5 Steps of Disney’s (Not So) Secret Strategy To Axe Passholders

The Southern California annual passport is no longer sold at Disneyland, but if you're careful, you can still renew it.

The Southern California annual passport is no longer sold at Disneyland, but if you’re careful, you’ll still be able to renew it.

Is the Disney Annual Passport under attack?

The days of deciding to throw up a theme park one day and start construction the next are over at the Walt Disney Company. Like me, they are logical and methodical, with their decisions reasoned out and planned weeks, months, and decades in advance.

So let me share with you their ‘secret’ formula to thin out the Disney AP population, including those Southern California Annual Passholders they no longer need or want. I’ve also included a bonus 6th step from October 2015 that will affect all park guests, but especially those with Premium passes.

1. Raise Annual Passport Prices Year After Year

Disneyland has had an annual passport (AP) since 1984, starting just two years after they got rid of the A-E ticket system and went to a all-day, all-attraction pass. In those early years, annual passes cost $140 and stayed around that range until 2003, two years after Disney California Adventure opened.

Since then, the price for annual passes at Disneyland have increased from $10 -$140 per year. In that time, the Southern California (SoCal) Annual Passport has risen from $105 to $459. This increase in price can’t help but have the added effect of winnowing down the mass of SoCal AP holders, some downgrading to the less costly SoCal Select AP and others cancelling their pass altogether.

Not only has the price of AP’s increased, the price of ‘blockout day’ tickets has gone up significantly as well in the past several years, from $59 in 2011 to $84 in 2013. More on why this is significant later.

2. Advertise Cancellation Of The Southern California Annual Passport

2015 Disneyland Annual Passport Prices

Ticket prices have increased and the Southern California Annual Passport is still not available for purchase at Disneyland.

Out of nowhere in May 2014, spokesmen announced that not only were Disneyland ticket prices increasing across the board, but they would no longer be selling the SoCal AP. This caused mass hysteria in the local Disneyland AP community.

The question on everyone’s lips, and what Disney tried to make damn hard to find, was: can I renew my SoCal pass if I already have one?

I searched the internet top to bottom for an answer after the price increase, and while some sites briefly mentioned possible renewal options, nobody reputable declared it with conviction. Only after calling Disney AP services directly was I able to get a straight answer. Which leads us to the next strategic step…

3. Don’t Make Renewal Options Easy Or Obvious

Let me be the first person on the internet to give you a straight answer on this issue:

YOU CAN STILL RENEW YOUR SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ANNUAL PASSPORT!

What you can not do is buy a brand new SoCal AP right out of the gate. You have to start at any of the other AP levels and then, after one year, you can renew your AP as a SoCal pass. Confusing, right?

News outlets and online forums around the world seem content to simply regurgitate Disney’s intentional, semi-ambiguous answer on this topic. After the AP policy change, heading to the Disneyland annual passport website will hardly clear things up either.

While you can find a wealth of information about the SoCal Select AP, the regular SoCal has been deleted from the AP ticket store (along with another pass we’ll get to in a minute).  There is no renewal link for the SoCal pass and it doesn’t specify if you can still finance your AP (you can!), which my family does and is a big selling point in our ability and desire to have an annual pass.

If you’d like more guidance on this particular topic, I wrote a whole guide on renewals just to clear up this point.

This brings us to the next step in Disney’s AP demolition plan, which was also ‘hidden in plain sight’ from Annual Passholders…

4. Quietly Cancel Sales Of ‘Blockout Day’ Tickets

‘Blockout Day’ tickets, those little half-price park hopper tickets that allow AP’s in the park on days their pass is blacked out, are no longer available at the Disneyland Resort.

I found out this one by accident! A short while ago, my family had planned a multi-day trip to Disneyland and, since our SoCal annual passes were going to be blacked out, we were planning on buying ‘blockout day’ tickets.

It was while researching ticket prices for a continuing series of AP articles that I stumbled on the truth in the FAQ section of the Disneyland AP website and I’m really glad I did. It says that while ‘blockout day’ tickets used to offered, they were no longer available, meaning my family would have showed up on the first day of our vacation and been completely blindsided.

Remember earlier when I said the increase in ‘blockout day’ ticket prices in recent years was significant? It’s further proof of Disney’s annual passholder strategy.

How many people in recent years have upgraded to a more expensive Annual Pass instead of buying even more costly multi-day Park Hopper tickets? And when you combine this step with the next Disney policy change below, these upgrades will come even faster.

5. (Really) Quietly Cancel The Annual Passport Yearly Parking Option

This step affects all Disneyland guests and Annual Passholders.

As of February 2015, you can no longer add a year’s worth of parking to your Disneyland Annual Passport.

All SoCal Select, SoCal, and Deluxe Annual Passholders that don’t already have the yearly parking option now have to pay the daily rate of $18 on each visit. Depending on how many trips you take, this can add up to thousands of dollars!

However, other passports, including Premium and Disney Premier, still include unlimited parking: a proverbial ‘carrot’ to the ‘stick’ of higher parking prices. More people will cancel their AP’s altogether while others will upgrade to more expensive passes.

Guests with regular tickets will benefit from less traffic, both in the parks and parking lots. However, if you’re a passholder and make lots of visits to Disneyland each year, you may now end up spending more than it would cost to upgrade to a higher level of Annual Passport.

For more information on the new specifics of AP parking, visit our Ultimate Guide to Annual Passholder Parking.
If you currently pay for the AP parking option, don’t be alarmed: you’re protected from this policy change. It’s not being advertised by Disney, but current AP’s will be able to renew their parking privileges along with their passes.

Current passholders can also finance the yearly parking along with their AP and spread the cost over an entire year. Just no one else can from now on.

Also remember: renewing an expired Annual Passport is the same as buying a new Annual Passport.

Like I said in step 2, current Annual Passholders can renew their SoCal AP’s. However, if you get fed up with the price hikes and let your passport expire, a new SoCal AP will be denied to you  (or at least until you’ve had another AP for a year).

Based on the facts presented above, your average passholder is left with a few options for AP renewal:

  1. You already have the yearly parking option, and you renew at the SoCal Select, SoCal, or Deluxe AP level.
    1. You pay more each year as rates increase but keep your pass, while Disney gets what it wants: your cash upfront, or
  2. You don’t have the parking option, but you still renew your AP.
    1. The more you visit Disneyland, the more it costs you as you pay each time you park.
    2. Due to rising costs, you choose to downgrade to a Southern California Select AP but now you have significantly fewer available days, as well as no weekends, holiday times, or other peak periods.
    3. Either way Disney gets what it wants: fewer locals (potentially at peak times) and cash up front from you (including the extra money for parking each time you visit), or
  3. You upgrade to a Signature, Signature Plus (more on these AP’s below), or Disney Premier Annual Passport.
    1. You get essentially unlimited parking and admission and Disney gets what it wants: more up front cash, or
  4. You cancel your Annual Passport altogether or delay your renewal to a later date
    1. You miss the time spent at Disneyland and Disney gets what it wants again: fewer locals clogging up their parks on busy days and one semi-permanently removed SoCal AP and/or parking pass.

6. Cancel The Premium Annual Passport

I know this article is called ‘5 Steps,’ but recently Disney revealed more of their AP’s plans that are essential to this list. Such as:

On October 4th, 2015, Disneyland officially cancelled the Premium Annual Passport.

This cancellation isn’t like the SoCal one, where you can still buy the pass through some convoluted method. The Premium AP is simply gone.

Disney Shakes Up Christmas With The Signature Annual Passports

In the place of Premium, Disneyland will now have two top-tier AP’s: Signature and Signature Plus.

Both passes are essentially clones of the Premium, with free parking and identical discounts. The only difference between the two involves blockout dates.

While the Signature Plus is a true year-round pass, the regular Signature is blocked out the during the two weeks surrounding Christmas and New Years.

This two-week difference between the AP’s confirms an important update in AP policy: Disney is definitely dealing with the flow of traffic by using seasonal pricing methods. There have been rumors in the past few months circling this idea and now it looks like they’re at least partially true.

This feels like Disney is dipping a toe in the water of more aggressive seasonal pricing. Time will tell if they’ll apply this same model to regular tickets, making busier times of the year more expensive to balance larger crowd levels.

We’ll have to wait and see how this cancellation will affect the Annual Passholder herd. For now, I can think of a few more cause-and-effect scenarios that will play out in the next year, as the Premium AP population dwindles to zero:

  1. Existing Premium passholders will simply renew at the next-best passport level, Signature.
    1. This will be the simplest move for most Premium AP’s. They’ll miss out on Christmas, but still enjoy the other benefits.
    2. With the more expensive passport, Disney will make more money and cut down on peak holiday traffic, or
  2. Premium AP’s will upgrade to Signature Plus.
    1. Some passholders either want or simply need to visit the Disneyland Resort around Christmas. Maybe they’re going for 365 days at the park (366 next year)? Maybe it’s a family tradition?
    2. Disney will make even more money, or
  3. Premium passholders will downgrade to a lower level of passport.
    1. These AP’s will renew at either the SoCal Select, SoCal, or Deluxe levels. They’ll pay less overall, but also have less access to the resort.
    2. This is where the cancellation of the AP yearly parking option rears its ugly head again. If you had yearly parking at some point and then went up to the Premium level, you won’t be able to get the parking option again when you downgrade.
    3. Disney makes more money on parking and controls park overcrowding with more blockout dates.

Adding to that last point, I’ve included the two reference tables below. For each ‘non-Premium’ AP, you can see the number of times you’d have to pay for parking before you’d make up the price difference for either the Signature or Signature Plus passes.

Trips To Break-Even On Signature Annual Passport

Annual PassportParking/DayExtra Cost For SignatureTrips To Break-Even
Southern California Select AP$18$52029
Southern California AP$18$39022
Deluxe AP$18$25014

Trips To Break-Even On Signature Plus Annual Passport

Annual PassportParking/DayExtra Cost For Signature PlusTrips To Break-Even
Southern California Select AP$18$72040
Southern California AP$18$59033
Deluxe AP$18$45025

Local Annual Passholders Are A Financial Drag On The Disneyland Resort?

Other than the reasons I touched on above, why would Disney want to get rid of Annual Passholders?

The Disneyland Resort was not originally built for the current level of traffic it receives during the busy season, namely Spring Break, Summer, and the Christmas holiday season. With little exception, Disneyland itself has had essentially the same number of bathrooms, drinking fountains, park benches, and walkways for at least the past 30 years.

Compare park attendance in 1984 at 9.8 million guests against 2014 with almost 16.8 million. That’s an increase of 7 million guests during the year, all packed in the same area, and that doesn’t even include the increased attendance from Disney California Adventure!

Needless to say, Annual Passholders contribute to a crowding problem.

Another drain AP’s have on the Disney bottom line is their potential lack of spending at the parks. To put it frankly- how many Mickey Mouse ears does a person need, especially when they’re coming back next week?

Compare that to the mythical, middle-class vacationers on a once-in-a-lifetime visit to Disneyland. These people are Disney’s bread-and-butter clients, where money is no object and they buy half of Main Street on a single day. As a company, which type of guest would you rather have?

Conclusion

Tracing a line from the yearly price increases, to the advertised SoCal annual pass ‘cancellation,’ and finally the actual elimination of the Premium AP , it’s obvious that managers at Disneyland and the Walt Disney Company have had some AP’s in their sights for some time.

And, despite how the article above may read, I can’t fault them from a business perspective. Gone are the days of Walt Disney, where you could get into the park for very little because he wanted to share his dreams with the world. We live in the age of the corporation, where survival depends on profits.

Disney obviously isn’t penalizing Annual Passholders across the board, otherwise they would have removed the financing options for all passes and jacked up the price of the SoCal Select pass.

I think in many ways the results of this annual pass strategy will be positive for all Disney AP’s, including ones from Southern California. Greater profits for the company help make additions like the recently announced ‘Star Wars Land’ possible. Maybe they’ll throw in a Monster’s, Inc. mini-land in DCA or even a brand new Tomorrowland someday? Maybe they’d bring back the Peoplemovers (a guy can hope)!

In the meantime, Cast Members from the annual passport office assure me that the SoCal AP will still be available for renewal in the future, though now at $439 (which includes the renewal discount). So, while it lasts, at least we won’t pay more more for the privilege of visiting the Happiest Place on Earth.

What do you think about all this? Are you a Disneyland AP? Are you going to renew your SoCal annual pass or just let it lapse? Please let me know in the comments below and make sure to sign up for our regular newsletter, so you won’t miss out on all our great Disney content.

For more info and insight into Disneyland tickets and annual passes, check out the 5 Reasons Disney Doesn’t Want More Annual Passholders and our Ultimate Guide to Disneyland Resort Annual Passports. See ya’ real soon!

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