Home » Bursting the “Disney Bubble” – 6 Quick-Fix Ways For Disney To Reverse Its 2022

Bursting the “Disney Bubble” – 6 Quick-Fix Ways For Disney To Reverse Its 2022

If you haven’t been paying attention to the serious business of theme parks over the last year, it might surprise you to learn that at least online, sentiment toward Disney World has shifted dramatically thanks to its 50th Anniversary year… and not in the way Disney hoped. Price increases are nothing new for Disney Parks, and a chorus of voices proclaiming they’re “priced out” is par for the course on Disney-centric social media… but the most recent wave of discontent – one wherein a quarter of Theme Park Tourist readers say they’re “done with Disney World,” and this time they mean it – is something quite different than the pouting and posturing that comes with annual admission price increases.

Something has fundamentally changed in the business of Disney Parks. Coinciding with the parks’ return from their pandemic pause, Disney began a fairly extensive effort to slash longtime perks and replace them with add-on upcharges – part of the company’s growing prioritization of per-capita revenue over its longtime key performance indicator: guest satisfaction. In fact, Part I of our Bursting the “Disney Bubble” mini-series explored those new costs and how they add hundreds of dollars to a Disney World vacation just to recreate what used to be included. 

The good news is: we’ve been here before. This isn’t the first time Disney has pivoted its business toward net revenue by cutting costs, increasing prices, then trumpeting financial success to its shareholders. These eras always end when decades of loyalty crater, competitors rise, and families come home with the cost of the trip at the top of their mind and voice. When that happens and Disney is looking for advice on how to recover the decades of goodwill it’s lost, we have a few simple suggestions for how to improve the Parks experience, fast… 

1. Get rid of Park Reservations!

Image: Disney

We get it. When Walt Disney World and Disneyland’s parks reopened during the Covid-19 pandemic – when health guidelines strictly limited the number of visitors who could attend – the Park Pass Reservation system was a “necessary evil.” With parks limited to 30, 20, even 10% of their typical maximum capacity, the Park Pass system was able to cap the number of “slots” available each day based on many factors, while also distributing crowds more equitably among parks. The days of just buying a ticket and showing up at any park were over.

Even as pandemic restrictions were lessened, it was kind of nice to think that the Park Pass system might be used to combat the ridiculous and outrageous overcrowding that had plagued Disney Parks pre-pandemic. Even if Magic Kingdom could fit 100,000 guests, maybe setting a daily limit of 30,000 could improve everyone’s experience! It’s not a bad idea, and if that’s how it were being used, people would probably be okay with the Park Pass system to this day! 

But in case you haven’t been to Walt Disney World in 2022, let us assure you: the parks are really, really, really crowded, with summer-sized masses during the “off-season” of January and February! That tells us plainly that the Park Pass reservation system is not being used to improve guest satisfaction or thin the crowds. At this point, its attendance cap is obviously high enough that it would really only be reached on say, the busiest 25 days of the year. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the system to be used on those 25 days. For the other 340, though, it’s a needless frustration that reduces flexibility, keeps locals from visiting, and adds yet another complication to booking a Disney Park visit. 

Of course, CEO Bob Chapek has already indicated that we should expect the Park Reservation system to stick around long after any other pandemic-era policies, even becoming a permanent part of a Disney Parks visit. It’s easy to imagine why. Park Reservations don’t do much for guests, but they provide Disney with a whole lot of Chapek’s favorite thing: data. Cynics might argue that with a precise, per-person count for each park on each day, Disney can adjust (see: reduce) staffing levels, shorten Cast Member schedules, reassign roles, cut entertainment, and under-staff restaurants to maximize revenue and limit costs. Frankly, Disney has no reason to end Park Reservations anytime soon.

2. Let the people Park Hop! 

Image: Disney


When Walt Disney World’s theme parks reopened in June 2020, the Park Hopper option that allows guests to enter multiple theme parks on a single day was suspended. In a time with limited park capacity, even more limited transportation capacity, and a need to distribute crowds in adherence with Park Reservations, it made sense. When Park Hopper returned in January 2021, it was with a new caveat: no Hopping until 2 PM. If you squint, that kind of makes sense, too, as it means your Park Reservation actually mattered. You couldn’t just “reserve” EPCOT, then go to Magic Kingdom at 10 AM saying you “Park Hopped.”

But c’mon. If the continued Park Reservation system wasn’t frustrating enough, the seemingly-arbitrary 2 PM Park Hopper time is clearly no longer about health policies or capacity. Like Park Reservations themselves, the only remaining purpose of Park Hopping limitations is to benefit Disney.

Think of guests whose first Park Reservation is for Animal Kingdom or California Adventure. By effectively guaranteeing they won’t – can’t – go to another park until mid-afternoon, Disney is able to adjust those “half-day park’s” staffing levels for captive lunch audiences, then majorly cut back staffing starting in the second shift of the day since fewer guests hop into Animal Kingdom or California Adventure than out

In 2022, we say – let the people Park Hop again. It’s an expensive add-on at Walt Disney World, and a pretty essential ingredient of visiting Disneyland where guests are meant to flow between the two parks all day long. Limiting guests’ ability to use the add-on they paid big bucks for is just yet another nefarious move that reeks of self-serving aims.

3. Bring back the Magical Express!

Another victim of Disney’s current push to reduce expenses and inflate revenue – apparently by any means necessary, no matter how many PR nightmares it causes – Disney’s Magical Express was a too-good-to-be-true, complimentary service that brought guests and their luggage from Orlando International Airport to their Disney Resort Hotel. It was the kind of thing you wouldn’t expect from even the most luxurious, all-inclusive resorts, yet Disney did it for all – no matter Value, Moderate, or Deluxe. 

We dedicated a whole feature to the end of Magical Express and how to get to the resort without it. Think about it: its whole point was to “trap” guests on Disney property without having rented a car (thereby ensuring they wouldn’t leave the “Disney Bubble” at all during their stay). The rise of rideshares defeated the purpose. In other words, Disney had no financial incentive to underwrite your ride to the property if you can just turn around and get a Lyft to Universal anyway. So, away it went.

So yes, technically, the Magical Express was all part of creating a Disney-captive audience. And sure, new services have arisen in its wake – like Mears Connect (the “unbranded” continuation of the service) and the new Sunshine Flier – and there’s always rideshares and taxis and rental cars. But frankly, the Magical Express wasn’t just a “free ride.” It was a welcome mat; an “over-the-top” guest-focused introduction to the resort; a worry-free assurance that you would get to your resort safely and quickly and comfortably. It was an example of Disney’s “premium” product that no competitor dared to match.

Sources say that Disney is surprised that the “Magical Express” thing hasn’t blown over by now. Surely, they expected the standard level of Internet outrage at the service’s initial discontinuation, but that eventually, folks would move on. Trouble is, they aren’t. That makes sense! After all, a generation of Disney vacationers got used to the Magical Express… and most of them haven’t even learned that it’s gone. The point is, if you think Magical Express was important and hate that Disney took it away without reducing your hotel price to compensate, then take opportunities Disney provides – like surveys, reviews, and Guest Services – to voice that! (Just remember: always be kind to Cast Members. Always!)

4. Revisit Genie+!

Look – we all know what happened here. When the parks returned from their pandemic slumber, FastPass was “paused.” It made sense. After all, very limited capacity (and very low demand) meant lines were short; physical distancing meant queue space was needed; and frankly, FastPass made “Standby” lines move very, very slowly – not a friendly place to be stuck during the middle of a global pandemic. But secretly, we all knew that the longer Disney went without FastPass returning, the less likely it was to come back for free.

“Disney Genie+” officially launched at Walt Disney World in October 2021. A thinly-veiled replacement of FastPass, access to the “service” now costs $15 per person, per day, allowing guests to book hour-long return times to enter FastP– er, um, Lightning Lanes across the resort beginning at 7 AM each morning. We dug into how Genie+ works in a head-to-head with Universal Express, and how to use it in Genie+ guides for Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom.

While reportedly 50% of Disney Parks guests on any given day have upgraded their tickets to include Genie+, reviews of the service are almost uniformally awful. Sure, it’s frustrating to pay for the formerly-free FastPass, but it’s worse than that. With no opportunity cost to secure them, Lightning Lanes “sell out” for some high-demand attractions before 7:01 AM, meaning you can spend $60 for your family of four to unlock the service, only to get it “wrong” and miss out (even just by sleeping in on vacation), or visit a park like Animal Kingdom or EPCOT that doesn’t have enough rides to justify the service at all.

Plus, Genie+ capacity is reduced by excluding the one or two most popular rides at each park, whose Lightning Lanes can only be accessed by Individual, $8 – $15 per person, one-time access – an almost abysmally ugly thing for Disney, for whom free-for-all FastPass was always a PR dream.

Frankly, industry observers aren’t surprised by any of this. It’s not even the first time Disney’s gone through this “tale as old as time,” trumpeting massive financial returns to investors as they slash services and costs and increase unpopular add-ons to boost revenue. It works… until it doesn’t. Even as executives wax poetic on “new revenue streams” on earnings calls, the truth is that fans and families leave their Disney vacation commenting on how bad Genie+ was and how expensive Disney’s gotten. Eventually, as always, it’ll collapse as Disney sells its good will for quick returns.

Of course, it’s important to note that by most measures, the metric of success at Disney has changed. Where once the company’s guest satisfaction was its key performance indicator, the new Walt Disney Company seems to prioritize per capita – that is, “spend-per-guest.” To that end and given current leadership, “bring back free FastPass” isn’t even an argument worth making. It’s a waste of breath. That battle is lost unless and until more money is lost from guests not coming to the parks because of Genie+ than is made by Genie+. Gross, right?

There will probably never be a day ever again that you can enter the priority access queue for Flight of Passage or Rise of the Resistance without paying for it one way or another. (If you think intangible “good will” is enough for Disney to shut off the spigot of $15-a-pop rides that sell tens of thousands of slots in seconds every morning, you’re dreaming.) But take any opportunity Disney will afford to comment on your Genie+ experience – through surveys, Guest Services, write-ins, or reviews – and eventually, some improvements may come. (We’ve got an idea for a much less confusing naming scheme, to start!) 

5. Make staying on-site worthwhile!

No one is surprised to learn that staying “on-site” at Walt Disney World and Disneyland costs a lot. Even the most loyal fans can typically admit that the price of a Value-level hotel on Disney property is often more than a luxurious, contemporary hotel located just outside of the Disney bubble. Even Disney’s Moderate-level hotels – fetching prices of $300 or more a night – are, if we’re being honest, motels that wouldn’t fetch a third the price if they were in Kissimmee. 

Now obviously, there is “magic” to staying on-site: Pop Century, Port Orleans, Art of Animation, Coronado Springs… and that’s to say nothing of Animal Kingdom Lodge, the Grand Floridian, Polynesian Village, Boardwalk…! If you’re looking for a themed, immersive resort packed with detail and storytelling, no one does it like Disney! By nature of reading this, many of us would prefer staying at Riverside (above) for $300 a night over a very nice Hyatt for $250. That’s just the way it is with us theme park fans. 

But especially as resort updates and new builds focus on modern amenities over Disney-style “theme,” and with “Deluxe” hotels charging $600 a night for parking lot view rooms, it really must be asked – what actual, tangible benefits do guests get? Obviously transportation is a big one, and though Extra Magic Hour is gone for good, Early Entry at each Disney World park isn’t a bad deal. But the list of perks taken from on-site guests is pretty astounding: free Magical Express, free MagicBands, free Package Delivery, free Airline Resort Check-In, free parking, free FastPass+, a priceless FastPass+ advantage, and more.

Today, guests staying on-site and paying Disney’s premium pricing need to find their own way to the resort from the airport, buy their own MagicBand if they want one, carry their own packages from park to hotel, check themselves in at the airport, pay $15 to $25 per day to park a car, and set the same 6:55 AM alarm every day of their vacation to get Genie+ Lightning Lanes as everyone else.

None of that is any kind of miserable, unacceptable torture that makes a Disney vacation worse than any other kind, but considering those perks have each been taken away, it sure makes you wonder why the hotel prices haven’t dropped by even a dollar!

(Worth noting: in addition to Early Entry, no Park Reservation requirements, park-to-park access anytime during the day, and rates generally half of Disney’s equivalent for each hotel tier, guests at Universal’s “Premier” level hotels get free Universal Express Unlimited – a $150+ per person per day value – complementary with their room, whereas Disney’s “Deluxe” hotel guests don’t even get the $15-a-day Genie+. Ouch!)

Aside from internal transportation and Early Entry, on-site guests get just one “perk” at Walt Disney World: first access to those up-charge, a la carte Individual Lightning Lanes that go on sale each morning at 7 AM. Since off-site guests have to wait until park opening to buy “ILL” access (by which time some “ILL” rides will have sold out), that essentially means that only on-site guests can reliably buy priority access to high-demand rides like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, or Flight of Passage. That definitely is a perk, but in the same breath, that “perk” is essentially just first dibs… to give Disney more money. That’s a whole lot different than the 30-day head start on FastPass+ reservations of old which was a genuine value add.

6. Take care of your Cast Members!

It will not surprise you to learn that, like Park Reservations or Genie+, another indirect result of the pandemic is a new perspective on work. Disney Parks’ employees – ”Cast Members” – have always been a part of labor force discussions because they tend to be low paid yet highly skilled in Guest Service and highly loyal to the company and brand. Especially in the hot real estate markets in which Disney Parks reside, Cast Members – the people who make the magic – are frequently connected to stories of homelessness and food insecurity. Frankly, that’s embarrassing for Disney and for those of us who funnel money into its theme parks.

We know the arguments: Disney is an international media conglomerate whose Parks division pays as much as many other part time jobs or more. Like nearly every corporation on Earth, it also minimizes work hours to avoid supplying its gargantuan Cast with benefits like health care and paid time off that are legally required for full-time workers. And sure, like any publicly-traded company, Disney has a certain allegiance to its shareholders to minimize costs, maximize revenue, and trumpet returns. And no, Disney’s squeaky clean brand doesn’t exempt it from participating in sometimes-skeezy labor practices that we all should recognize and admit. And yes, ultimately, “it is what it is.”

But it should shock us to learn that in 2021, Executive Chairman Bob Iger commanded a salary of $3 million. Of course, that single year’s salary is enough for most Americans to live comfortably for life. But on top of it, Iger was awarded a cash bonus of $22.9 million, $18.8 million in Disney stock, and $1.2 million in “other compensation,” totaling $49.5 million. Bob Chapek’s pay for 2021 was similar: $2.5 million salary, $14.3 million cash bonus, and $13.9 million in stock options for a total of $32.5 million.

Truly think about that: between them, those two men earned a combined $82 million in total compensation for one year’s work – $37.2 million in cash bonuses alone. And no one would deny that Iger & Chapek generated tremendous wealth for Disney in 2021, and since all’s fair in capitalism, they can absolutely go buy $20 million homes all-cash if they want to. Huzzah! 

But Bob and Bob, if you’re reading this, I’ll tell you something I want you to really think about: part of loving and caring about Disney Parks has to be to love and care for the people who make it possible. Disney Cast Members are very good at “blending in,” becoming quasi-anonymous background actors to your day. It’s easy to think they just push buttons or make Dole Whips or give directions or fix Lightning Lane issues, and their names and stories don’t really matter, because if they quit, five people would trip over themselves to take their place, and it’s a “low-skill,” “entry-level” job, so they know what they’re signing up for and if they wanted better pay, they could go out and try to find it because #freemarket!

But as Walt said, “You can design, create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.” Without Cast Members, Disney Parks wouldn’t exist. Disney has the capacity to care for and support its employees with industry-highest wages, paid-for college tuition, cost of living stipends, paid time off, healthcare coverage or reimbursement, and more. I know, I know – the shareholders! Reporting lower profits to invest in employees? Of course they don’t have to! But they can! And they don’t.

And that’s not to make you and I feel guilty… but I do think it should activate us. And if we’re pressing for Disney to make operational changes to the fundamental ways it runs its parks and collects our money, we might as well suggest ways they should spend it, too!