Home » The Truth About Rising Ticket Prices at Walt Disney World

    The Truth About Rising Ticket Prices at Walt Disney World


    Now that one-day admission to the Magic Kingdom exceeds $100, with the other three parks not far behind, debates about whether Disney is pricing out the middle class are raging.

    In conjunction with a relative lack of new E-ticket experiences and the loss of little things that once set Disney apart, it is easy to understand these concerns. But how do ticket prices today stack up against the options that Disney has provided over the years? Is there truly less value in a ticket today, when all factors are accounted for?

    I’m not a statistician, and it would be impossible to put a monetary value on such things as ride closures and number of merchandise offerings anyway, so we will not approach the topic as a mathematical equation with a clear-cut answer. Instead, think of this as a journey back through time to take a look at the different ticket options Disney has offered over the years, and what they would cost in today’s dollars. By the end, you will have enough information to decide for yourself whether you believe Disney is pricing out the middle class or simply doing what they have always done.

    The Disneyland model


    Image: Wikipedia

    Disneyland was designed to be a better alternative to the dirty and dangerous carnivals and amusement parks of Walt’s day. Hence, although it broke new ground in many ways, inventing the idea of the modern theme park, it also followed many of the conventions of its time. This is easiest to see in the idea of separately paid admission for each attraction.

    When Disneyland opened in 1955, park admission was $1. This fee included a handful of free attractions, such as the Golden Horseshoe Revue, Kaiser’s Hall of Aluminum Fame, and the Monsanto Hall of Chemistry. All of the other attractions were priced at 10 to 35 cents each or, by the end of 1955, a paper ticket valued at A through C.

    In 1956, Disneyland introduced the D-ticket, promoting some of its most exciting rides, such as the Jungle Cruise, to that level. Then, in 1959, the now famous E-ticket was born. Still synonymous with high thrills and excitement, the very first E-ticket rides were the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage, and the Monorail. Several existing attractions were also promoted to E-ticket status, including the Jungle Cruise, Mark Twain Steamboat, and Rainbow Ridge Pack Mules.

    The ticket system worked beautifully. Guests had complained in the park’s earliest months that they were being nickel and dimed all day, due to being asked for cash at every attraction. But tickets were sold in books that provided a small discount on admission, and somehow handing over a paper ticket felt like less of an intrusion than forking over change.

    Matterhorn Bobsleds

    Image: Disney

    But how much did guests pay for a full day at Disneyland in those days? In 1959, a Big 10 ticket book included three E tickets, three D tickets, two C tickets, and one each of B and A tickets, along with general admission. A Jumbo 15 ticket book included one more of each ticket category. The adult price for a Big 10 was $3.50, while a Jumbo 15 cost $4.50. Juniors ages 12 to 17 and children ages 3 to 11 paid less. In 2015 dollars, those prices would be $28.70 for the Big 10, or $36.90 for the Jumbo 15.

    While some visitors are able to do much more in a day, especially with the advent of FastPass and now FastPass Plus, experiencing 10 to 15 rides in a day is still fairly normal. So translating Disneyland’s 1959 prices into today’s money seems to support the idea that Disney admission has gotten much more expensive – especially when you factor in the free attractions that 1959 visitors could experience over and over again at no additional charge. 

    Magic Kingdom opens

    Florida welcomes the Magic Kingdom (Photo in the Public Domain)

    When Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, it followed the highly successful Disneyland model. My grandmother, who lived an hour away, remembered a series of TV commercials in the months before the Magic Kingdom opened. According to the commercials, a family of four could spend the day at the Magic Kingdom for less than $20. And according to my grandmother, a middle-class woman with two kids at home, the price seemed outlandish and she could never justify the expense. Of course, they did end up going several times over the decades that followed, as do many of the people who complain about current Disney prices.

    Magic Kingdom opening day

    Image: Disney

    But were the commercials accurate? Could a family of four spend a day at the Magic Kingdom for that price? When translated into today’s dollars, was the cost exorbitant? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

    Disney’s claim seems reasonable, assuming the commercial was only targeting tickets and not parking or food. In 1971, a 9 Adventure Magic Key Ticket Book for Magic Kingdom Club members cost $4.75 for adults, and a little less for juniors and children. The heavily promoted Magic Kingdom Club, which was free to join for employees of participating companies, provided discounts on a mind-boggling array of travel services and boasted more than six million members in its heyday. So admission for two adults, one junior, and one child, with 9 ride tickets distributed between A and E, would indeed total less than $20. Of course, bigger ticket books were also available, along with extra individual tickets.

    Let’s assume that a typical family of four family chose the 11 Adventure Book with no discounts at all. For two adults, one junior, and one child, the total price would be $21.50. In today’s dollars, that becomes $126.68, or an average of just under $32 per person. When compared to the 1959 Disneyland admission fee, it appears that in 1971, the Magic Kingdom was keeping pace with inflation.

    Epcot changes everything

    Epcot 25th Anniversary replica guide map

    Image: Disney

    With the opening of EPCOT Center on the horizon, Disney needed a radical change to its ticket model. While the individual attractions at the Magic Kingdom lined up well with the pay-per-attraction model, EPCOT Center would consist of vast pavilions that each contained numerous large and small attractions. It was time to abandon the ticket books and embrace a radical new concept – all-inclusive admission.

    Disney knew that it would take time for park visitors to absorb the up-front sticker shock associated with the new model. In particular, locals who used the Magic Kingdom as a place to relax, skipping the ticketed rides and merely paying a low fee to walk around and enjoy the free attractions, would be upset. In addition, many visitors paid at the gate for a small ticket book and then purchased additional tickets throughout the day at ticket booths located across the park. They might have actually paid more that way, but shelling out a few cents at a time was entirely different psychologically.

    To accommodate the changeover, Disney implemented a transitional year. In 1980, the company began offering two day and three day passports that included all attractions at the Magic Kingdom except for the Frontierland Shootin’ Gallery. In 1981, one day all-inclusive passports debuted. The passports were big paper tickets attached to a string that hung from the wrist or shirt button.

    My family visited every year for my birthday in July. In 1981, my fifth birthday was just a little more special because my parents decided to invest in the one day passports. Throughout the day, we were repeatedly waved to the front of the line at fast-loading attractions. My theory is that, since taking tickets cost time, Cast Members were eager to fill seats right before dispatch with riders that didn’t require that extra step.                                 
    Space Mountain

    Image: Disney

    That year, a one day all-inclusive passport cost $12 for adults with the Magic Kingdom Club discount. In today’s dollars, that translates to $31.50. So, when adjusted for inflation, the price of a day at Disney kept pace from 1959 through 1981.

    However, the 1980s marked the beginning of “Disney inflation,” or a rise in ticket prices that far outstripped the rising costs of other goods and services. The most dramatic ticket price increase of the 1980s happened in 1985, when two price increases raised the cost of a one day adult ticket from $18 to $21.50, or from $39.92 to $47.68 in 2015 dollars. Is it merely a coincidence that Michael Eisner had taken the helm the previous year? By the end of the decade, a one day one park ticket had climbed to $29 for adults, or $55.81 in today’s money. Eisner had clearly spotted an opportunity to increase margins.

    Interestingly, though Eisner’s ’90s “Disney Decade” is often referred to as the beginning of the end for classic Disney, prices didn’t really rise that much during that time. In 2000, a one day one park adult ticket cost $46, or $63.75 in 2015 dollars. Still, in the first 15 years of Eisner’s tenure, the real cost of Disney admission doubled the inflation rate – it’s just that the bulk of the increase happened during his first few years in charge.

    Multi-day ticket options

    5 Day All Three Parks Passport

    Of course, most people who visit Walt Disney World stay for more than one day. Disney offered special commemorative tickets to celebrate Epcot’s 1982 grand opening. The tickets were valid for three days of unlimited admission to both Epcot and the Magic Kingdom, and came with a special welcome letter and envelope. The price was $30 for adults, $24 for juniors ages 12 to 17, and $18 for children ages 3 to 11. Translated into 2015 dollars, the adult price was $74.19 for three days, or $24.73 per day. Compared to the inflation-adjusted all-inclusive one day price from the year before, this was a real saving. It was the beginning of the multi-day model that would prevail in later years. But let’s take a look at what happened next.

    Three day ticket prices climbed steeply over the next two years, even before Eisner took charge. By 1984, the cost of a three day adult ticket was up to $42, or $96.97 in today’s dollars. The junior ticket category was also eliminated that year, turning 13 year olds into Disney adults for the first time. In 1985, Eisner’s first full year of tenure, the price rose to $48.50, or $107.56 today. By the end of the 1980s, a three day ticket cost $80 for adults, or $153.96 in today’s money. So in seven years, the price of a three day ticket more than doubled in real cost! For families with children, prices effectively rose even more. In 1987, Disney lowered the child age bracket, turning 10 year olds into Disney adults.

    Prices continued to rise through the Disney Decade. In 1990, three day tickets were discontinued. The shortest multi-day option was the four day All Three Parks Passport, priced at $111 without discounts for adults. In 2015 dollars, that equals $202.67. By 1999, the cost for a four day Park Hopper ticket was $167 for adults, or $239.21 today.

    So much for the shortest multi-day options. What about longer tickets? In 1982, the longest multi-day ticket available was the six day World Passport. The adult, non-discounted price was $60, or $148.38 today. It was discontinued in 1984 in favor of the five day World Passport, which cost $62 for adults, or $142.40 today. Interestingly, that price did not significantly rise until 1986, when it climbed to $85, or $185.08 in 2015 dollars. By the end of the 1980s, a five day World Passport cost $110, or $211 today. Prices continued to rise during the Disney Decade, topping out at $206 in 2000, or $285.48 in today’s dollars.

    So multi-day ticket prices also vastly outstripped inflation during the 1980s and 1990s. The price of the shortest option more than tripled inflation, while the price of the longest option nearly doubled inflation. Clearly, new management was steering the parks in a vastly different direction.

    Annual passes

    Annual pass

    In 1982, Walt Disney World began offering annual passes for the first time. An adult annual pass valid at both the Magic Kingdom and Epcot cost $100, or $90 with a Magic Kingdom Club discount. In 2015 dollars, the price would be $247.29, or $222.56 with the discount. There were two parks instead of today’s four, so doubling the price to account for two additional parks yields a today’s cost of $494.58, or $445.12 with the discount. Since this was the first year for annual passes, it is impossible to look back at earlier prices, but we can look ahead.

    Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989. That year, the price of a new annual pass without discounts jumped to $180, or $346.41 in today’s dollars. That seems roughly in line with the 1982 price, as a third park was now available to enjoy. When Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, a new annual pass cost $299 without discounts, or $437.75 in today’s dollars. Interestingly, this is about $60 less in today’s dollars than our 1982 projection would have predicted.

    In 2015, a new annual pass costs $696.51 without any discounts. Florida residents, DVC members, and members of the armed forces or federal government who purchase passes at Shades of Green get various discounts, and renewal passes are less expensive than first-time purchases. For example, a new Florida resident annual pass costs $563.39, while a Florida resident renewal pass costs $478.19. The best price on a brand new annual pass goes to Florida residents who are eligible to purchase passes at Shades of Green for $474 including tax. So for military members in Florida, and Florida residents renewing valid annual passes, today’s prices have roughly kept pace with inflation. For everyone else, the cost outstrips the inflation rate. If you are not eligible for any discounts at all, the price of a brand new annual pass is approximately 1.5 times the inflation rate…despite the fact that no new parks have opened in 17 years!

    Premium annual passes came on the scene in 1994. At the time, the passes included admission to all three theme parks as well as Pleasure Island and the water parks. The exact minor park admissions have changed over the years as Pleasure Island closed and Disney Quest was added. And, of course, today’s premium annual passes also include Animal Kingdom. In 1994, the pass cost $319 without discounts, or $513.67 in 2015 dollars. If you buy the same pass today, without discounts, it will cost $829.64. Like regular annual passes, discounts are available for Florida residents, DVC members, and the armed forces. And again, military members who live in Florida receive the best deal, at $591. Paying an additional $80 to add Animal Kingdom seems reasonable, but is it worth more than $300 for those who are not eligible for discounts?

    Seasonal Passes

    Haunted Mansion

    Image: Disney

    In 1984, Walt Disney World began offering a new type of pass solely to Florida residents. The Three Season Salute pass was valid during the slow months of January, May, and September. Priced at $40 for adults and $30 for children, it was a tremendous solution for locals who were able to visit during those months. For my family, switching from a once a year trip in the middle of the July heat and crowds to unlimited visits during the cooler slow season felt truly magical. In those days, it really was like having the parks to ourselves. In today’s dollars, the pass price would be just $91.87 for adults! Unfortunately, we are never likely to see an utterly uncrowded Disney park again.

    In 1993, the Three Season Salute pass became the Four Season Salute. For the first time, salute pass holders were able to enjoy the parks during the holidays. The passes included not only January, May, and September, with a few days on either side, but also the quiet period from just after Thanksgiving until a week before Christmas. Priced at $95 for adults without discounts, these passes translate to $156.89 in today’s money.

    In 1995, the Four Season Salute gave way to the Florida Resident Seasonal Pass. Blocked out only for two months during the summer and the week from Christmas through New Year’s, these passes were arguably Disney’s best deal when they debuted. Passes cost $129 in 1995, which translates to $202 today.

    By comparison, a Florida Resident Seasonal Pass today costs $350.39. Although it does include Animal Kingdom, is the value of a fourth park really worth raising the cost of the pass by 1.5 times the inflation rate? 

    Length of stay passes

    Cinderella Castle

    Image: Disney

    While Disney resort guests had long enjoyed small discounts on multi-day tickets, many found length of stay passes to be a real game changer. Although they debuted in 1993 as Be Our Guest Passports, there was no cost savings at that time. A five day Be Our Guest Passport cost exactly the same as a five day Super Duper Pass, and provided the same admission privileges. What was nice, however, was that Be Our Guest Passports were available for any number of days from two to six, depending on the number of hotel nights. Day guest multi-day tickets were available only in four or five day lengths.

    In 1995, Be Our Guest Passports became Length of Stay Passes, which did offer a small cost savings over regular multi-day tickets. The lower price point coupled with the ability to customize the number of days helped Disney fill the resort rooms that they were furiously building during the Disney Decade. Beginning in 1997, E-Ticket Express (later named E Ride Nights) was a hugely popular add-on available only to resort guests. For $10 ($14.87 in today’s dollars), resort guests could enjoy the Magic Kingdom for three hours after regular park closing.

    By the end of the decade, however, the Length of Stay Pass was gone. It was replaced by the Unlimited Magic Pass, which removed most of the perks and cost savings of the Length of Stay Pass.

    Magic Your Way

    Through the turn of the millennium, Disney admission prices continued to rise at a rate greater than inflation. In 2000, a one day ticket cost $46, or $63.75 in today’s dollars. By 2004, that same ticket cost $54.75, or $69.17 in 2015 dollars. Likewise, a seven day Park Hopper Plus cost $296 in 2000, or $410 in today’s dollars. It cost $342 in 2004, or $432.05 in 2015 dollars.

    But the biggest game changer since all-inclusive admission was on the horizon. In 2005, Magic Your Way fundamentally altered everything we knew about Walt Disney World tickets. Like the airlines, Disney decided to “unbundle” tickets, letting guests pay only for what they wanted. And like the airlines, this led to some unexpected and fairly shocking results.

    One of Disney’s most basic premises had always been that park tickets never expire. Guests were encouraged to plan ahead, buying more or longer tickets to lock in that day’s prices. But suddenly, all tickets would now expire within 14 days of first use – unless the guest paid extra to make them non-expiring. Park hopping and “Water Park Fun and More” (admission to the water parks and other minor attractions) became available as flat-fee add-ons.

    So is Magic Your Way really a customizable ticket system that benefits the guest? Or is it a way to bury price increases under a confusing menu of choices? How have Magic Your Way ticket prices risen over the years, and how do those increases compare with the inflation rate?

    We already know that in 2004, a one day adult ticket cost $46, or $63.75 in today’s money. In 2005, a one day Magic Your Way adult base ticket cost $59.75, or $73.01 in 2015 dollars – a pretty sizeable increase on par with the one in 1985. For multi-day tickets with all the trimmings, however, the story is quite different. In 2004, a seven day Park Hopper Plus cost $342, or $432.05 in today’s dollars. In 2005, a seven day Magic Your Way with No Expiration, Park Hopping, and Water Park Fun and More cost $334, or $408.12 in today’s dollars—an effective decrease of $15 after inflation.

    Clearly, Magic Your Way was designed to keep guests on property spending money, as you might have already guessed. It was beneficial to those who wanted all the extra options, but not so good for those who just wanted to see the parks for a day or two. Let’s unbundle Magic Your Way, if you’ll pardon the pun, to see what is really going on.

    The breakdown goes like this: Base tickets provide admission to one theme park per day for the number of days indicated on the ticket, up to a maximum of 10. Park Hopping, Water Park Fun and More, and No Expiration each require an extra fee. Yet the per-day cost of the ticket goes down as you add more days, as does the amortized cost of each add-on.

    So guests began pulling out their calculators to figure out what the best combination of options was for each particular trip, and whether it was worthwhile to purchase extra days of admission plus the No Expiration option, to save for future visits. Rather than simply walking up to a ticket booth and buying an admission ticket, Magic Your Way became an exercise in frustration and confusion. At least Disney ended a bit of the confusion in 2013, when it discontinued the No Expiration option. Today, ALL Magic Your Way tickets expire 14 days after first use.

    Incidentally, another side effect of Magic Your Way was the implementation of “like kind” rules involving ticket upgrades. Disney guests have always been welcome to upgrade their existing admission ticket to a pricier option and receive credit for the ticket already purchased. However, guests who purchase Magic Your Way tickets need to be careful when considering the Water Park Fun and More option. If you choose that option and then decide to upgrade your ticket to an annual pass, you will only be permitted to upgrade to a premium annual pass! Regular annual passes, which don’t include the water parks, are not an eligible upgrade from a Magic Your Way ticket that does include them.

    So that’s the story behind Magic Your Way. But how have those ticket prices compared to inflation over their 10 years of existence?

    In 2005, one day base tickets cost $59.75, or $73.01 in 2015 dollars. Today, a one day base ticket to the Magic Kingdom costs $111.83 – an increase of 1.5 times the inflation rate. And remember, a one day ticket back in 1981 cost only $31.50 in today’s dollars. So the effective price of spending a day at the Magic Kingdom has risen by 3.5 times the inflation rate since all-inclusive pricing was introduced, not including the increases in parking and food costs.

    Pricing on longer tickets with more options has also risen faster than inflation. The seven day No Expiration Park Hopper with Water Park Fun and More cost $334 in 2005, which translates to $408.12 in today’s dollars. But in 2015, the same ticket, without the discontinued No Expiration option, costs $452.63. In 1982, a six day World Passport with effectively the same perks was just $60, or $148.38 in today’s dollars. As Disney fans have long suspected, prices continue to rise at an astronomical rate while value continues to plummet.

    Future considerations

    It seems certain that Disney ticket prices will continue to rise, though the current inflation rate on tickets may well become unsustainable. But Disney seems to have yet another trick up its sleeve. Surveys went out earlier this year that suggest that the company will move to tiered pricing based on projected crowd levels. “Gold” days, such as major holidays, will cost more than “silver” days, which cost more than the traditionally slow “bronze” days. This a step further than Disneyland Paris’ seasonal pricing model.

    What if your trip spans a week consisting of days in all three categories? Some people postulate that you will have to pay a surcharge for each higher-tier day, while others speculate that the entire ticket will be priced at the per-day cost of the most expensive days. Seasonal passes, which would span at least bronze and silver days, not to mention annual passes that are valid on every day of the year, would almost certainly see a massive price hike.

    Only time will tell whether this idea becomes a reality, and how it will affect ticket pricing as we understand it today. But if it takes effect, it is likely to cause a major ripple effect in how Disney fans plan their vacations.

    Disney is a corporation that will charge what the market will bear. At this time, it seems clear that the market, or at least a significant portion of it, will pay the prices that Disney is charging. Is it worth it? Only you can answer that question for yourself. I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments!