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Mike Scopa

Walt Disney World Introduces New Best Rate Program

The good, the bad, and the ugly of new Annual Passholder reservation plan

Thursday, June 24, 2005
by Mike Scopa, staff writer

I've taken a few days to digest the latest "Annual Passholder Best Rate Program" which you may or may not have heard about. Walt Disney World is planning to test this program later this year for those arriving October 8 through December 19 of this year. There is a lot of concern over this program so it's probably a good idea to take a look and see what all the fuss is about and look at this objectively. Here are the details.

Online booking

In the past, those who owned annual passes to Walt Disney World would usually call up the Central Reservation Office and book their rooms with a request for the annual passholder rate. Of course, you could always have your travel agent do the same.

Now it looks like the only way for you or your travel agent to book a room is via the Internet. Guests would be required to do so through the Annual Passholder Web site (link). That probably is not a big deal unless you don't have access to a computer and like to book your own vacations.

So this does not bother me at all, but then, I'm not a travel agent. It could be an issue for an agent who now must do booking online. Even worse, would they lose business because now their clients can do their own booking?

Active passholders only

With the new program, you must now have either an active annual pass or annual pass voucher to log into the Annual Passholder Web site and book your room. Is there a problem with this? Not really. You should be a valid annual passholder before being allowed to book your room, right? Sure it may force you to purchase your annual pass sooner than you had planned, but you were going to buy it anyway.

The annual passholder who is booking the room must be an adult. In the past you could do so with a child's annual pass. It's been done, but not any more. Again, this should not be a problem to anyone.

There's more.

The person booking the room (the adult Passholder) must be part of the traveling party that is staying in the room. So far I have no issues. Do you?

Also, and pay attention, the credit card that is used to put down the deposit for the room must be in the name of the adult Passholder booking the room. Hey, I have no problem with that either.

So far it seems that the rules for this program appear valid and reasonable. They seem to be put in place to protect the annual passholder community from those who would try to get around certain restrictions and possibly snag an annual pass rate room when they aren't even eligible for that rate.

ID, please

The new policy requires that guests show their active annual pass during check-in time. I have no problem with that because it does protect the annual passholder, so this one I agree with 100 percent. In fact, I wish that this policy had been in place years ago. I wonder how many people got this rate in the past and never had to show their annual pass?

Last year while check in into one certain resort, I asked the person on the other side of the desk why he never asked me to show him my annual pass. He smiled and said, "It's not in the script!" Well, it is now.

So here's a question. Let's say you book your room on September 1 for a January stay, but your annual pass runs out in October. Does the site still let you book the room? Remember, you will have an active annual pass at booking time but not when you check in. But the wording says, "valid pass at check-in." So does this mean if you renew beforehand, you have to go to a park and get the pass before checking into your room? This is very unclear.

When to book

The new policy calls for guests to book their rooms at least 120 days in advance. This is a four-month requirement, and it may not seem like a big deal to a lot of people. Generally, most Walt Disney World veterans are usually so well-versed in planning their vacations that they will book somewhere in the six- to nine-month range anyway.

So could this 120-day requirement be a big deal? It could be for those last-minute planners who are looking for the best deal at the 11th hour. I know I've found myself looking for a room a month out and hoping for an annual pass rate. I have gotten it in the past, but not after this program is implemented.

If anything, this will condition annual passholders into planning their trips well in advance, which may not be a bad thing.

And then there was one

Previously, an annual passholder could book up to three rooms at an annual passholder rate. This new policy changes that. Now,you can only book a single room.

So what does that do for the large family who cannot afford a suite at one of the deluxe resorts and usually will book adjoining rooms at the value or moderate resorts? How about extended families with grandparents?

I tend to agree that three rooms seemed to be an odd number. Maybe the right number is two rooms. But just one? C'mon! I think we are being a bit unnecessary here. Didn't Walt want to encourage—not discourage—families from visiting his theme parks?

This is another policy change with revenue-streaming in mind. I guess the policymakers can say that this change helps make room availability greater for all guests. Yeah, right. It sounds more like they are squeezing the annual passholder.

Also, if you are looking to resort-hop and stay at multiple resorts during your travel dates, you may only book an annual pass rate at two rooms. For instance, let's say you wanted to hop among the moderate resorts. You may get the annual pass rate for the Caribbean Beach Resort and Coronado Springs Resort, but not for the room you wanted at Port Orleans French Quarter or Port Orleans Riverside. Fortunately, this shouldn't impact that many guests. How often does anyone stay at three different rooms during their vacation?

One-way deposit

Now here's something that rubs me the wrong way. You should be sitting for this one: Your one night deposit is nonrefundable. How does that grab you?

OK, so first we need to book online, which means we need an active annual pass. Second, we need to book at least 120 days in advance. Finally, when we do book blindly, we have to plunk down some money that we cannot get back if we change our minds. Huh?

I think I could handle a nonrefundable cut-off date such as 60 days out, but nonrefundable from the moment you make your reservation? How many other major hotels chains in the travel industry make such requirements, even for their discounted rooms?

We're talking a very dedicated customer base here. And yet it seems that Disney is imposing some pretty stringent restrictions on those who are the most loyal and who already spend significant amounts of money there. Is this customer base not providing Walt Disney World with a large enough revenue stream? I'd accept a policy that says nonrefundable within 60 days of check-in date is reasonable, but nonrefundable at all is, dare I say, kind of unacceptable.

Change is expensive

Hopefully once you, an adult with a credit card, have decided on when and where to book your single room with an existing valid annual pass, and slapped down a one night nonrefundable deposit, including tax, you better be sure of your choices. Because if you dare change your mind, you will be charged a $50 fee if you change anything. As in dates, room, resort… anything.

Yep, I bet you didn't know it was so expensive for Walt Disney World to do that. So where did they come up with the $50 amount? Don't tell me they are paying their reservation employees $50 an hour, because I'm not buying that one.

Reaction and thoughts

At best the comments I've heard from people have been mixed. In the first place, I'm not sure how the resort benefits from all these changes. I foresee a drop in annual pass bookings, as there are just too many blind spots in this whole program. Why take a chance? Not only that, I'm thinking that those annual passholders who may continue to maintain their visit frequency may, however, alter their habits by changing their location tendencies.

That is, with the nonrefundable deposit, they may opt for a moderate resort instead of a deluxe, or a value resort instead of a moderate. Maybe not… but it's a thought. Perhaps an annual passholder who enjoyed staying a day or two in a deluxe resort may now opt to just stay in the same moderate or value resort.

I've heard from some annual passholders.

Will G., a longtime annual passholder writes:

"WDW Passholders wait with baited breath all year long to see their WDW room discounts released. But those discounts change from year to year, season to season, and day to day, as WDW uses Passholders like seat fillers at the Oscars to boost low bookings, then conveniently forget about them when the bookings increase. Passholders are, by definition, WDW's most loyal, most dependable, and most profitable repeat customers, and loyal, repeat customers are the backbone of any successful business. Instead of taking us for granted and only throwing us bones in the form of room discounts in time of sub-par bookings, WDW should be elevating Passholders to exalted, privileged status among WDW Guests."

Will makes some valid points.

Then there are those who look at it from another side. Howard D. writes:

"First I would like to thank Disney for all the great benefits that I have experienced over the years as an annual passholder. We used to do at least 2 trips each year, sometimes 3 and the passes sure helped with admission. I also appreciated the extra benefits that sometimes came along with being an annual passholder, but weren't guaranteed, such as discounts on dining, special soft openings and especially, occasional room discounts. I was always aware that the main reason for purchasing an annual pass was for the reduced admission prices when we traveled often within one year and everything else was icing on the cake.

As members of the 21st century we all must realize that the Internet is the way to go and I am sure that Disney has its reasons for trying out this new Best Rate Program and I am 100% behind whatever Disney decides to do. I will still visit Walt Disney World as often as I can and when it benefits me I will purchase an annual pass. I also understand all of the crying on the Internet about this new policy because we can never get away from those with an entitlement mentality in this world. If people are not happy with Disney and their policies then they have the right not to deal with Disney and find other venues for their vacation. For me, the magic is where I want to go and that is where I will go."

So you can see, there are people on both sides of this debate.

The recent programs introduced by the resort, namely the Magic Your Way ticket program, Magical Express, and the Stay, Play, and Dine Package are a win-win set of propositions for the resort and guest. Both profit from these programs.

That's the way new programs should be: A two-way street resulting in a win-win situation. This new annual pass policy however, could be a dead end, especially for the resort, which may get the shorter end of the stick.

Annual passholders who found the deluxe resorts affordable through the annual pass discounts may not take that leap of faith any more because the nonrefundable aspect of the program will really turn people off.

I think that this program policy change may reduce the frequency of visits by annual passholders or at least make there on-site choices more along the line of the value and moderate resorts than the deluxe resorts.

Is that what the resort wants? Well, that's what I feel may happen.

We have heard that annual passholders receive a lower rate than the general public and maybe that's why they call it a "Best Rate" program. But when you look at all of the fine-print restrictions, you wonder if the "best" refers to the great deal this may turn into for Disney, instead of for the annual passholders. You're supposed to reward your best customers, not punish them.

We'll be watching this one real closely over the next six months. I know I will. I have a reservation that falls during the testing dates.


Send Mike your thoughts, questions, or comments here.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Scopa first visited Walt Disney World almost 30 years ago. Planning a trip was simple back in the 1970s, with only the Magic Kingdom and a few Disney-owned resorts in Orlando.

Over the past 11 years, Mike has been perfecting his WDW trip-planning skills as he has hosted chats and bulletin boards about Disney for a Fortune 100 company.

Mike brings his experience to MousePlanet in a series of lessons to help you with all the phases of planning a WDW trip.

Mike pays special attention to all the details that ensure your family has the best possible time at the Happiest Place on Earth.

You can contact Mike here.

OTHER LINKS

Here are trip reports that Mike has written that are part of MousePlanet's archives:

Michael Scopa -- August 1999 -- Walt Disney World (CSR)

Michael J. Scopa -- July 1997 -- Walt Disney World (WL/CBR)

Mike Scopa -- July 1994 -- Walt Disney World (WL / CBR)

Also, don't miss Lani Teshima's column, “The Trip Planner” for more travel planning information.

Get the latest info about the resort at “Park Update: Walt Disney World.”

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