A tipping point?

I have a few things to admit to myself here.  It’s been bopping around in my head for a little while now, and I’m finally taking the time to sit down and write.

1)      The post that I’ve had in mind to write for probably 2 months now is probably not happening any time soon. 

2)      It likely wasn’t going to work out the way I wanted it to anyway.

3)      I’m leaving in a week for what I believe is my only trip to Florida, for sure as an adult (Spring Break doesn’t count right?), that doesn’t involve a trip to Disney Parks™.

The three things have a lot more in common than you might think on first glance.  The blog post that I have been meaning to write is one that was intended to answer a question that was in my head, especially as I plan this trip to Florida, and one that I feel has been really prevalent in some of the Disney discussions of late. 

Is Disney raising prices at a rate that is above it’s competition?  This was not meant to look at other theme parks, but other vacation and entertainment destinations.  I’d collected some data from various sources (the internet), I’d even built a screen scraping program to try and scrape news headlines going back to 1998 so I could see if I could find things related to the “cost” of planning a Disney vacation.  Looking for terms like “premium”, “increase”, “hard-ticket”, “VIP”, etc. 

The problem?  Well, honestly, in software terms, it was a problem with scope-creep.  I kept coming up with other things I wanted to do, look into, research, analyze.  Along with that?  Not nearly enough time to do any of this.  I start with something like this:

Looking at NFL ticket prices, you can go back a decade to 2006 and the average ticket price was $62.38.  In 2015 it was $85.83.  That’s a 37.6% increase.

Who doesn't love a good chart?!?

Who doesn't love a good chart?!?

Going back the same time, not looking at single day tickets because, well, that’s a whole different digression, but let’s look at the cost of a 5 day multi-park (no hopper).  In 2006 a 5-day ticket was $199-209 (let’s use the average at $204).  In 2016, the same ticket is $315-340 (again, average $327.50).  That is a 60.5% increase. 

I wanted to go through this looking at hotel prices in high-tourist areas, concession prices, heck, even the GDP.  That’s the thing.  That takes T-I-M-E that I haven’t had to devote lately.  And I don’t know if I would have been able to achieve this grand vision I had, part investigative journalist, part data scientist wannabe, starting with the idea, taking it through a deep dive, proving that it is increased but somewhat similar to other areas, and poetically bringing it back around to a personal connection to the cost of a family vacation.

As a famous American once said



I do however get the feeling that Disney is either teetering on the edge, or already have flown past a tipping point.  I’ve noticed a shift in the conversations around a Walt Disney World vacation these days.  I do not get the chance to participate in as many discussions as I once did.  Job responsibilities and all that.  I do skim and catch the general feelings though, and there seems to be a shift in the tone of the conversation.  There has been a subtle shift in the feelings that I get when reading some of my favorite sites and Twitterati, and it’s not a positive shift.  There is a WHOLE lot we could dissect here, and I think that there are layers upon layers of confounding factors here that together have built up over time.

Taking a minor glance though, just a peek into the mindset, it’s easy to trace how the sentiment can be held.  Realize that I am not saying I agree with all of this, just stating what I feel to be the general consensus and how it might look for the more casual observer.  Maybe those of us who feel the need to write or discuss Disney for whatever reason we are driven to do so can unpack some of these things to come up with some sort of justification.    

It’s easy to line up a narrative that paints Disney in a pretty bad light here.  We can point to the fact that while some may disagree, the investments in the park that are currently visible can be bucketed into New Fantasyland, which has a general feeling of disappointment in some groups.  Also, major investments into Disney Springs, a place to shop and a series of great looking yet expensive dining establishments.   Avatarland is still far enough off with few enough details shared that most folks likely mostly associate the middlingly entertaining film (not the potential of the environment and attractions).  Epcot, well, we’ve discussed that a little around here, let’s just mention the Frozen overlay and be done with it.  Hollywood Studios has a bright future, but not a ton currently visible or known about the lands that will be replacing it.  Just a bunch of construction walls. 

You know my love of the Magic Band if you’ve read my earlier post, but to those that might not think about the data underneath, the Next Gen project and it’s massive budget is seen as a massive waste in what could be spent in attractions. 

In the meantime, Disney looks to be monetizing as many “extra” events as it can.  It’s making special ticketed events, VIP tours, premium packages, you name it they’ll find a way to put a price on it.  New restaurants are opening up and some folks are getting a little sticker-shock.  I remember going into detail at one point justifying the Tomahawk Chop at the Boathouse from a point of view of the markup percentage on that steak was vastly under what the markup on a Ribeye from Outback would be. 

This coupled with the news of temporary parks and resorts cutbacks in staffing to make up for cost overruns in the opening of Shanghai Disney.  While these may indeed only be temporary, riding out until the end of fiscal year 2016, Disney has a problem on it’s hands in the fact that it’s seen as cutting guest services at the same time it’s increasing ticket prices, implementing surge prices, modifying annual passholder benefits, cutting out 3rd party resale of DVC…

Now, I can sit and pick each of those apart and justify nearly anything if asked.  I can easily defend New Fantasyland.  I can defend Disney Springs as a smart and savvy investment that will help not only US travelers, but foreign travelers as well as a barely mentioned convention circuit. 

I can go on all day about the potential of Avatar, the nighttime expansions of Animal Kingdom, the concept art for Star Wars Land. 

I can point out that the extra ticketed events are pretty much all things that were not available previously.  Nothing is being taken away and you are not forced to do them and can still have the same vacation as you previously had.  It’s a cost-value calculation to decide if an event is “worth it” to your family. 

I can justify everything but it’s decision to continue to half ass Epcot, extending festivals longer and longer to suckle at the teat of food and beverage, adding a controversial change to World Showcase and a new film to it’s only consistently loved attraction but apparently not going all the way with it ( why not a Star Tours-esque dynamically changing multiple segments attraction?).  I can’t and wont justify any of that.  I’ll rail against it in post after post.  But I digress.

What I can’t do however is fight that feeling that you get when you add all of the above together in a few year timeframe.  The feeling that can come from seeing massive capital investment from a competitor open and drawing crowds while Disney builds shops and restaurants and adds so many special ticketed events that it’s the lazy joke to make to suggest every single thing added is going to cost extra to take.  The story when put together is what I feel that Disney has done a poor job at managing, and I fear a bit for them.  It’s not as hard to improve an attraction, fix a botched launch (looking at you Rivers of Light), as it is to change an entire narrative that is swaying the most ardent fans.  Once a story gets out there, it can be hard to change the collective mindset.  To make an obvious joke here: Once that genie is out of the lamp, it’s damn hard to get it back in there

The obligatory Disney reference

The obligatory Disney reference

Let’s tie that back to myself, because it’s my blog.  I mentioned that I’ll be taking a trip to Florida in just over a week.  We’ll be staying around a week, doing some Gulf Coast fun with family.  I’ve looked at it 100 different ways.  My family obviously loves Disney World.  It’s nearly a daily topic of conversation in our household.  I’d love to be able to take 3 days and visit WDW with the family while we are right there, a few hours away.   It just doesn’t work for our family at this time for a “short” trip.  I’d love to find a way, I really would.  I’ve looked a hundred different ways (exaggeration).  There is just not enough value in a trip under about 5 days for my family. 

Just looking at ticket prices for our family, a fairly standard nuclear family, (using undercovertourist.com as my go-to trusted 3rd party ticket dealer) the ticket prices of $308 for adults and $289 for kids.  That’s $1194 total just for tickets.  Just about $100 per person per day.  Tickets only, no food, no lodging, no extra ticketed events, no stuffed Goofy dolls.  Add in just a value room for those nights and we’re likely close to $1600.  Guess $80/day for food (way underestimated) and we’re up to $1840.  So, grand total, we’re looking at $2000-ish for 3 days fun at Walt Disney World.  $166/person/day.

Going back just to the beginning of the decade, in 2010, the same tickets would cost me $812.  That’s a 47% increase for my family of 4 for 3 days.  $67.66 per person per day.  I’m too lazy to look up value-resort rack rates in 2010 right now, so let’s just use that base number.

What once was likely doable (though maybe a stretch) is now out of the question.  The fact that tickets and lodging together likely would just about equal the cost of the tickets alone a mere 6 years ago is rough.  The thought that I’m estimating about $35 for lunch and $45 for dinner (if I’m lucky) at counter service dining establishments makes it more out of reach.  The fact that I’d be walking away from some extremely interesting dining options out of price concerns adds to the feeling, and the fact that in no scenario could I see myself devoting time to more than 2 of the existing parks (Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom), even on a 4 day trip, the taste in the mouth starts to get bitter real fast.

I’ll admit it, my opinion has turned.  I used to be one who had glowing optimism for ¾ of the Disney parks, and for the rest of the resort as a whole.  I could justify just about anything that Disney was doing by trying to look at it either from a business perspective or a long-term perspective.  That was honestly part of what I planned to do with this site, celebrate the joys of Disney, discuss the failures of Epcot and why it was not living up to what it meant as a part of WDW. 

I’m in no mood to celebrate the praises of the resort these days, and yes, jealousy is admittedly a part of it.  Selfishly, I want to go yet cannot.  I see everything through my personal lenses, and those lenses are clouded right now.  I’ll fully admit that. 

I’ll also point out that Disney is leaving dollars on the table for me.  They won’t get my business this year, they will get a reduced part of my business on my next trip due to my daughters obsession with Harry Potter, and when we eventually do get back to WDW, it likely will not be for 3 more days than we would have stayed on a typical vacation.  They lose this time, this money, and if they are not careful, they are going to do the same for a whole huge section of the traveling population.  The narrative is shifting under their feet, and if they don’t realize it soon, I fear that it’s going to take a massive effort on their part to get back into the good graces of the public.