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Walt Disney World's Middle Class Problem

Why This Strategy Might Be a Mistake for Disney Long-Term

Walt Disney World is a success because of its cultural ubiquity. Everyone knows what it is, and a large percentage of the U.S. population has visited it at least once. There are a number of reasons for that, but the biggest is its accessibility.

For generations, Walt Disney World was an attainable vacation destination for millions of middle-class families. So attainable, in fact, that many made it an annual tradition. Out of this annual tradition, the Disney Vacation Club was born. That business has been so popular, each year seems to see the announcement of new construction projects for DVC properties.

Now, with price increases being what they are, the average returning Disney guest will be back once every three years. As the prices for tickets and lodging continue to rise, the time between visits will grow as well.

When an annual Disney trip was an attainable dream for a middle-class family, that family’s connection to the place was more powerful. They couldn’t afford to go to Paris, no, but they could visit the World Showcase. Now, if it’s a more fleeting memory, the passion wanes and – in time – so too will the desire to spend more money on it.

And so, what Disney is hoping is that a new class of wealthy traveler will chose to visit Disney, thereby making up the cost of those families who don’t vacation to Disney each year. The fault in this logic, however, is that it assumes those wealthy travelers will return again and again – not a certainty when you consider the price of a Disney trip is now on par with a European vacation. Why keep coming back to Walt Disney World when you can see the rest of the world, too?

For Disney to continue to grow with a smaller consumer base, it has to continue to grow, change and differentiate itself from its competition. At a more expensive price point, that competition includes pretty much anywhere else people want to take a vacation. If it continues to operate at the lackadaisical pace it has been operating at when it comes to developing new rides, attractions, hotels, and experiences, that smaller consumer base will move on to something else.

If Disney wants to be more like Apple, it needs to give the same level of instant gratification Apple does with its new product launches, which come nearly every year. That means it can’t keep taking most of a decade to build things like Pandora: The World of Avatar.

Why the Middle-Class Should Matter to Disney

Perhaps with America’s dwindling middle class, Disney is making the right move by turning itself into a luxury commodity, but it’s hard not to look at its newest parks abroad – those in Shanghai and Hong Kong – and see destinations bolstered by China’s burgeoning middle class. Clearly Disney sees the virtue of that demographic overseas, but perhaps it thinks America’s middle class isn’t large enough to be worth the effort.

But if Disney continues to price out the middle class, it will be in for a shock if that middle class grows once again in the United States. It was in such an environment in the 1950s that America’s first recreation boom came about – seeing the growth of things like bowling alleys, movie theaters, and amusement parks. If that happens again, Americans will once again look to leisure activities, but if the middle class can’t afford Walt Disney World, their eyes might turn elsewhere – like, maybe, Universal.

That would be a real tragedy for Disney, a company which grew into the enormous enterprise it is today due to the devotion of the middle class to its works. Disneyland was built for the vacationers of the 1950s. The old cinemas were filled with Disney films. Disney was the company of leisure, and generations felt connected to them because of it.

The goal of a vacation should be to escape all of these problems – to turn your mind off and simply relax. And for now, Walt Disney World is still such a place. But as the prices continue to rise, it’s hard not to enjoy it while also having a nagging thought in the back of your head: “Yes, I’m enjoying it – but is it actually worth it?” For some, that answer will always be yes – even if they have to come back less and less often just so they can afford it.

For others, the answer will be no, meaning their children will no longer have that same emotional connection to the place, and so on down the line. The experience Disney is selling will, to that next generation, be worth slightly less.

And so, for Disney, the goal shouldn't always be to make the most money in the short-term, or even the near long-term. There's added value in teaching the next generation to love Disney, even if that means making a little less per family. We're all Disney fans because of the memories we created there -- but those memories aren't tied to a hotel room, a MagicBand or a Fastpass+ reservation. They're tied to the people we were with and the times we spent together. And families will continue to have those experiences, they just might not be at Walt Disney World.

Thus, years from now, when the next generation takes their own kids to enjoy the world beyond the Mouse, Disney will have no one to blame but themselves.

Or, rather, itself -- it's a corporation, remember?

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There are 40 comments.

I'd have to admit, I've always been an over the top disney fan in all my 32 years. My family has taken plenty of trips throughout my childhood to WDW and found myself making frequent trips with my friends as I got older. Not that it's locally convenient because it's not, I've always resided in the mid-Atlantic region. A few years ago I just started to realize that I'm making frequent trips every 2-3 years and nothing as changed (outside of a meet and greet) This is referencing all four of the major parks. Just mundane upgrades or packages that I've purchased but felt it was more otiose at best. I too can say that I've been coaxed into the Universal Studios revamp after Harry Potter. Although I wasn't the biggest fan of the movies, Universal has been pushing the envelope for new and creative experiences. This has resulted in me going every year, mostly twice with Halloween Horror Nights and avoiding Disney all together, more so for lack of excitement than financial purposes. Just like your article stated, I've decided to spend my Disney dollars on Caribbean & European vacations these pass years.

Excellent article! I started taking my daughter when she was 3 an did not go myself until I was an adult an we where that family that annually made the trek to Disney. However, we went this year with grandkids an the "magic" has definitely faded with the Disney greed. I remember before the ABC buy when Walt's dream was alive an greed was not the sole objective an exquisite face painting was free at the Marketplace an Disney was worthy of my money an annual visits, but that feeling an "magic" will never be instilled in my grandchildren because I have lost it. I have no desire to return to what has now just become about the bottom dollar an not Walt's dream for a place of "magic" any longer!

Absolutely correct. We used to go every year or other year but no longer, it has gotten too expensive. Now it will be every 5 years and wev will not go to the parks everyday and will go to universal instead. Sorry but even staying at a valued resort for a week and then tickets and food etc you are readily in the 3600 out higher for a family of four

I have to agree Disney has increase prices every year and basically if I don't get the free dining I don't book a trip (thats only way I see the value because of my kids age). When my children are alittle older I will skip Disney all together and attend Universal if the price is less. I went for a couple days this year and we stayed outside the park during Halloween. We actually did Mickey's not so Scary twice and way better value for your money. You might have to wait until the evening before you enter the park but you get everything done (because lines are short), cooler weather, lower ticket price and only buying 1 meal inside park. I attended Universal on horror night and I have to say I was impressed with all the upgrades they have done to the park. Saying that I haven't been there for a few years but I was impressed with Harry Potter and Simpson theme area.

I've had that nagging thought that we could be taking amazing vacations out of the country for what we're paying for a week at Disney. I love it there but the prices are quickly becoming too insane for an accountant and a nurse's salary.

I Say in the long run, The Six Flags, Hersheypark's, Dollywood's,Ceder Points,... RCI,NCL & Carnival Cruise lines etc will be the biggest winners from Disney's short term greedy move. (aside from a temporary few year STAR WARS LAND bump that's a guaranteed audience at any price.)

Why?,....Because these family's will now choose a week in Pigeon Forge, or Hershey Pa, etc for a 1/4th of the price of a Disney Vacation, or realize a Cruise Ship costs less per day per person than a ticket to WDW, yet includes the stateroom and food & shows for free instead of up-charges,.....and boom!,....in one generation,....Disney's yearly vacation tradition is a bust. (especially if these other park chain's start to add hotels, rides, and year round events to make them destination vacations.

It's no more expensive than going anywhere else nowadays. I am going in 3 weeks. Three admissions for my family, 7 days at Coronado Springs, 2 meals a day included, 2500. Not bad at all to go to a theme park for 7 days with overpriced food included. Cost the same to rent a condo at the beach in Destin for a week without food.

This is a well written article and states the facts very clearly. I wish every stock holder would read this and see the legacy as more important then the profit line. It is so sad to live in Florida and not be able to afford to take my family to the greatest place on earth! Thank you for taking the time to write this! May 2016 be a blessing to you!

I have been saying this for 15 years now.My income is at the bottom of middle class.I do not go to Disney .I have Universal Orlando Annual passes(renewal rate went up for them this year)and I just got Seaworld Annual Passes on Black Friday BOGO.I have a good inexpensive Hotel that I like. I drive every few months and can do 5 days (over a weekend) for under 500 bucks.I have stayed onsite at all 4 Universal Hotels when a good passholder rate was offered.

Wow. Spot on. Unfortunately, this made too much sense to me. It's really disheartening to see the price increases left and right and we're left to wonder how we will be able to afford it all the next time around. My husband and I have been annual passholders for the past 2 years and our passes are up for renewal this month- but it is very likely that we won't be able to renew them this time. We are looking at every option wondering how we can scrape together the money or even finance it on a credit card but it doesn't seem to be a feasible possibility anymore. I'm so excited to hear about the progress in the parks and things in the parks' future but it's unfortunate reality that a huge portion of the Disney "fan base" won't be able to continue their trips to see it all happen. As much as it kills me, I am probably in that category now. I can only hope that things will change in Disney's mind.. Or our personal financial situation. Sad truths.

Exactly what I've been thinking. You put it very well. I'm going this summer but only because I'm also on a Disney cruise, have DVC, and they offered 25%for Canadians.

i don't see us going back. they have priced where we can't do it being retired

I disagree with you. The last hotel Disney built was another VALUE hotel (Art of Animation). And if you go on Disney's site right now you can get a value room for under 100. That is cheap...you would have to admit that. But, if 100 is too much you can stay at hotels outside of Disney for very reasonable prices. And lastly, the ticket prices are high for short stays...BUT, the per day price gets reasonable if you stay a bunch of days. One day is 105 but a four day ticket is 305. And all the other experiences you speak of are extras that aren't essential for a good Disney experience.

So, if you want to bash Disney, write about them laying off 200 plus IT workers and replacing them with foreign workers. That makes my blood boil.

I am so glad to see someone put my
feelings in print. I was so disappointed in my
Christmas visit this year. Where were the wonderful decorations? The Parks had minimal decorations. Segments of the Candlelight Processional were deleted. MVMCP Passholder pins were sold out. I have been to WDW 88 times. I never thought I could be disappointed. I can't say that anymore.

My family and I had been to Disney several times between 96 and 2008. Now it is just too expensive. One day at Magic Kingdom without buying any food or souvenirs or even a hotel will cost me 525 dollars a day.

Thank you for pointing out a sad reality for those of us who LOVE Disneyland, but simply can not afford to go as often anymore. I live in California and five years ago my husband and I bought annual passes. We always bought the cheapest So Cal Select option, with like 180 blackout days, but for us it was still a great deal at just under $200. Each year it went up a little, but now it is over $300 and the available days seem to keep shrinking. As huge Harry Potter fans, we opted this year to buy a pass to Universal with an availability of over 300 days, which is closer to our home, for LESS than the cheapest Disney pass. So far it is not the same experience as Disney, but we will see how the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is and honestly it is more within our middle class budget.

I agree completely and it makes sad. As a child we used to go every year. I'm a true addict and want to pass on this tradition of magic to my kids. As our family has grown we have seen our trips become less frequent. Now every few years instead of every year. We have six kids and although I have a sentimental my oldest children don't. They are more interested in "teen" trips and shhhh...universal.

Totally agree... Walt would not be pleased!! Middle class made Disney great, now they are leaving us behind.. Sad

I really think you have hit it on the head I feel the same way it is getting just to crazy on prices!!

Those of you who ever wondered why math was important: the RATE of price increase is the "first derivative" (the slope of the graph); the ACCELERATION of price increase is the "second derivative." There. Calculus, seen through Disney parks :)

So true. My kids, who grew up going to Disney World almost every year, are telling me to stop going to Disney because it's so expensive. They are telling me to go on a European vacation for approximately the same money I'd spend at Disney. It's so sad. I was standing in line with a former Disney employee who said his department feared that someday the accountants would be running the company, and now that has come to pass. The shareholders rule - which is not only ruining Disney, but our entire country.

Well, like the rest of you I see wdw making their choices - now I will make mine. Doubt they'll miss me. Any hints on how to do universal? Is there a blog for the others like this is for wdw?

Glad it's not just me, thinking this way. I've seen people on these pages complain about the price before, only to be shutdown and told they're stupid for not knowing how to stay on the cheap. You shouldn't have to know! We've taken two family trips to WDW in the past few years, one with my wife's parents and one without. Between the two, we paid $19,000 beef the cost of driving 1/2 of the way across the country and associated lodging and meals. We stayed in the Poly once and the Contemporary the next time (Garden Wing!) and stuffed as many people in as few rooms as possible. We are, admittedly, pretty well-off. But even my eyes water when I start looking at the prices for the GF, much less the new villas and the like... We'll go back b/c we can. But I hate that others can't get the same experience b/c of the cost...

As DVC members we have invested a lot of money in Disney and as time has gone on we have seen DVC member perks all but go away. We did not renew our annual pass in 2015 and we aren't looking at buying them in 2016. I agree that there hasn't really been any new attractions worth the uptick in ticket prices. We were there 4 weeks ago and even though we had tickets we only spent about 45% of our time in the parks. Our next trip is planned for May, but I'm not sure we will even go to any of the Disney parks. We are thinking Universal, Sea World and Busch Gardens.

We would totally agree. We are in the middle class, and we typically went every year, then started going every other year. Six years ago we joined the Disney Vacation Club, and went on our first Disney cruse, and to a Disney resort all in one year. After a few years of going to the resorts again every year, we have now started spreading the time out between visits. Our last visit was just after Thanksgiving of last year, and we all came home feeling a little disappointed for the whole trip. Everybody felt like we saw less, and did less than ever before. We were also disappointed by the recent "improvements" (new castles, new rides). We are now looking in to other places we might go for vacation next. Problem is, what to do with our vacation points. It will be sad to see them expire, but this last trip was too expensive, and too much work to have everybody so disappointed. If we were offered membership in the vacation club now, after our last visit, we would pass on it and use the money somewhere else.

@Steve Taylor,

There are websites out there (like on DISboards.com)where you can rent your DVC points out. That way you're not losing out on the money you paid for them.

Have to agree. We would definitely go more often if prices were more reasonable.

I've visited Disney 3 times a year since I was 20. I now will only attend once this year, next year when prices go up, I will probably go once every two years and the year after that when they go up again, Disney will be a fond memory. It just doesn't make sense to me to takenthe same Disney vacations when I can travel the world at the same price. I enjoy Disney for its dining, entertainment and family fun but at the end of the day, it's the same place, same food, same rides. Doesn't make sense to keep doing the same thing for the same price that I can travel the world. I am middle class. But my very rich friends and family go to Disney every three years. Rich people are very smart with their money and they know Their kids get more out of vacations to Europe than the constant visits to Disney. I see Disney is a bad situation if this keeps up.

I believe dear ol' Walt is probably turning in his grave (his cryogenics tube, actually). I do not believe this is what he intended for his parks. His priority was to make the most people happy at a reasonable profit, not to make a few happy while making investors filthy rich.

My family has been coming to Disney World since 1991. It was every year or so. The kids got bigger, but we still made our trips. My grandson lives in Orlando and we have been coming down every other month for almost 8 years, but go to the park VERY infrequently. I can't justify the cost, especially since very little has changed. My grandson and family live right there and hardly ever go to Disney. We have annual passes for universal, however. Disney had priced me out, and my family and I are HUGE Disney fans. Very sad.

It is sad that prices keep going up but how else will they slow down attendance growth in the most popular vacation destination on earth? I do not want it to be so crowded when I go that I need to have reservation for everything. It is already too close to that now.

My family has also given up on Disney Vacations. Between the prices and the over planning for the dining reservations and fast passes and the same old rides we are definitely going to Universal for our next family vacation.

To think that Hollywood Studios is going to be under construction until at least 2021 and there is no end in sight to the Animal Kingdom construction is enough for us to realize that we are done with the price gouging, stagnant experiences and poor attitudes in evidence at Walt Disney World.

When people ask me about a Disney vacation I tell them that I can no longer recommend one. They look on in disbelief as I describe having to pay such high prices only to have to plan the vacation with all the precision of a highly regimented schedule and deal with long non-fast pass lines, poor quality theme park food and housekeeping that is hit or miss. I tell them that at some point, probably in the middle of their trip, they are going to realize that they spent thousands of dollars and that the "Disney Experience" is no longer magical.

Universal has been kicking Disney's keister in the pricing and showmanship areas. Our family has decided that Universal deserves our hard earned vacation dollars. We are no longer going to be one of Disney's mindless minions!

I have been a passholder since forever but I am beginning to see the end. Every year it costs more and you get less. Take the Candlelight Processional for example. They have 3 shows and you need a dinner package to get a seat. The program is played so fast it sounds like the Chipmunks singing and the Orchestra can barely keep up. They have ruined the program for us old timers who knew it when. Any one who has been going to Disney over the years can tell you it ain't as good as it used to be. This will probably be my last year as a passholder.

One of the things not addressed is the creeping nature of the exclusions to your Disney Experience. Slowly, general viewing areas are being shrunk and the premium experiences are not only rewarding the wealthy with uninhibited views of shows and experiences but forcing the rest of us into smaller and smaller pens where our views are restricted and our sightings compromised. Last year at Epcot a virtually empty premium viewing areas made a mockery of the system as hundreds of other visitors craned their necks or stooped to avoid the tree line hiding the action. Look also at the faces of those prematurely turfed out of the Magic Kingdom for an evening event. That day ticket cost the same as a full day yet the experience is devalued. Eventually, there will be few opportunities to view some ordinary events without committing to an extra buy-in.

Keep raising those prices Disney!!! Its fine by me, the parks are so busy now hopefully this will keep the crowds down. Enjoy your Six Flags and Universal, along with your Android phones.... #PriceOutThePoor

Spot on. If you are going to price your offerings based on an experience, there better be a darn good experience. And that's the part of the equation that Disney has been neglecting. Frequent minor annoyances throughout ones visit are what contribute negatively to the entire experience. For instance, putting RFID's on the bottom of drink cups to prevent "unlimited" refills from occurring too quickly just to squeeze a few more pennies of margin out of a product is corporate greed, a greed who's presence is only magnified when the experience costs more and more.

That's why websites like GoingToWDW.com thrive offering tips and tricks to avoid being raped by a mouse.

Well times have changed since this story was written. Now Disney is going for the lowest common denominator by bringing back the SoCal AP's and letting people make interest free monthly payments!

Imagine you're a tourist that will drop thousands of dollars on a trip to Disneyland (even more if you stay in a Disney hotel) and when you get there it's shoulder to shoulder people with most of them only paying a few (yup, less than $5.00) buck to be there. You have to ask yourself is this worth it, since the only ones really making out on the deal is Iger and the other executive with their obscene bonuses...

This article says exactly what I have for quite some time now. I have been a Disney fan for more year than I'd like to admit to. I was a cast member for 9 years in various aspects of the company and loved every minute of it. My 3 boys and I looked forward to our trips there at least 5 to 6 times a year for at least 4 days at a time. My husband and I met up with some friends this past October and I couldn't believe what we paid even staying at a value resort for 4 days. This year we are taking a Caribbean cruise for 7 days all inclusive, for less than 4 days at Disney. They are definitely not for the middle class any longer, but what they forgot is that it was us people in the middle class that made Disney what it is today!!

I used to like going to Disney to escape form the outside world and relax. But now you have to do so much scheduling to even eat or be able to rided a ride upu like without waiting an hour in line. It is no longer relaxing. A Disney vacation is too much work now. And with the expodential cost increases, I can leave the country for that escape and relaxation that Disney lost for way less.

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