Many Walt Disney World and Disneyland fans are ready to consign the Disney parks' advance reservation requirements to the Theme Park Hall of Shame. But many other parks around the world sell date-specific tickets with little or no complaint. With date-specific tickets, parks suffer no surprises at their front gates. They know exactly how many tickets are outstanding for any given date, and therefore how many remain available for sale to walk-up customers.
No one wants a situation where guests buy tickets and travel to a park, only to be denied admission because a park is already full. Date-specific tickets eliminate that possibility, allowing guests to plan their peak-season theme park vacations with confidence. Disney does not want to return to the days of closed gates at Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom and other parks. That's why we have a reservation system at these parks today.
This week, I am offering some suggestions as to what returning CEO Bob Iger can do to address vocal fans' criticism of how Disney's theme parks were being run under former CEO Bob Chapek. The first post in this short series was here: How Bob Iger Can Fix Disney's Broken Lightning Lanes.
So here's my proposed first step toward fixing Disney's current problems with advance theme park reservations - stop using that them. On its website and ticket sales material, Disney should use the term "date specific tickets" instead of the dreaded "R" word. There should be no extra step to make a reservation when buying Disney theme park tickets - selecting the date and park for their use should just one step in the buying process, on Disney's websites and apps and from Disney's authorized resellers. [Full disclosure: we partner with authorized resellers for Disneyland and Walt Disney World tickets.] Disney's local resident seasonal salute program tickets also ought to be sold as date-specific, as well.
Coupled with date-variable pricing, this ticket program would help to continue smoothing theme park attendance throughout the year, eliminating the nightmare days of the past when people could barely walk through over-stuffed parks, much less get on attractions without waiting hours for each.
Disney could eliminate some of the confusion and frustration with its current admission policies, however, by relaxing its rules on Park Hopping. I get that allowing unlimited Park Hopping undermines the park reservation system, since guests with Park Hoppers could immediately move over to another park after checking in at the park where they have a reservation. And maintaining reservations at the resort level instead of park by park creates too many opportunities for one park to be overloaded (*cough* Disneyland) while others remain nearly empty (*cough* California Adventure). So that's not a viable option.
But waiting until afternoon to park hop? That's unnecessary and punitive. Let's allow park hopping into a park starting two hours after it opens. If Disney is going to sell Park Hoppers - and it should and does limit the number of those sold each day - it needs to allow for the flow of people from their starting park into others. Two hours is enough time to entice rope-droppers into doing something fun at their starting park but probably not enough time to do everything they might wish to do there. That should better help distribute the flow of people from the starting park into others than the current system, which can see a rush of people moving between parks at 1pm (in California) and 2pm (in Florida).
These are the easy changes for Disney's new admission policies. Now let's get to the really tough one - what to do about annual passholders?
If only a small percentage of park visitors entered using annual passes (now called Magic Key passes at Disneyland), accommodating them wouldn't be a problem. Just account for how many passholders past user data suggests will be visiting on any given day when figuring out how many date-specific tickets the park can sell. If past data suggests that too many passholders want to visit on a popular date, then block out that date so the parks can accommodate the higher-spending daily ticket buyers.
Disney has sold far too many annual passes to get away with that, however - especially at the Disneyland Resort. Selling date specific daily tickets but allowing passholders unrestricted access to the parks undermines everything that a date-specific ticketing policy is supposed to accomplish. That leaves Disney with three primary choices:
The third option is Disney's current choice... and probably the least-bad option of the three even in the eyes of those complaining loudest about Disney at the moment. Which raises the question, are there other ways that Disney could implement a reservation (or, more accurately, an annual pass limitation) program that satisfies more of Disney's most loyal customers?
The pre-pandemic Disneyland Flex Pass annual pass that provided the model for Disney's current annual pass reservation system included dates when reservations were not necessary. Only on higher-attendance dates did Flex Pass holders need to make advance reservations to use their passes.
Requiring reservations on some dates but not others creates a marketing challenge for Disney. But loyal Disney theme park fans have gotten the message about reservations at this point. Releasing some dates as "reservations not required" now would be more likely welcomed as a positive step than attacked as a confusing and backward one. (Challenge me in the comments if you disagree, please.)
It might be easier for Disney to release more dates from reservation requirements if the company also chose to start selling park-specific annual passes. I suspect that many Orlando locals would be interested in buying an Epcot-only annual pass that either blocked out or required reservations only on the first and last week of each of the park's festivals, the two weeks around Christmas and New Year's, weeks including a US federal holiday, and runDisney weekends.
On the west coast, Disneyland likely could sell a bunch of parking-only annual passes. For $150 or so, you can park as many times as you want at Disneyland throughout the year. That might prove a popular addition to Magic Key passes that do not include parking, as well as for fans who now prefer to buy daily tickets but who want to visit the resort, including Downtown Disney, multiple times throughout the year.
Or how about just offering multi-day tickets that do not have to be finished within 14 days of first use? Some Disneyland fans would love to schedule several one-day visits throughout the year, but don't want to pay for either a Magic Key or single-day rates for each of those tickets.
Ultimately, Disney - or any other business - satisfies its customers when it allows them to buy what they want without forcing them into bundles that include unwanted items and services. If Disney offered some more granular options for multi-use passes, it could increase customer satisfaction by diverting those customers from current Magic Key or annual pass options that do not work well for them.
Before I wrap up, though, let's consider this. One of the too-often overlooked results of Disney's reservation requirement is the way that it has helped smooth attendance during the operating day, especially at the Disneyland Resort. Now that Magic Key holders need to make reservations to use their passes, far more of them are showing up in the mornings to get the full use of the days they have reserved than walk-in-anytime annual passholders did. Disneyland visitors no longer see the same after-school, after-work crush of annual passholders overcrowding the parks in the evenings as they so often did before the pandemic closed the parks and forced Disney to change its admission systems. That crush of visitors was the price paid by all for the "flexibility" whose loss some of fans now mourn.
Extending the day for Magic Key and Annual Passholders increases their average per capita in-park spend - a financial benefit that Disney will not want to surrender. Whatever Disney chooses to do with annual passes, it will want to continue to give those fans an incentive to show up early or a penalty for showing up late.
Finally, though, we need to address the issue of buying a Disneyland Magic Key or Walt Disney World Annual Pass. Right now, you can't do that. And that's a problem for Disney and the health of its relationship with fans. Disney could maintain an official wait list for passes to eliminate the frustrating scrum that Disneyland saw last week when it put Magic Key passes back on sale for less than a day. Perhaps if Disney offered some of the additional products I described above, that might eliminate some of the excess demand for passes, too.
Pricing alone cannot limit annual pass sales, especially at Disneyland. No matter the product, if you pass a certain price point, your customers believe that they also have bought a sense of entitlement along with the product or service itself. A business that wants to protect its customer service staff needs to minimize its number of such customers - and I fear that Disneyland especially has passed that point. Maybe it's just gotten to the point where Disney would be better off not selling top-end annual passes anymore and offering some variety of multi-use daily ticket packages or limited-use annual passes in their place.
Initial responses to my previous post in this series were outstanding, so I welcome and am looking forward to reading your thoughtful and well-reasoned responses here. How can Disney better manage demand for its theme parks with new admission systems?
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