Disney has a plan to pare down the number of Annual Passholders (AP’s) at the Disneyland Resort. We know this. One question that remains is why?
The answer has less to do with AP’s themselves and more to do with who the preferred target customer of the Walt Disney Company is.
Disney’s Perfect Guests
Every business has an ideal customer. For surfboard companies, it’s surfers with money. For camping equipment companies, it’s outdoor-lovers with money.
And for Disney, the target group is what I call the ‘Mythical Wealthy Family of Four.’ Simply put, they’re vacationers with disposable income and a reason to spend it.
Why am I bringing this up? It’s important to know who the ideal customer is to really understand why Disney doesn’t really want more Annual Passholders right now.
1. Annual Passholders Fill Up Space
Bear with me here, I’m going to throw a few numbers at you.
Disneyland Guest Area Hasn’t Grown Much Over The Years
In 1984, when Premium annual passes were first made available to the public, the guest accessible area at Disneyland (DL) was about 72 acres and park attendance was 9.8 million. In the years to come, the park guest area would increase slightly with the addition of Splash Mountain (1989), Mickey’s Toontown (1993), and the Indiana Jones Adventure (1995).
In 2014, Disneyland had a guest area of about 75 acres and attendance of about 16.8 million.
That’s an increase of 7 million guests in effectively the same acreage, resulting in about 1/3 less space per guest on an average park day!
Disney California Adventure Guest Area Has Grown, But So Has Attendance
When it was first built in 2001, Disney California Adventure (DCA) had a guest area of about 41 acres with attendance of about 5 million. By 2014, the area had increased to about 56 acres (thanks in large part to Carsland) and attendance to 8.8 million.
Even with the recent amazing expansion, guests at DCA still have about 1/4 less space per person on an average attendance day at the park.
The Disneyland Resort Is Busier Than Ever
Let’s look at the same numbers on a resort level.
After the completion of DCA in 2001, theme park guest area in the Disneyland Resort (DLR) rose to about 117 acres with attendance of 17.3 million. The number of visitors continued to grow, outpacing new construction efforts.
In 2014, DLR attendance was 25.5 million and total theme park guest area was 132 acres, leaving about 1/4 less space per person, like at California Adventure.
Numbers don’t lie: more people are visiting the Disneyland Resort than in past years, with only a relatively small growth in the resort guest-accessible area.
You might know this phenomenon by its other name: overcrowding. In the mid-90’s, there were fewer than 100,000 Annual Passholders. Now we number around 1 million.
There are simply more of us getting in the way of Disney’s ideal customer, our ‘Mythical Family,’ which leads us to the next point…
2. AP’s Increase Wait Times
This is fairly easy to understand:
More people in the park equals longer lines for rides and shows.
Fastpasses Don’t Fix Everything
In order to make up for longer lines, the FASTPASS® service was invented to save a place in line for guests and magically shrink wait times. And it works beautifully, but there’s a catch: AP’s know how to ‘game the system’ a bit.
Our ‘Mythical Family’ might understand the concept behind this time-saving device, but they won’t be as successful using them because…
AP’s Know The Park Better Than Just About Anyone
Practice makes perfect and the very fact that someone is an Annual Passholder makes it very likely that they’ve visited the park before, probably many times before. This means they know things like:
- Which lands, rides, and shows to visit and when
- Where the lines will get longer later in the day
- What the transit time between attractions is
- What attractions, shops, and restaurants are near each other
- Which FASTPASS® machines aren’t linked into the network
Disney’s preferred customer has nothing on the practiced passholder. They can read all the books they want and get all the advice in the world, but nothing beats actual time spent on the ground and that’s what AP’s have in spades.
3. Annual Passholders Make Shorter Visits
A significant number of AP’s live within a two-hour drive of the Disneyland Resort, making it very convenient to pop over for a half-day with ease. Some local passholders treat the DLR like a city park and meet friends there for a few hours just to hang out.
Disney uses past visitor data to schedule everything, from the number of balloon salesman on Main Street to the canoes on the Rivers of America. The shorter, random trips some AP’s make are hard for managers to plan for and therefore cause many of the other AP attendance problems.
Poor planning can lead to improper Cast Member scheduling and a scarcity of ride vehicles on popular attractions, once again messing with the vacation of Disney’s preferred guests.
4. AP’s Fill Up The Parking Lots
The Mickey and Friends Parking Structure is the largest in North America and was built to hold 10,000 cars. If every car inside was owned by a ‘Mythical Family of Four,’ then 40,000 guests could fit inside.
But annual passholders often visit the park in groups far less than four, often just one person per car. Disneyland managers have tried to discourage this behavior by increasing the daily cost of parking, from $8/day in 2003 to $17/day in 2015. A year of parking for Annual Passholders has also increased in the past decade, from $40 to $169.
Most recently in February 2015, new sales of the AP yearly parking option were cancelled. This couldn’t help but have the effect of decreasing both the number of trips Annual Passholders take as well as the number of cars they bring with them.
AP’s fill up spaces that could be used for Disney’s preferred guests, sometimes just for part of the day, making the big-spending family park in an outlying lot and get bused to the resort.
Not only are regular resort guests inconvenienced, but Disney Cast Members as well. When guests spill into overflow lots, CM’s are pushed further out into the outlying parking lots, where they’re shuttled in on inefficient and cramped trams or forced to walk over a mile just to get to their job.
The significant time delay between parking at the resort and finally arriving at work also leaves more cars in employee parking lots longer, further contributing to the problem.
5. Annual Passholders Often Don’t Spend Extra Money
On your first trip to Disneyland, you have to spend a bunch of money. There are Mickey t-shirts, plush toys, magnets, ornaments, and kitchenware to buy, not to mention fancy sit-down dinners and professional photographs. On your second trip, maybe you’ll get a thing or two you skimped-on last time, but not a whole lot.
How about the third trip? Tenth? Hundredth?
You get the point: AP’s aren’t as likely as the ‘Mythical Family’ to spend a bunch of extra dough on their regular trips, thus cutting into the Disney bottom line (and they don’t like that). This is perhaps the largest problem with Passholders.
Now that I’ve harped on AP’s, here’s a few reasons why we’re good for the Walt Disney Company and why we should continue to be embraced.
1. Annual Passholders Provide Guaranteed Income
While you can’t exactly predict when the ‘Mythical Family’ will schedule their Disney vacation, if you buy an annual pass Disney knows for a fact that they’re going to get a big chunk of change from you. Whether it’s all at once or in monthly payments, they’re going to end up with $300-700 of your money in their bank account.
This one is pretty straightforward: Disneyland is going to be manned and ready whether you buy an annual pass or not, so it’s good for Disney to pocket some money for something they were going to do anyway.
2. AP’s Don’t Have To Ride All The E-Ticket Attractions On Every Visit
I don’t need to ride Space Mountain on every visit to Disneyland. I’ve been on it a hundred times, so if it has a long line I skip it. For the same reason, I don’t need to go on Soarin’ Over California everytime I enter DCA. I’ve done it.
How about you? We all have rides and shows we love. They’re our favorite and when asked why we like to go to Disneyland, they’re the first words on our lips. But because a ride is your favorite, and you’ve been on it a bunch of times, it probably doesn’t kill you to miss it on one trip. Or maybe multiple trips?
There are a whole slew of rides I haven’t been on since my son was born over a year ago and I’m okay with that. I know that when I come back, they’ll still be there. A lot of AP’s have the same mindset.
So while Passholders can be the cause for longer wait times, the reverse can also be true. I say let the ‘Family’ wait in those lines. I’ll just chill on a bench and soak in the magic.
3. AP’s Are More Likely To Purchase ‘Value-Added’ Tickets For Special Events
In recent years, Disneyland managers have concocted a whole slew of special events requiring an extra ticket at extra cost. Mickey’s Halloween Party and the Candlelight Processional are perfect examples. A lot of these ‘value-added’ events happen during the school season, when our favorite ‘Mythical Family’ is stuck at home and less likely to travel.
So who buys these tickets? Local AP’s, that’s who. The Halloween Party has 14 dates and they all take place between late September and Halloween night. What’s that sound like? School season.
I know it’s a little off topic, but how about the D23 events that take place in the park? Our Family probably wouldn’t travel across the country just to see a screening of Sleeping Beauty, but a local AP would show up, dumping a little extra cash into the Disney coffers.
4. Annual Passholders Are A Good Source Of Information
Since they visit the resort more often than the average guest, Passholders are uniquely qualified to inform the WDC about what’s happening in their parks. Which plans are working and which ones aren’t. What rides and shows need to be replaced and what would be good replacements.
It wasn’t until I was a Passholder for several years that I realized I could give direct and specific feedback on Cast Member activities by leaving comments at City Hall. No matter how many times I visit, when a CM goes the extra mile for me, I always try to leave them some positive feedback.
While I don’t like to complain to Disney, and seldom have cause to do so, anyone can also use this process to leave negative feedback.
Passholders Are Perfect Brand Advocates
Brand Advocate: A person or customer who talks favorably about a brand or product and then passes on positive word-of-mouth messages about the brand to other people.
It has been pointed out to me that I often talk too much about Disneyland and Disney in general, which is probably true. Like a lot of AP’s, I do go overboard on the Mouse at times and not just about big premieres and park openings either. Most Passholders I’ve met can talk endlessly on the smallest of details, like which Hitchhiking Ghost is the coolest (Gus) or which shade of Sleeping Beauty Castle they prefer and why (I like the pink- it’s happier).
As reader Steve pointed out, AP’s are not only valuable information resources to the WDC itself, but to other park guests and the ‘Mythical Family.’ Our animated interest and palpable love of Disney parks is transferable to regular folks out in the real world, which leads to their later vacations to Disney resorts.
While managers do a pretty good job of engaging the fan community as a whole, Disney could do more to engage Passholders directly. For example, offering a larger array of discount options for AP’s looking to escort out-of-town friends and family through the resorts would be a good start. Harnessing AP brand-advocates and giving them more incentive to spread the word is a win-win situation for everyone.
5. AP’s Can Spend A Lot Of Money In The Park
Wait a second- didn’t I just say a minute ago that Annual Passholders were cheap? You weren’t dreaming, because yes I did.
However, as a reader pointed out to me, some AP’s do spend a healthy chunk of money during their visits to Disneyland. These Disney fans might collect pins, Vinylmations, watches, or artwork. Or they might simply like to purchase their wardrobe at the park.
Some passholders do the bulk of their Christmas shopping at the Disneyland Resort, and my wife and I look forward to browsing the seasonal merchandise to see what new treasures we can add to our collection. So although we may not spend as much every visit, we still have our big spending trips from time to time.
Disneyland Annual Passholders can definitely create problems for the DLR. We show up all the time, get in the way, and usually don’t spend a whole lot of extra cash at the park.
But we add value to Disneyland and the Disney company as well. We’re brand-evangelists. We love to talk about Disney to everyone and anyone. Not only do we love visiting the resort, we love other Disney products as well, like their animated films, books, and games.
When looked at in a vacuum, AP’s can get in the way of the Mythical Family of Four and hinder their ability to give even more money to the WDC. But don’t discount the possibility that we’re a big part of the reason the family showed up in the first place, spreading the word and whispering in everyone’s ear about all things Disney.
I’m not giving up my annual pass anytime soon, and with Disney’s strategy to decrease the number of SoCal AP’s in general, I may even buy Deluxe passes so my family can spend even more time spending less money at the Disneyland Resort.
What do you think about all this? What’s your annual passport plan? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below. And make sure to read the 5 Steps of Disney’s (Not So) Secret Strategy To Axe Passholders and our Ultimate Guide to Disneyland Annual Passports. Thanks for reading and I’ll see ya’ real soon!