Disney fans are a very dedicated group… but even the most devoted fanbase has a breaking point.
Controversy isn’t a particularly unusual subject when it comes to Disney parks—nearly every decision made by Disney leadership over the years has been met with some kind of controversy. While the fanbase can be vocal, nostalgia and love for the Disney experience has gone a long way in maintaining the grace of Disney’s most loyal fans.
The season we are in has proven a little different, and it seems like more than ever before, veteran Disney fans are saying they’ve had enough.
This tension isn’t entirely Disney’s fault—the world continues to wrestle with the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that uncertainty has left many folks a little tenser across the board. We’ve already seen this in the challenges faced by cast members dealing with record numbers of unruly guests losing their tempers inside the parks. Even for calmer minds, many families are finding vacation funds difficult to come by in the midst of rising gas prices, staff shortages (even at Walt Disney World), and other challenges far beyond the realm of theme parks.
Disney’s executive leadership is currently in the midst of a several-year-long changing of the guard—Bob Iger has officially stepped back from Disney leadership with Bob Chapek fully in command as Disney’s CEO. While Chapek has been the subject of much criticism lately, there’s no question the man has had to take on a whopper of a challenge weathering the unforeseen effects of multi-month closures of Disney parks. By all rights, Disney has actually fared far better than many expected.
Despite grace for the unusual nature of the times, this strange season has resulted in many changes at Disney parks—some of which have proven controversial enough to wear some longtime fans down to their last nerve.Disney was doing very, very well prior to the pandemic, particularly with the successful launches of The World of Pandora and the completion of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. What changed?
I do want to clarify one thing before we proceed—there is plenty of mud-slinging online these days. The goal here isn’t so much to gripe as to explore some of the issues grating on longtime Disney fans… and more importantly, consider what Disney might be able to do to win those guests back.
1. Too many upcharges
Upcharges have long been part of the Disney experience. For decades, guests have had the option to upgrade their vacation with special experiences like behind-the-scenes tours, animal encounters, recreational activities, dessert parties, and securing special seating for nighttime spectaculars.
The key thing all these experiences had in common was that they were extras, not essentials—you weren’t really missing out by not purchasing them. They just provided a means to sprinkle extra magic onto a vacation.
Fans have been growing increasingly agitated as Disney has trended towards transforming complimentary experiences and perks into upcharges. In some cases, this has surrounded the replacing of free perks like MagicBands, the Disney Magical Express, and Fastpass+ with paid alternatives.
The most notorious of these, of course, is Genie+--Disney’s new paid Fastpass system, where guests can pay $15 per person per day to purchase access to Lightning Lane reservations for specific attractions. This might sound par for the course for guests familiar with Disneyland’s MaxPass or Universal’s Express Pass, but paid access to shorter lines is a very, very new thing at Walt Disney World.
The truly frustrating thing about Genie+ is that it doesn’t actually get you onto Disney’s top two attractions in each park, such as Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance or Avatar Flight of Passage. For those attractions, you have to pay an extra upcharge of up to another $15 for Individual Lightning Lane access. Yes, the naming is confusing (and that confusion might be deliberate).
Whereas upcharges were once a minor annoyance, we’ve passed a threshold where fans are realizing that if they want to replicate the magic of a Disney experience from as recent as a few years ago, they’ll need to pay extra to do so (on top of rising ticket prices).
How Do They Fix It?
It’s okay that Disney offers upcharge experiences. It’s wonderful that those who can afford to can add magical additions to their vacations like dessert parties, photoshoots, VIP tours, and special fireworks seating.
The key is these extra expenses should remain just that—extras well beyond the typical Disney experience.
A common issue that’s going to come up throughout this list is the devaluation of a Disney parks admission—tickets are more expensive than ever before, but those tickets include less than ever before. I’m not necessarily talking about attractions—Disney has cranked out some spectacular attractions the last few years. This is more about the Disney parks experience as a whole.
Guests are growing weary of upcharges being integrated into primary park experiences. Building a lightsaber or a droid is an incredible experience, but these should be extras, not substitutes for attractions or entertainment. Reintroduce perks that are included in the average ticket or annual pass to raise the perceived value of a Disney ticket. At the same time, continue introducing new content and experiences into the parks that don’t come with a hefty price tag.
The ideas put into concepts like Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser are exceptional but will ultimately prove inaccessible to the majority of the fanbase due to the staggering cost. I’m not saying to cut projects like Galactic Starcruiser—however, don’t pour all of Disney’s resources into experiences only accessible to guests who can pay a premium on upcharges. Integrate some of these ideas into the parks where the average guest can partake in them.
These don’t need to be ultra-expensive additions—even something as small as updates to the Star Wars Datapad game, improving character interactions, or encouraging cast members to lean into immersion elements in lands again would be a place to start.
2. Nickel and Diming vs. All-Inclusive
This ties to the previous issue of upcharges, but it has more to do with an overall shift in philosophy.
You’ve always had to pay a little extra for some Disney experiences like table-service dining or boutique experiences. In years past, however, a trip to Walt Disney World felt more all-inclusive—you knew you were getting a lot for the price of your ticket or resort stay.
As mentioned, Disney has slowly started shaving away perks included with a Walt Disney World parks admission or resort stay. We already mentioned the elimination of free MagicBands, the Disney Magical Express, and Fastpass+, but other previously-complimentary perks have been cut as well, such as free package delivery to resorts and the limiting of certain early/late entry perks to deluxe resort guests only. Even park hopping (a longtime and worthwhile upcharge) has lost much of its value since guests can still only park hop after 2PM.
Overall, it feels like a shift has been made at Disney from an emphasis on including as much as possible to nickel and diming. In the past year, I’ve never encountered so many instances where we felt like we had to barter with cast members to get help with basic things, whether it be perks previously included or something as simple as finding a spare mask if your kid lost theirs. We’ve also seen a reduction in quality at some Disney dining establishments, such as the Garden Grill and Liberty Tree Tavern—seemingly for the sake of cost effectiveness.
How Do They Fix It?
We understand Disney leadership is in a tricky position—the company lost a lot of revenue during the pandemic, and the future of theme park operations remains uncertain so long as COVID continues to be an issue. They have to walk a thin line between not blasting ticket prices through the roof and finding other ways to regain revenue.
The problem is that guests are picking up on the shift—Disney has largely had a reputation for generosity with guests and the community, and too many new charges are leaving many visitors with a bad taste in their mouths.
Disney leadership can start addressing this negative shift in public opinion by looking for creative ways to increase the perceived value of a Disney ticket. Some of the top companies in the travel industry known for guest service (such as Four Seasons) have something in common—they include a lot for a base price. Sure, guests know they’ll be paying extra for dining and splurges, but the main cost of a room gives them access to more experiences and perks than many might have originally expected.
It’s the philosophic shift from, “What’s the bare minimum we can get away with?” to “How much can we include?”. Restore as many perks as you can, and make these additions have actual substance (unlike the poorly executed Genie itinerary planner). Get Imagineers and creative minds together to find ways to increase the value of the average guest’s Disney experience. As for the issue in some restaurants, return to the roots that gave Disney dining a sterling reputation—great chefs utilizing quality ingredients with creative excellence. Many Disney dining establishments are still doing this beautifully (such as Boma), but others need some refreshing.
3. Passholder problems
This issue is specific to Walt Disney World as Disneyland has its own uniquely sticky Passholder situation.
The pandemic proved a double-sided coin for Walt Disney World Passholders. On one hand, Passholders who kept their passes were able to enjoy a pleasant season of remarkably peaceful park visits with low crowds and lots of special offers.
That season has passed, and Disney has since overhauled the Annual Passholder program. The biggest shift of course was the gutting of the primary advantage of having an annual pass—the freedom to visit the parks any time. While Annual Passholders still have access to park hopping after 2PM, they are limited by Disney Parks Pass Reservation availability like everyone else.
While veteran Passholders were able to grandfather in renewals for the pre-pandemic passes, the new Passholder tiers require higher prices for fewer perks (like the elimination of free Photopass access). Blackout dates have also increased on some passes, and MagicBands are no longer free. In addition, Passholders get no discounts or benefits when it comes to Genie+ or Individual Lightning Lane Access, another sting related to the death of FastPass+.
How Do They Fix It?
Passholders are one of Disney’s most loyal fanbases, even if they are different than out of town guests. They might be less likely to purchase Genie+ but they are more likely to make repeat visits that will result in dining and merchandise purchases.
Finding ways to continue rewarding Passholder loyalty will go a long way to maintaining that fanbase. Bringing back free MagicBands (even the basic plastic ones) would be a nice start, as would expanding Park Hopping hours. Improved discounts for Photopass, as well as for new experiences like Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser would be well-received (the latter is a big one—Passholders have already paid for access to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It makes no sense for them to pay again for the admission included as part of the price for Galactic Starcruiser).
Jett, this article is absolutely the best summation of the deteriorating guest experience at the Disney parks I have read. This, along with your article on too much technology brilliantly point out some problems that not only are tiring out the top fans, but also make the parks seem unwelcoming to first time guests. Well done.
I stopped going when they decided to charge $25 to park in their parking lot at the hotel I was paying over $300 a night to stay in. When you needed to formulate a game plan months in advance of going, because everything was reserved already if you waited. It seems Disney only cares about how much they can squeeze out of you. sad.