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.


12 thoughts on “Disney is Available to the Middle Class – A Rebuttal to the Washington Post”

  1. THANKS for your post! The original article is full of BS.

    1. 100 bucks a day ? Are you kidding me? NOBODY in his right mind buys a “one day ticket” when he´s visiting WDW. People by “multiple day tickets”. They bring the price of admission down to as fas as 36.50$ per day. But 100 sound WAY more shocking. So why bother…

    2. The author complains about the price of admission AND the long lines. Ah… WHAT? So – you want lower prices? So that way more people visit the parks? With even LONGER lines? You are making no sense.

    3. The author only mentions luxury items. There are way cheaper hotel rooms, way cheaper steaks, way cheaper food, and way cheaper tickets.

    4. A disney vacation is a LUXURY – not a birthright. A new ride today costs up to 200 million dollar. The extension of DCA was 1.4 BILLION dollar. It’s all about quality. Quality isn´t free.

  2. Excellent article and well articulated! It is tiring to read articles where the author slants the “enormous cost” of a Disney Vacation and how displeased Walt would be if he were alive today. Walt was a business man, and like you stated, he needed money to fund more dreams. Disney has many price points and has appeal to all income types who really want a Disney vacation. Some will have to save longer than others, some can stay a night or two (budget depending) while others can stay a month. So glad you put this all into perspective.

  3. Thanks for this. That article in the WP enfuriated me to no end. We are middle class from the word go, and we just save up, budget, and go when we are able. May be once a year, may be every other…but it’s painless when you are smart about it. Many people who stay in deluxe have saved for several years.

  4. You are wrong on the bungalows. They are available to the general public, as are all other DVC properties, and are priced seasonally just like the “point” cost. (Ridiculous prices? Yes.) A number are available for points, the rest on a cash basis (deeded to DVC or reallocated due to RCI or Collection trades.)

  5. I agree that most of the original article was off base but I also have an issue with your article. Yes, anyone can find a way to budget for a trip to WDW. My problem is that we are getting less and less for all the price increases. I also believe that Walt Disney would be displeased with the direction of his legacy. I do not see that the current leaders of Disney are trying to make money to improve things so much as simply wanting pure profit. I have been visiting the parks for many years and have seen huge decline in general maintenance in the parks. We visited shortly after the Dining PLan was offered and we purchased it. Every meal we had was delicious! The next few trips were hit or miss on food but we still had some good meals. Our trip last September was a different story – most meals were okay but a few were awful and none were outstanding. I have so many happy memories of great CM’s from past trips but don’t see much of that anymore. I for one am just disenchanted with what was once my magical place.

  6. The author also conveniently left out that that 1971 $3.50 admission bought one the right to walk through the gate–and spend more money. The rides all required tickets. Not all rides were priced the same–the “good” rides (like Space Mountain) were E tickets–once giving rise to a popular phrase, “this is definitely an E ticket!” (Now an e-ticket is something completely different).

    The last time my parents took me to The Magic Kingdom was in 1980. They still had the ticket system. But instead of worrying about managing our little book, they bought two-day passes–even though we were only going for one day, because they thought it was a better deal. The pass got us onto every ride without worrying about running out of tickets.

    (By the way, that two-day pass was good “forever.” My mother and sister used the second day of those passes eight years later with no problems. I assume multi-day passes don’t work like that anymore.)

    1. Prior to Feb. 21, 2015, people could purchase tickets (for an extra fee) that did not have an expiration date called “No Expiration Option.” Tickets purchases without this option would expires 14 days after their first use.

      Tickets purchased after Feb. 21, 2015, no longer have this “No Expiration Option” available for purchase.

  7. We just got back from a week at Disney – 2 adults and 4 older teens. Flights, house rental, food (for starving teenagers), rental car, park tickets, souvenirs…. I think we spent may be 6-7K. A week of pure joy with our 4 kids was priceless – and I don’t think that 1000 per person is that bad for a trip like Disney, especially considering that I’m including airfare and a 5 bedroom house rental. I will say, I just about choked when I spent $2400 of it on park tickets, but when broken down per person, per day, it was more tolerable! Expensive, yes, but would do it again once we can afford it – memories we will cherish for years to come. My only complaint was the new fastpass+ system – gone are the days of “working the system” to enjoy multiple rides, multiple times all day long – oh well – it is what it is! We still had an awesome time.

  8. The WaPo story was trying to shock people, and you were right to point out some of the more egregious things in it.

    That said, I think the general point still stands. There isn’t enough justification that I can see for quadrupling one-day ticket prices in 25 years, or doubling them in 10. Yeah, of course the situation is much more complicated than calling it a straight cash grab, but calling it a “cash grab but with some work you can make it slightly less of a cash grab” or a “cash grab that cares” doesn’t quite mitigate it.

    Plus, I think both the original story and this one glance over a very important point, which is that the regional communities these parks serve are getting pushed out. Disneyland kept prices down for ages because the local governments there weren’t going to take big ticket hikes sitting down.

    Reedy Creek or no, there’s only so much political capital Disney can exhaust before the governments start pushing back. They are already pushing back on intermodal services, policing, etc in a way they would never have 10 or 15 years ago. And if any visitors think prices are high now, just imagine where they’ll go when politicians stop settling for local resident deals and other incentives and start taxing in earnest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.