Walt Disney World has announced a trio of major changes–one of which is quite surprising–that will improve the guest experience and value for money in 2023. This post shares details of the additions and subtractions, potential motivations for the moves, and more.
The announcement starts by recapping the Walt Disney World 50th Anniversary celebration last year, which saw the debut of EPCOT’s newest groundbreaking attraction with Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind and returning favorites from Fantasmic to the Walt Disney World Railroad. (Three big wins from last year, right there!)
Walt Disney World also notes that 2023 brings even more to look forward to – from the triumphant return of the Happily Ever After fireworks to the opening date for TRON Lightcycle Run at Magic Kingdom, the dates of which were also announced today. Personally, I’d also add “removal of the Water Tacos and Stargate” to that list of highlights, but Disney chose Moana’s Journey of Water instead. Beyond the hideous Harmonious infrastructure departing in only a couple of months, more addition by subtraction is on the horizon at Walt Disney World…
According to Walt Disney World, these other updates are being made “to improve the guest experience and to let our fans know we are listening to their feedback, including Annual Passholders, who are some of our most loyal guests.” This is significant, and something we’ll circle back to in the commentary.
For now, here are the specifics about what’s changing in 2023 at Walt Disney World…
Complimentary Self-Parking Returning to Walt Disney World Resort Hotels
We’ll start with the big addition by subtraction change. Beginning tonight (January 10, 2023), overnight self-parking will once again be offered complimentary to guests staying at Walt Disney World Resort hotels.
According to the company, “this is a Disney difference many of you have asked us to bring back, and we’re happy to reintroduce it to make your vacation a little easier and more affordable – whether you’re road tripping across the country, renting a car or vacationing as a local Florida resident.”
As a reminder, Disney Resort hotel guests also continue to receive complimentary standard parking at Walt Disney World theme parks, daily early theme park entry (with valid admission and a park reservation) and complimentary on-site transportation options such as buses, monorails, and Disney Skyliner.
“Relaxed” Reservation Rules for APs After 2 pm
Beginning in the next few months, Walt Disney World Annual Passholders will be able to visit the theme parks after 2 pm without needing a park reservation, except on Saturdays and Sundays at Magic Kingdom.
Pass blockout dates will continue to apply like they do today. Unfortunately, Walt Disney World notes in this change that “the theme park reservation system remains important to manage attendance in our parks, especially on busier days.” As we’ve written repeatedly, we do not see park reservations going away for APs–even after they’re inevitably eliminated for everyone else.
With that said, Walt Disney World also realizes that Annual Passholders enjoy more spontaneous visits – and this change will make that possible. Passholders will also receive access to Disney PhotoPass lenses and one complimentary Cinderella Castle Mural of Memories experience (age restrictions apply). Visit Cinderella Castle Mural of Memories and Disney PhotoPass Lenses for details, restrictions and other information.
A start date for these offerings will be shared soon with Annual Passholders, as well as information about a new offering that is planned where you can create and share short Disney-themed video slideshows with favorite photos from your theme park visits.
On-Ride Photo Downloads Coming to Genie+
Beginning in the next few months, guests purchasing the Genie+ service will also receive digital downloads of their Disney PhotoPass attraction photos, taken in the park on the day of their purchase, at no additional charge. This is similar to the policy already in place at Disneyland, but only applicable to on-ride photos.
Attraction photos are taken while in the parks at more than a dozen of Walt Disney World’s most popular attractions including Space Mountain, Slinky Dog Dash, Test Track, Expedition Everest, and more. (Soon including, presumably, TRON Lightcycle Run!) An exact launch date will be announced at a later time.
Walt Disney World concluded the announcement with the following note:
We will keep listening to you and adapting as we focus on making the guest experience even better for more people who visit us here at The Most Magical Place on Earth.
That includes making planning easier for everyone. For example, we recently added the ability to modify Disney Genie+ attraction selections in the My Disney Experience app, began automatically making theme park reservations with the purchase of 1-day, 1-park specific tickets and made our dining reservation policy more flexible if you need to modify or cancel.
As we’ve shared before, we’re also committed to providing a wide range of options to visit, which is why we roll out special offers from time to time for Florida residents and other guests.
Before we delve into the commentary, here’s a similar message from Josh D’Amaro, Chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences & Product to Cast Members (edited for brevity):
Happy New Year everyone!
What an amazing year we had! There was so much to celebrate – a new cruise ship, Avengers Campus at Disneyland Paris, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind at Walt Disney World Resort, the announcement of Storyliving by Disney, award winning consumer products, books, and games and a ton more. So, I wanted to start off the new year by saying how PROUD and THANKFUL I am for each of you. You are an incredible team!
Not only did you introduce exciting new products and experiences to our guests, but you also navigated through a significant amount of change in terms of how we operate our business. These changes were centered on creating a better experience for our guests and building a future where we are constantly introducing new stories and experiences across the globe. Of course, change is never easy, and I want to express my gratitude to all of you for how you rose to the challenge and helped reshape our future.
As we step into this bright future it is important that we continuously evolve to help deliver the best guest experience possible. Many of you know that I’m in the parks fairly often … and I listen to you and to our guests about the things that are working … as well as the things that might need some change. And, as we enter this new year, I want you to be the first to hear about a few enhancements that we are going to be making – specifically ones that our guests have asked for and you’ve shared with me. And while this doesn’t address everyone’s feedback, these changes will increase flexibility and add value to our guests’ experience.
I’m excited about all of these changes and offers and want you to know that we are committed to listening, adapting, and staying relentlessly focused on making the guest experience at our Disney parks even better.
I believe there’s no other place like Disney and of course, nothing helps our guests connect with Disney like you do. And while it’s easy to celebrate the products we make, the moments we create, and the experiences we provide … I think it’s important that we recognize all of YOU who make it happen.
Thank you for all that you do. Here’s to an amazing 2023! Cheers! Josh
Even early in his return, it was rumored that Iger had plans to undo Chapek’s changes, with a focus on building on the company’s rich history and legacy of “creativity, innovation, and inspiration.“ You also might recall that Iger sent a holiday letter to fans, indicating his intent to exceed our “highest expectations” in 2023. Some of you might’ve viewed that as a hollow corporate end-of-year newsletter, one that talks a good game but is meaningless without action to support it. Well, today is that action!
With that said, we’ve gotta admit to being surprised by the specifics of this news. Our “wish list” of positive changes that Iger could realistically make (see 7 Good Changes CEO Bob Iger Could Make to “Fix” Walt Disney World) included only 1.5 of these (we’re going to take “half-credit” for calling to improve Genie, which this technically accomplishes, albeit via alternative means).
The biggest surprise here is the return of free parking for on-site resort guests. We hate the charge for parking, and thought it was a bad decision that diminished the differentiation between Disney and its real-world counterparts. Nevertheless, it did not make our wish list for a few reasons–all of which boiling down to our thinking that it was “unrealistic” to undo.
First, the fee was implemented under the prior Iger regime, so it seemed highly unlikely that it would be eliminated. Second, it was a ‘free’ revenue stream and it’s difficult to give that up once companies get a taste of it. Finally and most importantly, resort occupancy has been incredibly high for the last couple of years, so there really was no incentive to do this.
At the time, that was the most controversial change we had seen from Walt Disney World. It has probably since been surpassed by reactions to the end of Disney’s Magical Express and replacing free FastPass with the paid Genie+ service and Individual Lightning Lanes. Back in 2018, the backlash was relatively unprecedented. I was honestly surprised that Disney didn’t roll back the decision right away (but it was pretty clearly here to stay when parking prices increased in early 2020).
We’ve documented a lot of price increases at Walt Disney World over the years. Unsurprisingly, there has never been an overall positive reaction to any of them, but that’s sort of the nature of the beast. Few people will happily pay more for the same product they previously purchased. Sure, there are the ardent Disney brand evangelists who perform mental gymnastics to justify the increases to themselves (and others). By and large, there’s always at least some degree of grumbling about price increases.
Usually, what happens is that once people get the complaining out of their systems, they go about their vacation habits as normal. Some people are unfortunately priced out, but in our (admittedly anecdotal) observations, they represent a minority of guests. And if attendance trends are any indication, those who are priced out are replaced by (more) new guests.
The reaction to the resort parking fee felt different. It was more emotional than normal. My overarching assessment (again, anecdotal) of the feedback is that Walt Disney World fans are generally comfortable paying more for a premium experience, but are fed up with being nickel and dimed.
It struck me as a tipping point for many long-time fans, and I think the grassroots ‘campaigns’ on social media and crowd-sourced review sites reflected this. Walt Disney World was inundated with a barrage of 1-star reviews on Facebook, TripAdvisor, and elsewhere, with many pointing to this fee. It seemed like a bridge too far for a lot of fans, and I wondered whether the revenue was truly worth all of the outrage and damage to the brand’s reputation.
While fans often talk a big game about being “done with Disney,” I know a few who actually followed through and either quit visiting or quit staying on-site as a result of the parking fee. Again, entirely anecdotal, but I think that did a lot of brand and goodwill damage. Until now, it didn’t really seem like Disney cared. That the revenue stream was more valuable than the lost business, which, it appears, was replaced with different customers who happily filled the rooms and paid the fees.
As for what’s causing the rollback of the resort parking fee…my guess is that it’s coming direct from the top–either a personal initiative of Bob Iger or Josh D’Amaro. Really the only plausible explanation is that the parking fee was a pet “project” of Bob Chapek, who was known for creating new revenue streams where none previously existed.
Chapek was chairman of Parks & Resorts when the parking fee was introduced, so that would check out. Obviously, Bob Iger would’ve outranked Chapek then and could’ve overruled him, but perhaps he didn’t give it his due diligence–or any consideration at all. When it comes to a conglomerate like the Walt Disney Company, hotel parking is presumably below the CEO’s pay grade.
It’s also possible that guest satisfaction scores have been negative, specifically pointing to parking fees, causing the company to reevaluate a range of its most unpopular recent decisions. From the outside, it’s really difficult to know how the decision to “undo” hotel parking fees went down.
It’s also (arguably) unfair to simply blame everything bad on Chapek and good on Iger/D’Amaro. Honestly, though, I’m not particularly concerned with being fair to Bob Chapek. Especially in this case, when the bad change was made under him, and the good one is coming shortly after he departed the company.
Some Walt Disney World fans might be inclined to attribute this to decreasing hotel occupancy. That’s definitely plausible, but I highly doubt it. We’ve been incessantly looking forward to a fizzling of pent-up demand and a normalization of discounting and everything else at Walt Disney World, but that is only just getting started.
Even with more aggressive discounting starting last October and accelerating further this week, Walt Disney World is still coming down from historical highs in resort occupancy and per guest spending, coupled with unprecedentedly low discounts. Special offers are becoming more abundant, but from a baseline over the last 2 years of very bad.
Keep in mind that the parking fee was implemented back in 2018. That was prior to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and other major additions debuted–almost an eternity ago by Walt Disney World standards. Occupancy and per guest spending were nowhere near as strong as they are today–or will be even under a “worst case scenario” (for Disney, not fans) for the remainder of 2023.
In short, the reversal of the resort parking fee decision cannot be driven by fears over a slowdown in the economy, recession, or Disney’s business being on the decline. Whatever concerns might exist there going forward, Disney is not going from unprecedented success to panic. The elimination of resort parking fees almost certainly must be a mandate from on-high, and likely one driven by guest satisfaction surveys.
To the latter point, we’ve mentioned repeatedly in the last ~10 months that guest satisfaction dropped precipitously around October 2021. Iger is probably aware of that by now. D’Amaro definitely is. (Once again, there’s a reason we’ve repeatedly expressed confidence in both D’Amaro and Jeff Vahle, the president of Walt Disney World.)
As previously pointed out, falling guest satisfaction scores have been a major area of concern for leaders on-the-ground in Florida. It might be difficult to believe, but there are leaders who care and are pushing for positive changes Walt Disney World. For most of the last two years, their hands have been tied due to initiatives and expectations from above.
From my perspective, today’s news reflects a foundational paradigm shift. No, undoing all of the unpopular changes won’t happen immediately–or at all. But based on the wording of this announcement, it’s pretty clear that tough decisions are (finally!) being made with guest satisfaction in mind. Unlike some prior feel-good news stories, this one is actually backed up by substance.
Suffice to say, it’s increasingly obvious that both Josh D’Amaro and Bob Iger realize fan goodwill is frayed and that they need to undo the damage done by the Chapek regime. It’s a small start, but it’s a major move in the right direction–and a breath of fresh air. As exciting as the TRON Lightcycle Run and Happily Ever After debut dates are, we think this is the most consequential news of the day. Kudos to everyone who made all of this happen.
What do you think of these 3 big changes to the guest experience at Walt Disney World? Happy about these moves or do they not impact you? Surprised that Disney is rolling back the resort parking fee, adding more value to Genie+ or eliminating park reservations for APs after 2 pm? To whom or what do you attribute these positive decisions? Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? 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!