How Bob Iger Can Fix Disney's Broken Reservation System

November 22, 2022, 4:43 PM · 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:

  1. jack the price of annual passes to the point where enough passholders cancel that their number falls to a manageable level,
  2. close the annual pass program (again, in California), or
  3. limit the use of annual passes by requiring passholders to reserve the dates upon which they will use their pass - limiting the number of reservations available to them on each date.

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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Replies (16)

November 22, 2022 at 6:36 PM

Wow ... you're really sticking it to us passholders aren't you Robert?.

What have you got against us?

You can still buy PixieDust passes at WDW. Other than the Incredipass, we all get blocked out when day ticket people are likely to "flood the park". This week for instance.

Reservations are easy to get, and I've never not been able to get one. The last thing WDW needs to do is get rid of that.

Local passholders rarely, if at all, spend all day at the parks. We drift in and out, an hour here, an hour there, and we leave. Out of state passholders for sure, but not locals.

Park hopping could start a little earlier, but again, sometimes I don't go into my first park until midday, so 2 is fine. While Disney continues to use the 2 timeslot VQ system, then 2pm its going to stay.

November 22, 2022 at 9:13 PM

I'm completely agree, Robert. Reservations are not a huge deal, but the 1:00/2:00 Park Hopping limitations have got to go!

November 22, 2022 at 9:22 PM

"Date specific tickets" is way better/easier than "reservations". Seems like a no-brainer to change it.

November 22, 2022 at 10:01 PM

I would be all for an Epcot-only pass option coming back. That's the only WDW park that's got plenty to do and isn't mega-stressful to hang out in.

November 22, 2022 at 10:33 PM

"What have you got against us?"

The issue is not with passholders individually, its the fact that there is such a huge volume of them that they pack the park and ruin the experience for tourists.

November 23, 2022 at 12:18 AM

Unlike Lightning Lanes, which I think could more or less be run the same way at both resorts, tickets are a different matter that need to be handled separately at each resort. So, here's my reasonable yet complex approach to fixing it...

Walt Disney World:

First off, I'd implement something I saw at most European theme parks by bundling admission with all on property stays. Guests staying at a Walt Disney World Resort Hotel would not need to make reservations, and instead they would be granted guaranteed access to the parks on every day of their stay. To vary this perk by hotel tier, value guests would only get access to one park per day, moderate would have park hopping capability, and deluxe would include waterpark admission as well as theme parks (guests could pay to upgrade their included tickets if desired). Not only would this make the planning process easier, but it would increase the value of on-property stays.

For guests who are not staying on property, they would be able to purchase one to five day tickets, all with a validity period of one week. One day guests would be required to reserve the date and park of their visit at time of purchase. For those purchasing multi-day tickets, it would not be necessary to reserve individual dates or parks, but they would have to reserve the period of validity at the time of ticket purchase as different times would have different prices.

Going forward, APs at WDW would be for Florida residents only, and would be designed primarily for casual visitors. For guests wishing to visit the parks in the morning, a date and park reservation would be required, and these would be extremely limited to maximize space for ticket holders. However, visiting in the afternoon (aka after park hopping hours) would not require a reservation, and guests could visit any park that was not at capacity for the day. Passes could be bought for a specific park or for all parks with or without hopping capability, and different tiers would have different blockout options.

What about frequent visitors from out of state? For these visitors, a new type of ticket would be created. Guests would purchase 10 or 20 visits in advance, then be free to use them at their convenience over a two year period. These tickets would have blockout dates and require reserving visit periods like multi-day tickets, but would not require picking a park or specific dates in advance. Depending on the blockout calendar and the number of days purchased, these tickets would be a 40-60% reduction in the base price of tickets. As with regular tickets, one park per day and park hopping options would exist.

For parking, all guests staying on property would have parking included for the length of their stay, and AP holders would have parking included with their pass. Everyone else must pay for parking each visit. Payment plans would continue to be available on APs and would be available on the set visit tickets with the caveat that guests could only use the number of visits that have already been paid for.

Disneyland:

Disneyland is actually a simpler puzzle to solve, but I have a feeling my solution would spark outrage if put into place. First off, regular tickets would remain pretty similar to what they are now, with 1, 2, 3, or 4 day tickets valid for 1, 3, 5, or 7 days, respectively. Instead of reserving exact visit dates, these tickets would require a start date to be selected as they would be priced accordingly. The park choice would also be eliminated, as the old policy of all day park hopping would return (for those who bought a hopper ticket, of course).

For everyone else, the answer would be set visit tickets. Gone would be the unrestricted APs of the past, and in their place would be tickets valid for 5, 10, 15, or 20 days over a 365 day period. For these tickets, guests would select a tier to determine their blockout calendar, then the tickets would be sold at a discount of 10-40% from the base rate for that ticket tier (more days means bigger discount). Reservations would not be required, but could be made to guarantee entry on busier days. Like with day tickets, these would come in both one park per day and park hopper options. The idea here would be that the set amount of visits would gear these tickets toward those who are going to visit the parks for a majority of the day and discourage using the parks as a hangout spot for just a few hours, plus it would reduce losses from super frequent visitors (those who really want more than 20 visits in a year would need to buy additional tickets).

A big concern at the Disneyland Resort among frequent visitors is parking charges. For those purchasing the set visit tickets, they would have the option to purchase parking for 50% of the current rate at the time they purchase the ticket. If they decline, they'll be required to pay for parking each time. Payment plans would be available on these tickets, but guests would only be allowed to use the number of days they'd paid off.

November 23, 2022 at 1:21 AM

Not my idea but I've read it suggested multiple times and I think it can work. Handle AP like a DVC contract. An AP will give you a number of points to use over the year and each day will cost a number of points according to a point chart. For example a Saturday during an holiday period will cost 100 points, a Wednesday in January 10 points. The system will auto balance. Do you want to burn you points during Thankgiving week? Or visit many times during the week year around? You're free to do so.
The number of points required in a year must be constant, so if they realise they've priced the week ends to low or to higher, they can increase/decrease them rebalanced with decreasing/increasing other days of the year. This way the purchase power of each AP will remain the same, it will just balance demand.

November 23, 2022 at 2:54 AM

I agree Epcot needs a different approach. The last time we planned to go to Disney (cancelled because of Covid) we had intended to spend at least a third of all our evenings in restaurants in Epcot, where we would arrive just in time for dinner. Looking at the same trip now that's impossible because of the park-hopper/reservations system unless I want to use that hopper to hop into Epcot every other day. It's not always about the rides and attractions...

November 23, 2022 at 6:40 AM

@the_man ... have you ever thought the tourist might ruin our experience, by packing the park in such huge volumes ... LOL :)

November 23, 2022 at 7:50 AM

I must say, it sounds like Passholders are getting a little less love here. I’ve been a Passholder for 10 years now. I’m also a DVC owner. I actually give Disney the same amount, if not a little more, each year (or over time if you want to look at it that way) than a lot of people. So to block out days for me would be unfair. I’ve paid to be able to walk through the gate of any park 365 days per year. I don’t obviously go everyday since I live out of state, but I do visit about every 6 to 8 weeks or so for a couple of days. To force me to purchase those multi day ticket things that have been suggested would actually cost me more. There are many DVC owners like myself who aren’t Florida residents but live in nearby states, are APs and own DVC that would agree.

November 23, 2022 at 9:45 AM

In my view, the reservation system provides benefits that Disney was not expecting by allowing them to balance staffing and performances to confirmed crowd levels. Gone were the days of Disney being caught off guard by unexpected crowds on a random weekday. It also allows Disney to rely more on full-time CMs and less on temps and overtime. However, because of the way the Park Pass system works, it becomes an unnecessary step for a lot of guests who are buying multi-day tickets and APs.

As others have noted, WDW and DL have very different audiences, so using the same system on both coasts doesn't make any sense. Honestly, it's never made any sense to me why SoCal residents get a discount on DL APs/Magic Keys. Yes, Disney needs to fill the park with locals on slower days, but SoCal residents are essentially incentivized to pack the parks every day of the year the way Magic Key is priced and administered. Why is it that the people who can visit the parks most frequently (i.e. derive the greatest value from the pass) are charged the least for Magic Keys? In reality, that should be the other way around, with the system more limiting for SoCal residents in when they can and cannot visit the parks to prevent overcrowding form those who are spending the least amount of money during their visits. I think that if SoCal residents are going to get a discount, their passes need to be different than a standard theme park annual pass.

I've previously suggested a points system (more like a time share) to essentially cap the number of visits guests can make with their pass with higher demand days costing more points than slower days - with the ability of pass holders to purchase a additional points that would still make a visit less than the cost of a single day admission for that given day. Certainly Disney can still sell an unlimited pass, but that needs to be cost prohibitive compared to a pass grounded in a points system (3-4 times more expensive). A lot of sports teams are moving to points-based season tickets to encourage more fans to buy partial plans that offer flexibility without having to commit to a full/half season ticket. When you throw dynamic pricing into the equation (as days approach capacity, the number of points needed to visit would exponentially increase), it would essentially force pass holders to confirm their visits further ahead of time, and allowing Disney to plan their staffing accordingly.

This would essentially eliminate the need for Park Pass because Magic Key/APs would be reserving their days ahead of time to use as few points as possible, while single and multi-day visitors would already be making reservations more or less when they buy their tickets since they have to be used within 14 days of the first planned park day that determines the price of the ticket.

Also the limitations on park hopping need to be eliminated. If Disney still cannot project individual park crowds for staffing, even with the recommendations above, then they shouldn't be allowed to profit from the park-hopping option.

November 23, 2022 at 10:10 AM

How about this?
1. Admit reality about Disneyland and Disney World resorts and double the admission prices to reflect the truth that these are premium experiences that aren't for everyone on a frequent basis.
2. Buy the Six Flags chain.
3. Sell off the true dogs of the group as well as the parks that don't make geographic sense (SFMM) because they're too close to the existing resorts.
4. Spend a few billion and add some dark rides, some Disney IP overlay to the existing rides, and provide lots of character meets and greets.
5. Call the modified parks "Disney Adventure Parks".
6. Raise the price of admission of the modified parks to at least double what Six Flags is currently charging to reflect the improved experience.

There's problems of course, but with enough money and the right approach, Disney could create an affordable Disney experience that could fit into the budgets of lower income patrons. And let's face it, the Disney World and Disneyland resorts are only going to be more expensive and more exclusive as time goes by, and this would be a great PR move by Disney to show that they want everybody to enjoy a Disney experience.

November 23, 2022 at 12:52 PM

Call me a cynic I don't think a huge corporation buying up its competition and doubling the prices is going to result in good PR.

Also its not like middle class and lower income people are going to stop wanting to go to WDW/DLR, if anything this would be viewed as a slap in the face.

November 23, 2022 at 5:37 PM

Is there anything in the corporate bylaws that prohibits hiring three ... er ... four CEOs named 'Bob" in a row?

November 25, 2022 at 11:12 AM

Robert, I have been a reader for over 10 years, and I don’t always agree with your perspectives, however this article is so well done and I truly, truly enjoyed reading it !

PS: Years back you did an article on ride capacity and how parks could reduce wait times if the park chose to run the attraction at its potential capacity. How about at possible update to that article, to see if it is still valid or an option for today’s Disney dilemma. Keep up the good work !

November 27, 2022 at 11:56 AM

I was a Disneyland Annual Passholder for years (and a Premier passholder for several individual years when I planned to go to the World on vacation) until Disney priced me out. It brings me no pleasure to say this, but it’s probably time for Disneyland’s program to be ended or severely curtailed. To me, that would mean at best eliminating all but the top tier of pass and the monthly payment plans, increasing the price even more significantly, and limiting the number of passes sold per year, with a waiting list being set up when the maximum number of passes is sold. At worst, I’d propose shutting down Disneyland’s program and replacing it with a new multi-day ticket option. For example, the program could be replaced with a points-based system as mentioned in the comments above, or Disney could offer multi-day passes with an extended expiration date (say 3 or 6 months).

I know Disney loves that tremendous source of revenue, and it’s fun to be able to pop in to the Park whenever the whim hits you, but Disney’s created a monster with the program, and I can’t see any way they could realistically get and keep it under control without ticking off a bunch of people, so they might as well upset everyone and pull the bandage off with one good yank.

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