Disney is Available to the Middle Class – A Rebuttal to the Washington Post

On Saturday, Drew Harwell of the Washington Post wrote an article discussing how theme parks, using Walt Disney World as the prime example, have left the middle class behind.  My article, today, is a rebuttal to his arguments.  I found his article and arguments flawed in a number of areas and will flesh out those flaws in the rebuttal.

1) Stop Sticker Shocking People

Mr. Harwell did this on a number of occasions in this article.  He mentioned “dine on a $115 steak, enjoy a $53-per-person dessert party and sleep in a bungalow overlooking the Seven Seas Lagoon starting at $2100 a night.”  I love when people mention the $2100/night bungalows at the Polynesian Village Resort.  Those bungalows are part of the Disney Vacation Club which, yes, you need to be a member to join and, yes, it costs a lot of money to join the Disney Vacation Club (trust me as a member, I know).  But as part of the Disney Vacation Club, these villas are rarely, if ever, available to the general public.  But journalists like to trot out how much they cost per night like any member of the general public can book those rooms.  They can’t but the writer mentions the cost per night of the bungalows twice: “starting at $2100 a night…..stilted Bora Bora Bungalow that can cost up to $3400 a night.”  Which is it?  Do they cost $2100 a night or $3400 a night?  Like I mentioned earlier, they cost a Disney Vacation Club member anywhere from 115 to 227 points per night.  How many people can afford these?  Very, very, very few.  But please don’t talk about these rooms like they are available to everyone with just a phone call to Walt Disney World.

Mr. Harwell also brings up the “$195 pampering for little girls that includes a makeover, hair-styling, a costume, and a princess sash,” which one can get at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.  The writer fails to mention that packages start at a more affordable $55 and that girls AND boys (there is a Knight package for $19), as old as 12, go the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique for these events.  Ask any 12-year old and they will emphatically tell you they are NOT a little girl or boy.

2) No mention of budgeting for Disney or how affordable Disney can be

As an independent travel agent, I work with people who have a variety of budgets.  Walt Disney World is able to accommodate people with a wide variety of budgets.  Rooms can start as low as $95 per night during the off-peak seasons at Walt Disney World’s value resorts.  Where was this mentioned in the article?  Nowhere.  Walt Disney World can be done on a budget that a “middle class” family can afford.  Steaks can be had, at some restaurants, for as low as $26.  Will that $26 steak be off the same quality and the restaurant of the same ambiance as the $115 steak?  No.  Will the guest, at Walt Disney World, enjoy the experience any less at the more affordable restaurant?  No, they could have a similar if not better experience. Walt Disney World Imagineers put as much thought into the themeing of the more value resorts and restaurants as they do in the deluxe resorts and restaurants.  That part of the Magic of Disney.  Guests from many classes and income backgrounds can have a wonderful experience.  But this article is so focused on the 1%, that they lose the 99% who go to Disney on a budget and have a wonderful time.  Would everybody love to be able to go to Walt Disney World without a budget and not worry about the costs?  Of course.  But most people do have budgets and Disney is able accommodate a variety of budgets.

This brings to the $53-per-night dessert party.  Most of these dessert parties have a few desserts and guests have an “up-close view of the night-time fireworks shows.”  Some of these dessert parties have character interactions but most do not.  But like the cost of the rooms and the cost of steak, there is no mention that there are plenty of places where guests can watch the fireworks for free especially the Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios fireworks.  The Wishes fireworks show at Magic Kingdom has great free viewing areas just outside The Contemporary Resort and along the beach at The Polynesian Village Resort.  The Hollywood Studios fireworks show can easily be seen just outside Hollywood Studios.  Guests can take the boat to the theme park, not enter, and get a great view (if not better view) than those guests inside Hollywood Studios and it does not cost them anything.  This strategy works well for guests who have not bought theme park tickets for the day or park hoppers for their tickets and have already visited another park earlier in the day.

3) Is Tiered Pricing Expected or Just Survey?

At the beginning of the article, the writer mentions, “the theme-park giant’s prices are expected to climb even more through a surge-pricing system that could value a summer’s day of rides and lines $125.”  The writer back-pedals from this (probably after most people have stopped reading) to, “Disney surveys sent last month to guests suggested the giant was considering a tiered pricing structure that clock peak-time “Gold” tickets, during summer and winter holidays, at $125.”  Which is it, Mr. Harwell?  Is the surge-ticket pricing expected or just a trial balloon survey?  Mentioning that the ticket price increase is expected in the beginning of the article and then back-pedaling to considering later in the article is shock-value journalism at its finest.  Don’t scare people into thinking another ticket increase is expected.

A survey sent to guests does not mean that another ticket price increase is coming.  Disney has been sending out similar surveys for years.  With the advent of social media and the ability to take a screen shot of the survey with a cell phone which can be posted for everyone to see.  This has caused rumors like this to fly around the internet.  Will Disney implement surge/tiered pricing?  It’s difficult to say.  A trip to Walt Disney World is more than a one-day event for most people which is where tiered pricing is easiest to implement.  A multi-day vacation to Walt Disney World will have a lot of people crossing over into different tiers and how does the cost of the ticket get calculated over multiple tiers?  Disney has a lot of questions that they need to answer before they roll out a tiered/surge pricing scale.  That will take years not months or days to answer.

4) Pulling On Heart Strings Using Walt Disney’s Name

“If Walt [Disney] were alive today, he would probably be uncomfortable with the prices they’re charging right now.”  Statements, like this one, made by Scott Smith, assistant professor of hospitality at the University of South Carolina, have always bothered me.  How do we know what Walt Disney would think of Walt Disney World today?  Walt Disney had dreams for Disneyland and for Walt Disney World.  He got to see and experience his dreams for Disneyland.  He never got to experience those dreams at Walt Disney World.  Walt Disney liked to make money.  He did not like making money for the sake of making money.  He liked making money because it allowed funding for bigger dreams.  Making money made him less dependent on outside funding for his dreams.  Some could argue that he would be comfortable with the current ticket prices.  Why?  Because he could now fund bigger dreams.  This is no different from the Walt Disney Corporation using the profits from theme park ticket prices and resort stays to fund new movies and new theme park attractions to drive people into the parks and keeping the cycle going with “bigger dreams.”

Walt Disney believed that everyone was a VIP.  Disney cast members are expected to treat everyone like a VIP whether they are staying at the Pop Century Resort or staying at the Four Seasons Orlando (not a Walt Disney World property) with, “rooms starting at $449 a night.”  For the most part, cast members, in the parks and resorts, treat everyone like a VIP.  Like any large industry, there will be exceptions to the rule.  Whether you spend $2000 or $20,000 on your Disney vacations, Disney cast members will treat you like a VIP.

A short story to close: A friend of mine was staying at one of Disney’s Moderate Level resorts.  One of her sons lost his autograph book during their day in the theme parks.  She went to the front desk of the resort and told them what had happened, which characters had signed the book and what could be done to find the lost autograph book.  When they returned from dinner, there was a brand new autograph book with signatures from all the characters they had seen during the day plus a few extra.  Did the cast member have to go to that length to make the customer happy?  No, but Disney treats everyone like a VIP no matter who you are or how big you pocket book may be.