‘A park of have and have nots’: Disney World’s prices rise as attendance soars

Katie Rice
Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — By the end of her family’s weeklong trip to Walt Disney World, Danielle Perry and her husband will have spent $10,000.

That bill includes travel from Brighton, Michigan, for the family of five, a stay at the Saratoga Springs Resort and skip-the-line access with Genie+ and Lightning Lane, 27-year-old Perry said.

The family planned the trip for two years and watched prices rise. Still, they wanted to go all out for their children, ages 5, 3 and 1.

“If we come again, then it’s probably not going to be for another three to five years, so we figured, ‘Go big or go home,’” she said.

Danielle Perry and her family ride the ferry into Disney's Magic Kingdom on Feb. 9, 2022.

Experts say inflation and higher operating costs are helping to force entertainment prices up and not just at theme parks.

But some Disney World fans are questioning the value as some benefits have disappeared during the pandemic. Disney has reported near-record revenue as spending in its parks climbs and pre-COVID attendance rebounds.

John and Diane Sensenig, who are over 65 and have been annual passholders for more than 20 years, say their passes have lost value since it’s “considerably” more expensive to visit now. They said the company is giving priority to occasional visitors, who tend to spend a lot over brief trips, over passholders, who pay a premium for regular access but still shell out.

“A friend of ours, who actually works for Disney, said it has become ‘a park of have and have nots,’” said Diane Sensenig, of Reading, Pennsylvania. “If you want to get value out of the park, you have to pay, pay and pay.”

Disney spokesman Avery Maehrer said the company offers visitors an array of price points while it expands the offerings at its parks.

“We continue to invest in creating attractions and services that wow our guests and enhance the experience, with a wide range of options to match different budgets and interests – giving them more choice, more flexibility and more convenience,” he said in a statement.

Guests wait in line for the daily opening at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, on Jan. 28, 2022.

Tickets, passes more expensive

Disney is not alone in raising prices. Other entertainment, such as concert and theater tickets, are also increasing, experts said.

It isn’t the only theme park becoming more expensive, either, though it is generally the highest-priced in the industry, said Carissa Baker, a University of Central Florida assistant professor of theme park and attraction management.

Universal Orlando has upped the cost of a one-day, one-park ticket in recent years, including an $11 increase in 2019 and a $4 increase in early 2020. Many of its past price hikes apparently were in response to Disney’s.

In 2022, one-day ticket prices for both resorts cost $109 to $159 per day, depending on the date.

Disney tends to get more criticism than its competitors because it has a history of setting itself apart and has a fervent fanbase, said Rick Munarriz, an entertainment analyst at the Motley Fool.

Jeannie Deal of Windermere, Florida, delights in scoring Figment popcorn buckets with her family on the opening day of the 2022 Epcot International Festival of the Arts, at Walt Disney World on Jan. 14, 2021.

For example, while Disney introduced its paid skip-the-line program years after parks like Universal and SeaWorld had done so, fans were skeptical of the $15-per-day Genie+ and variably priced Lightning Lane.

“Disney is sort of doing what everybody else is doing,” he said. “... (Parks are) saying, ‘How can we maximize our money by not increasing our capacity?’”

But theme park planning specialists, like Disney Food Blog owner AJ Wolfe, say Disney removing free access to some services means visitors are “getting less and paying more.”

Within the past year, Disney has stopped its complimentary Magical Express shuttle from Orlando International Airport and ended Extra Magic Hours, which gave hotel guests bonus time in the parks. Early-morning access to the parks has temporarily resumed for all hotel guests, but additional evening hours — generally two — are only available for those staying at certain locations like deluxe hotels.

Guests arrive for check-in at Disney's Wilderness Lodge at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Floria, on Feb. 10, 2022.

Maehrer said the Magical Express was not meeting guest needs and that the early entry gives all hotel guests 30 extra minutes in the parks daily.

Len Testa, a computer scientist and owner of the theme park planning website Touring Plans, said Disney’s prices have generally risen faster than the average hourly wage in the U.S., pricing many out.

“The bottom 40% of Americans, I don’t think, can afford even a two-day visit to Disney World. It’s just beyond the amount of money that they could spend a year on vacation,” he said.

Disney’s base and top ticket prices have not changed since 2019, Testa said, but the company has increased the ticket costs for dates outside the resort’s slowest and busiest times.

Touring Plans’ data shows the price of a regular ticket has gone up from $122 to $135 since 2019, at an average annual increase of 3.4%.

The annual inflation rate averaged about 2.5% from 2019 to 2021, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed. Over the past year, it shot up 7.5%.

When new annual pass sales restarted in September after a pandemic-related pause, fans found prices had increased while benefits like PhotoPass and water park access were removed from the top tiers and reintroduced as $99 add-ons.

Maehrer said passholders get benefits such as ride previews and discounts. Disney has determined the typical passholder is visiting just as often now as in 2019, he said, and the company has seen pass renewal rates exceed pre-pandemic levels. Most new annual pass sales have been suspended again.

Munarriz, who owns Disney stock, predicted Disney’s prices will continue to rise over the next year but probably at a slower pace.

“Maybe in April of next year, there’s a ‘come to Mickey’ moment where they realize, ‘Hey, I think we have to hold back on the increases and maybe return a feature or two,’” he said.

Food and hotel prices up

Disney’s recent near-record park revenue was driven by visitors spending more on things such as on hotels and food and beverages, Disney Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy said Wednesday during an earnings call.

Touring Plans’ data showed the lowest price for a one-night stay at Pop Century, Disney’s most-visited value resort, rose from $131 in 2019 to $168 in 2022, a 28% increase. The least expensive one-night stay at Port Orleans Riverside, the most popular moderate-value resort, now costs $266 compared to $232 in 2019.

Food and drink prices have also generally risen across the resort, according to the Disney Food Blog. Things like a Mickey waffle meal — which cost 50 cents to $2 more in January 2022, depending on the restaurant — and $1 pricier popcorn buckets add up.

Maehrer said many of Disney’s food prices are at or below standard industry cost.

Diane Sensenig said she and her husband used to always stay at Port Orleans Riverside, but they now stay off-property after prices “skyrocketed.”

On a trip to the Magic Kingdom this month, the two said they spent nearly $40 at the Pecos Bill Cafe for a “fast food lunch” that was “better than average” for a theme park but still pricey.

Parks still in demand

Despite the higher costs, people are still willing to pay, as the various 90-minute recent wait times at the Magic Kingdom clearly showed.

The nostalgia surrounding theme parks often causes people to forget that these companies are businesses that aim to make profits, Baker said.

“We do tend to see these businesses as somewhat different, as maybe integral to our childhood, to our family,” she said.

John Sensenig said he “used to feel special” but doesn’t anymore.

“I understand their business model. They want to get people in from out of town, who don’t live here, to stay at the hotels and entice them to go to the park,” Sensenig said. “But don’t ignore that cash flow, that revenue that you get every year, as soon as we pay our passholder fee.”