Don’t believe everything Disney tells you. If the company never misled, every menu item everywhere would actually be “yummy” or “tasty.” Each new attraction would be the first-of-its-kind somehow. All upcharge experiences would be “magical” and “enchanting.” We’d still have Maelstrom, Universe of Energy, and other attractions they indicated were not slated for reimagining “at this time” shortly before announcements to the contrary.
Disney is incredibly adept at corporate communications, masterfully employing wordsmithery to obfuscate or excite fans, as the case may be. A lot of this strikes me as condescending and cloying with too much feigned enthusiasm and corporatespeak, but fans seem to eat it up.
Nevertheless, the company always stays on the right side of the marketing puffery v. false advertising line. I think most of us recognize this for what it is, and don’t put too much weight in it. We parse press releases and social media posts from Disney for the substantive details, disregarding the colorful language, and taking subjective claims with a grain of salt.
The same is true when assessing corporate earnings calls or interviews with executives. SEC rules prohibit companies from fraudulent, false or misleading statements to investors. This prevents Disney or any other company from releasing reports with inaccurate data or the CFO, for example, from making incorrect claims that analysts might rely upon.
In other words, when Disney asserts that per guest spending is up by 40% as compared to 2019, this impressive number is materially accurate. That’s pretty black and white. Then there are grey areas. A claim that hotel occupancy numbers have increased might be technically correct, even though it’s predicated in part upon rooms being taken out of the active inventory. Then there are the wholly subjective statements, such as cutting portion sizes being good for guest waistlines.
These distinctions are more difficult, but many fans intuitively understand the difference between fraud, favorable framing, and subjective commentary. Even if you don’t brush up on SEC rules in your free time, you probably have the ability to differentiate all of these types of statements and weigh them accordingly.
For whatever reason, this often does not happen when it comes to Disney’s statements about attendance. Otherwise intelligent fans take the company at their word on this, believing that Disney truly intends to reduce crowding. Maybe it’s a matter of wanting to believe. We hope that, if we’re going to pay higher prices for tickets or whatever else, at least there’s upside for us. (I certainly want to believe this!) Yet, despite ample evidence to the contrary, many fans continue to believe Disney cares about crowding. They do not.
When it comes to taking Disney at its word regarding crowds and pricing, this has been happening for decades. Literally. Back in 2010, then-chairman of Parks & Resorts Jay Rasulo stated that Walt Disney World planned to “slowly wean our guests off discounting.” Rasulo and then-CEO Bob Iger talked about ending deep-discounting on countless earnings calls. They indicated that these extreme measures put in place by Disney to prop up attendance and occupancy during the height of the recession were no longer necessary.
That line was repeated ad nauseam by fans for years. Whenever the release of a special offer was a few weeks late by historical standards or a room-only discount was 5% worse than the previous year, fans made reference to this remark. That it was finally happening, for real this time. And then, like clockwork, Free Dining and 40% off rack rate deals would roll out a few days later.
As recently as 2018, we were still addressing this comment about weaning guests off discounts when discussing the future of Free Dining. (It turns out that our prediction that “Free Dining, as we know it today, probably won’t exist come 2020” was correct, but definitely not for the reasons we expected!)
Eventually, that goal was realized. Free Dining hasn’t been offered for the last two years…due to the Disney Dining Plan being temporarily unavailable. Resort discounts have also dropped off due to a mix of pent-up demand and more limited room inventory. Probably not quite what Rasulo and Iger had in mind when planning to wean guests off discounts a decade earlier!
Back in 2016, Walt Disney World adopted seasonal pricing on 1-day tickets. Although that was effectively a price increase by a different name, the company pitched it as positive for guests: “the demand for Disney Parks continues to grow, particularly during peak periods. At the same time, we have an unwavering commitment to exceeding the expectations of all our guests.
Disney spun this as providing maximum “flexibility” and “customizability” as guests could simply choose to visit on less expensive days (tell that to teachers or students!) and save. This pricing model was billed as a way to “help spread out visitation” more evenly throughout the year. This was now ~6 years ago, but more recent press releases and comments from Disney spokespeople strike the same familiar notes about date-based pricing for Genie+ and other price increases.
Prior to the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Bob Iger mused that “maybe I should just tweet ‘It’s opening!’ and that will be enough” during an earnings call, saying that marketing wouldn’t be necessary to draw attention to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, as it would be in “incredibly popular and in-demand” regardless.
When Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge debuted to low crowds in Disneyland and then again at Walt Disney World, Iger explained this away with a laundry-list of reasons as to why guest interest was low. Iger did, however, concede that “attendance was below what we would have hoped it would be” in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge during an earnings call.
Bob Chapek stuck to spin. He claimed that Disney was happy with the crowds and that was part of the plan. “The deep secret is that we don’t intend to have lines. If you build in enough capacity, the rides don’t go down and it operates at 99% efficiency, you shouldn’t have 10-hour lines…So, 10-hour lines are not a sign of success,” he said. “It should be seen as a sign of, frankly, failure.” (Note: Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance has never operated at 99% efficiency and had a 7-hour posted wait time 2 weeks ago.)
Since then, it’s been widely-rumored that Disney is contemplating changes (no, not turning it into Aladdin Land!) to make Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge more appealing. A version of the land slated for the Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris was also quietly cancelled. Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance has been an unequivocal success, but results are more mixed with the rest of the land. You can be the judge of its success v. spin–that’s not really the point of this post.
There is an old adage among attorneys: “If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts; if you have the law on your side, pound the law; if you have neither the facts nor the law, pound the table.” I’ve always liked that expression, as it can be applied to all facets of life. With its corporate communications, Disney is often pounding on the table.
The point, which is hopefully illustrated by all of the above, is that Disney emphasizes the things that make the company look good and more valuable to shareholders, while also attempting to spin those into positives for consumers. When every other metric was abysmal in mid to late 2020, Disney emphasized guest satisfaction and ‘intent-to-return’ metrics on corporate earnings calls. (As we’ve mentioned before, there’s a reason they stopped sharing that post-Genie!)
If per guest spending is up, it’s due to the strength of Disney’s brand and the premium experience being delivered. If hotel occupancy is up, it’s due to the unparalleled storytelling power of a Disney resort. If prices are going up, it’s due to a supposedly-benevolent desire to deliver an exemplary guest experience and reduce crowds.
“If ___, then [insert hollow corporate buzzwords suggesting a positive for shareholders and consumers].” It’s a pretty simple formula, and we see it used time and time again. If Disney’s Hollywood Studios were invaded by literal aliens tomorrow and they started eating everyone on Alien Swirling Saucers, Disney would proudly tout the 98% of visitors who were not consumed by creatures from outer space as a massive win. The underlying idea remains constant: everything Disney does is good…for you!
As for why we shouldn’t take Disney at its word that the company is doing us a favor with price increases in the name of reducing crowds, quite simply, because there is ample evidence to the contrary.
Across the board, Walt Disney World attendance increased almost every single year from 2007 to 2019. Cumulatively, the increase was by tens of millions of guests, with attendance at Magic Kingdom alone climbing from 16 million to nearly 21 million guests. Animal Kingdom did even better in percentage terms, jumping from 9.5 million to 14 million–with almost all of that coming post-Pandora World of Avatar. Disney’s Hollywood Studios was to have its own coming-out party in 2020 with the completion of expansions, but that didn’t materialize for obvious reasons. Still, its attendance was up by 2 million from 2007 to 2019. EPCOT was just under that.
If the goal was to cut crowds or redistribute attendance, Walt Disney World has proven itself spectacularly bad at that over the course of the last decade-plus!
As we’ve pointed out repeatedly, higher prices do not necessarily translate to lower attendance. There are certain times of year that experience higher demand for a number of reasons–school schedules, seasonal events, weather, etc. Teachers or families with school age children can’t switch their vacation from summer break to mid-September to take advantage of lower prices. That’s not a real solution that works with the schedules of this demographic of guests, which is Disney’s core audience. They will simply pay more to visit in June or July.
Charging incrementally higher prices for these times of year allows Walt Disney World to capitalize on and profit from that inherently higher demand. That’s the goal–not redistributing attendance or whatever the talking point might be. This is the reason spring break, summer vacation, and fall/winter holidays continue to see heavier attendance than any other time of year and have not leveled off with random dates in mid-January, early May, late August, etc. Increasing prices on that quasi-captive audience is simply savvy business or opportunism, depending upon your perspective.
With that said, there are other ways to reduce crowds while increasing attendance. One would be large scale expansions that increase capacity rather than redeveloping or reimagining existing attractions. (Which typically have the opposite effect–adding demand while keeping capacity flat.) Pandora, Galaxy’s Edge, and Toy Story Land are good examples of this. Even though some of those redeveloped existing real estate, they did so in a way that effectively increased capacity.
Magic Kingdom is the best example of insufficient expansion during that time. Although New Fantasyland was a huge addition, nothing has been added since 2014 despite attendance increasing by millions more guests. Still, there are other ways to reduce crowds while increasing attendance.
Beyond physical park expansion, another option is adding entertainment. This is something that can be done on a quicker timeline, with stage shows, atmospheric acts (“streetmosphere”), parades, nighttime spectaculars, all helping to absorb or redistribute attendance. This was one of the goals of Rivers of Light and the whole Animal Kingdom after dark initiative. We’ll also soon see it play out as Hollywood Studios suddenly becomes much busier the last few hours of the day once Fantasmic returns.
However, Walt Disney World has largely gone the other direction in the last several years. Even pre-closure, entertainment cuts were occurring with regularity even as attendance increased. At Disney’s Hollywood Studios alone, here’s a list of entertainment that will not be running this holiday season: Citizens of Hollywood, Jedi Training Academy, Jingle Bell Jingle BAM!, and Voyage of the Little Mermaid.
If someone complains of the high crowds once Fantasmic returns and cites them as “evidence” that prices need to increase more as the only solution, kindly offer that list as a counterpoint.
The other solution is extending park hours, which increases park capacity and reduces crowds. This occurs in effect because the average guest does not stay for the duration of the operating day, but rather, a subset of it. Most people are not commando tourists who can go from rope drop to park close regardless of hours. They’ll do about 8 hours of the day on average, arriving early or staying late. Extending hours decreases the overlap–and thus crowds in the process–and allows attendees to “redistribute” crowds in a natural way.
This is a time-tested solution, and precisely the reason why Magic Kingdom used to open at 7 am during peak season dates and stay open until midnight in the summer. Even then, Main Street was busy until 1 am, as plenty of people will stay out until 2 am or later unless the weather is prohibitively cold. It’s also why Magic Kingdom used to have Extra Magic Hours until 3 am (back when evening Extra Magic Hours were 3 hours long).
Summers during the Great Recession, park hours as a whole were longer (with the exceptions of Animal Kingdom and World Showcase). Both water parks were open daily until 8 pm. The “Summer Nightastic” celebration brought special fireworks to Magic Kingdom, and nightly performances (sometimes twice) of the Main Street Electrical Parade. Speaking of parades, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom each had daytime parades back then.
Now, attendance is significantly higher (by several millions of guests per year) and regular park hours have been reduced by several hours per day–most notably at Magic Kingdom. There’s also less entertainment due to the stage shows and atmospheric acts that have been cut, as well as the loss of 3 different parades.
All of that should undercut any arguments that Walt Disney World is serious about reducing crowds. In reality, Disney has little desire to reduce attendance; they want to “optimize” wait times, staffing, and pricing to improve margins. That’s precisely why the company has reduced hours and entertainment with ever-increasing attendance instead of adding more to help absorb crowds. It’s not that Disney is inept at cutting congestion–it’s that the actual goal is yield management, and they are incredibly efficient at that!
Ultimately, this isn’t passing judgment about Walt Disney World’s approach to attendance or anything else. It’s simply refuting the misconception that Disney is doing guests a favor with price increases by (supposedly) reducing demand, crowds, improving the guest experience, or whatever else they’ve claimed. The company’s actual focus is on revenue and profits, and the maximization thereof.
To that end, Walt Disney World is trying to thread the needle by incrementally increasing prices in an effort to keep demand relatively inelastic. In short, Disney wants both high crowds and higher prices. That much should be clear by now. (If not, just look around–have you seen crowds decrease since Disney adopted this supposed-strategy in 2016?!)
From a business perspective, it’s hard to fault Walt Disney World for not leaving money on the table. While we hate all of the price increases of the last 2-3 years, it’s also obvious that Disney has pricing power and no shortage of demand right now. Why wouldn’t they continue raising prices?!
Beyond that, complaints overlook the role of the consumer in all of this. If Walt Disney World is overpriced, consumers should vote with their wallets. The onus is on all of us, if we believe we’re not receiving commensurate value for money for a product or service, to not purchase it. Complaining about rising costs while continuing to pay them does not absolve us from collective culpability.
With all of that said, there’s a case to be made that Walt Disney World is inflicting long-term brand damage, eroding decades of goodwill, and running the risk of alienating lifelong fans. These are all points we’ve discussed repeatedly, wondering if there will be irreparable issues once the current pent-up demand has resolved itself.
There’s also the fundamental question of whether having fewer people–and by extension, children–experience rite of passage vacations to Walt Disney World is a bad thing. (I’d argue that it is and definitely should not be the company’s strategy–it’s clearly at odds with why Walt Disney got into the theme park business.)
However, that’s all beyond the scope of this post. This is simply intended to demonstrate why Walt Disney World is not actually interested in reducing crowds. Perhaps I’m wrong, and this time Disney is super-duper serious about reducing crowds. I guess we’ll find out when Thanksgiving rolls around and Walt Disney World is either jam-packed with people or on par with a random day in September!
What do you think about Disney’s supposed goal of reducing crowds? Do you agree with the company that price increases show an “unwavering commitment to exceeding the expectations of all our guests” or are they simply a way to increase per guest spending? Think there are better ways to improve guest satisfaction or addressing congestion than price increases? Any other considerations we failed to take into account or details we missed? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!