points each month/term, and be allowed to carry more points over from year to year.

The last thing Disney could do would be to make more expensive tiers more attractive with non-park perks like free Disney+, studio tours, D23 memberships, etc... In-park perks (discounts, parking, MaxPass, PhotoPass, etc...) should be used only on the highest level passes (>$1,000/year).

April 15, 2021 at 12:20 PM

If single day tickets are at their current price, we need annual passes. If we don't have annual passes, single day tickets need to be cheaper.

April 15, 2021 at 1:27 PM

I think it's a fallacy that APs spend less than day visitors. Yes, the once in a while visitor spends the whole day and unloads his wallet in the restaurants and stores, but if the AP eats or buys only occasionally, it would add up over the course of the year. And I'm sure there are enough APs who go to Disneyland for dinner and buys the latest merchandise, like Minnie ears, popcorn buckets and spirit jerseys. Add to that the fact that many people probably don't take full advantage of their APs, so it's money in the bank for Disney, just like people who buy gift cards but forget to use them. I'm sure there are many reasons that Disney would want to have APs.

Despite what some people believe, before the pandemic there were still slow days, like weekdays from January to spring break. The most crowded times were the weekends, holidays and weekday evenings, when people go after work. The AP is an easy target to blame for overcrowding, but it's possible to mitigate the problem by requiring reservations, like the Flex Pass.

I think ideas like multi-visit season passes, memberships and point systems would be too complicated, I had the Flex Pass and it was great and reasonably priced. If you want to limit evening admissions, I would be ok with that. A parking pass is a necessity to me, shelling out $20-25 per visit would hurt. You could make the parking pass more expensive, that would be better than paying per visit. It's like the original tickets before the ticket books, Walt noticed that people grumbled when having to take out their wallet to pay for each ride, but the ticket books relieved them of that.

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