Disney Theme Park Sticker Shock: A Historical Perspectiveby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
The recent increase of a one-day admission ticket to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom to $105 once again set off heated discussion, even though the Magic Kingdom has raised its admission price every year (and sometimes twice a year) since first opening in 1971.
In 1971, a one day ticket cost $3.50 (of course, that doesn’t factor in the additional cost of individual tickets for each ride). One dollar in 1971 had the same buying power as $5.90 in 2015. The first price increase for the Magic Kingdom was as early as February 1972, roughly four months after opening, when the cost went up to $3.75.
Those early jumps in admission price were generally a $0.25 to $0.75 cents for several years, and then leapt to $1.00 or $2.00 each year until 2005, when the change was an additional $5.00, making the cost of a one-day ticket $59.75 just a decade ago.
When Disney dropped the use of individual attraction tickets for a “pay one price” in 1982 (after experiments beginning as early as 1977 with an all inclusive “passport” system), it cost just $15 to get into the Magic Kingdom or Epcot for an entire day and enjoy all the attractions.
Universal Orlando became the first theme park in the world to charge $90 a day for a ticket in 2013 and was quickly followed by Walt Disney World. Historically, when one theme park raises its price, other competing parks often do the same, so they are not considered being of lesser value, despite any lack of operational need to increase the price.
In recent years, Walt Disney World’s position has been that the rise in cost for admission is justified because it is comparable to the price of a ticket to a concert, Broadway play, circus or other entertainment opportunity, but that a theme park also provides significantly more time to enjoy multiple options so is a better value. In addition, Disney World emphasizes that it offers multi-day tickets that provide significant savings over the single-day price.
In truth, the seemingly exorbitant rise of the price of a ticket, and for parking, has not slowed down the number of people who want to come and experience Disney magic. It may not seem fair, but it is truly an example of capitalism at its best.
In 2014, more than 97 million tourists visited Florida. Of that number, roughly 59 million spent their time in Central Florida and, of that number, the overwhelming majority of them visited the Disney parks.
No previous price increases have impacted guest attendance, even if they increased the grumbles of individual visitors. It has being argued that a Walt Disney World vacation is now only becoming accessible to upper-middle-class families with disposable income, rather than average Disney fans living in a still struggling economy.
Two decades ago, the Disney Company did a series of surveys that determined, on average, a visitor to Walt Disney World took three years to save up for the experience because it was so pricey.
To justify the increasing excessive cost, it is often argued that a Magic Kingdom adventure is much different than it was decades ago. For one thing, there are more attractions and restaurants to enjoy. For another, there are a larger number of employees, greater maintenance issues and other increased overhead that have increased costs
When Disneyland first opened in July 1955, there were concerns about not only having to pay admission, but also for each individual ride. The admission price was a $1.00 for an adult and $0.50 for a child. A dollar in 1955 had the same buying power as $8.79 in 2015. Each ride cost anywhere from a $0.10 to $0.35 cents and had to be purchased individually.
With the constant opening of the wallet to pay for these rides in addition to the admission, the impression was that it cost a premium price to visit Disneyland. While that aspect was highly exaggerated, going to Disneyland was not inexpensive.
A story that Disney Legend Jack Lindquist often tells happened on Christmas Eve 1955 on Main Street at Disneyland. He saw a family of four (father, mother, 10-year-old son and younger daughter) dressed cleanly, but obviously not well off financially. Both the father and son wore overalls and the mother and daughter wore simple cotton dresses.
As they stood near the Christmas tree, the little girl tugged on her mom’s arm and said, “Mom, this really was better than having Santa Claus.”
“I knew then that Santa wasn’t bringing them presents,” Lindquist recalled. “The parents must have told their children that if they went to Disneyland, Santa couldn’t bring presents. This family came to Disneyland but could not afford to spend a lot of money.”
Disney Legend Rolly Crump told me the story of him sitting on a bench on Main Street with Walt Disney when they saw two nuns come in with several orphans. Walt discovered that the nuns had only bought ride tickets for the kids because they had limited funds. Walt, of course, went to the ticket kiosk and refunded their admission fees, got them extra ride tickets and arranged for a free lunch for them at the Red Wagon Inn.
However, Walt couldn’t do that for everyone. A dear friend who was a longtime manager at Walt Disney World told me over lunch recently that she thought her mother never liked rides at Disneyland because she never went on any. When her mother visited her in Walt Disney World many years later, she went on every ride several times. It was only then that the manager discovered that it wasn’t that the mother didn’t like rides but that she needed to save money because of financial challenges and she only bought tickets so her children could ride.
MAD magazine No. 30 (December 1956) had a satirical feature drawn by Wally Wood titled “Dizzyland” that made the point that Disneyland the television show and Disneyland the park should actually be called “Moneyland.”
To try to defuse the idea that Disneyland was too expensive, in October 1955, Walt introduced he first ticket books. They were not even called “tickets” but “coupons.”
In this way, a family knew ahead of time roughly what the total cost of the visit might be and could budget accordingly. In addition, from a psychological standpoint, it meant that a family only opened its wallet once at the entrance and not constantly throughout the park.
By calling the slips of paper “coupons” (although guests continued to refer to them as tickets because of years of familiarity with that term at other amusement parks), it was a guilt-free currency with no immediate connection to actual money. In facts, guests often returned home with unused tickets that they had already paid for but could be used on future visits if they remembered.
In 1955, people were used to getting into fairs and carnivals and similar entertainment venues for free. The concept was that by letting people in for free that more people would come and that they would spend more money on rides, food, souvenirs and everything else since they hadn’t paid admission.
Disneyland’s nearest competitor was Knott’s Berry Farm. It had initially been a chicken dinner restaurant serving boysenberry pie for dessert, but the wait for a table often got to be more than three hours. Owner Walter Knott started to add buildings, exhibits and stores to distract the guests from the long wait time. By the time of Disneyland’s opening in 1955, there was even an authentic Calico Ghost Town.
There was no admission price to enjoy these things, although there were individual prices for some of the attractions like mining for gold. It wasn’t until 1968 that a tall fence was put up surrounding three entertainment areas and the park charged $0.25 cents admission.
Pacific Ocean Park, another Disney competitor, opened in 1958 on a pier in Santa Monica. In its first six days of operation it outdrew Disneyland’s attendance for those same days.
Two years later in 1960, a new owner instituted a new admission policy publicized as “Pay One Price” (referencing the park’s initials of “POP”). Adults would pay $1.50 and children $1.00 to enjoy nearly 40 different attractions and rides. Only the Sea Serpent roller coaster cost an additional quarter because the owner of that attraction refused to take a percentage of the gate, like other concessionaires.
Over the decades, other amusement venues, from Six Flags Magic Mountain to Seaworld, offered similar “pay one price” admission tickets. Interestingly, Knott’s eventually adopted a lettered ticket book very similar to Disneyland’s version.
I constantly get asked what Walt Disney would think about things that the Disney Company does today, including the cost of admission to Disney theme parks. I respond that I might have a rough guess of what the Walt of 1966 (the year he died) might have thought, but even then Walt was constantly surprising people who thought they knew what Walt wanted.
However, I have no clue what the Walt of 2015 might think. There are so many variables in terms of how the world has changed in the last half century. I believe that Walt would have embraced all the new technology, the new definition of what constitutes a family, and other changes.
However, I don’t have a clue as to how he would have adapted to all of those things. He was a conservative Republican in the latter years of his life, but considered himself a liberal and certainly some of his actions, especially involving the environment and the opportunities he gave to women and minorities would support that claim.
It is safe to state that Walt was a good businessman, but not one to cut corners to put a few more pennies in his pocket.
What would Walt have thought about admission to a Disney theme park being too expensive? Well, throughout his life, he felt the only justification for a price increase to Disneyland was to help offset the cost of more attractions and more quality. He felt you could not ask for more money unless you were delivering much more than people expected.
Any increased cost needed to benefit the guest and in so doing it would benefit the company.
However, a forgotten interview from a year after Disneyland opened and was being bombarded by criticism of the cost for someone to visit the park may offer a little better insight into Walt’s thinking.
In the summer of 1956, Walt Disney did a series of interviews with journalist Pete Martin for a series of articles that would appear in the magazine the “Saturday Evening Post” and later be combined into a book “The Story of Walt Disney” credited to Diane Disney and Martin.
Here is an excerpt from one of those interviews.
Pete Martin: One of the things we should cover is to knock off that rumor that Disneyland's expensive to come to.
Walt Disney: Oh, no. Not at all. That's an old hat thing. You hear it from some people because they don't know what else to say.
By the time this article comes out, I'm raising it to $2.00 because I'm adding all these new rides. And to extend my ticket book to take care of the rides, I'm putting this to 10 rides for two dollars. Figure it out. It averages $0.20 cents a ride, doesn't it? It would cost an adult $3.00 and a junior $2.50 to get in and get 10 rides.
If they don't want that, they can pay their buck and pay their 50 cents for their kid and they can come in. They can sit on the park benches, take up the space, dirty up my toilets, litter up the street. They can do all of that if they pay their $1.50. They can ride as they want to. They can sit around and hear my band; they can visit my free shows. They can do all that and more for their $1.50.
You can't go in a state park without paying that. See, you've got to pay something. You pay so much a head or so much a car to go in a state park. We even have to pay government tax on admission. So it's really $0.91 cents to get in. Now that's what it amounts to. You can't go to the circus for that. I tell you the complaint about the prices are malicious. Los Angeles is made up of a lot of different characters.
How do I know (the guests) might not be more interested in some other thing, like Marineland? Or some other type of amusement that is competitive. We are competitive, too. Who knows? But there's no foundation for some of these complaints about price. When people make that remark to me, it just sounds to me like they heard it somewhere and they don't know what else to say. How can they compare Disneyland prices with anything else because there is nothing else like it.
Well, you take your children to Disneyland and for a dollar and a half, they get in and spend a whole darn 13 if they want to. Now, if you want to go in and buy them expensive toys or you want to buy them bathing suits, or your wife happened to go along and sees a wonderful woolen skirt that costs $30. Well, people come out and spend all that money. But they don't think twice of going down to Bullocks Wilshire and spending that much on a skirt. If you go into a Broadway Department Store, you can go in and spend $25 or $30. I'm not insisting people buy things, but I want to give them the opportunity.
So I have to keep improving on ideas. On the jungle ride, I want to get more animation in the animals. I want to really fix it. My monkeys have gone to pot. And I want new monkeys. I'm going to take them out Monday because I'd rather not have them in there looking like that.
When it comes to Disneyland, I feel I've given the public everything I can give them. My daughter, Diane, says that I spend too much time around the house talking about how I can give them more for their money when they come to the park. You've got to build. You've got to keep it clean. You don't want to walk in a dirty toilet. I won't have 'em. My toilets are spic and span.
And you know another thing, I have to have police so there's no child molesters there. I've got plainclothesmen. They can leave their kids to run around and I have safety inspectors. t's run in a high-class manner and I have a high-class clientele. The people who go to the park are from all walks of life but they look like solid Americans. That's pretty high class.
No liquor, no beer, nothing. Because that brings in a rowdy element. That brings people that we don't want and I feel they don't need it. I feel when I go down to the park I don't need a drink. I work around that place all day and I don't have one. After I come out of a heavy day at the studio sometimes I want a drink to relax.
So, those were Walt’s feelings about pricing in his own words. He didn’t want to gouge guests, but Disneyland was a business that needed to make a profit so that it could continue to operate and expand. However, he wanted to make the park accessible to everyone so created an admission price that would allow just about everyone to come in and enjoy it.
At Disneyland, Walt even installed a picnic area to the left of the entrance so people could bring their own food and eat rather than purchasing a meal in the park.
Today, the cost of getting into a Disney theme park far exceeds the rate of inflation over the decades by quite a bit. This latest price increase will not be the last and may not even be the only one this year.
The price continues to rise because Disney can do it and not impact attendance. Even today, some Disney fans complain the parks are too crowded and that no matter how costly admission gets, it does not seem to decrease the crowding.
The thing that most bothers me about the rising cost is that when I have friends who visit me and go to the parks, there is a sense of desperation that they have to ride Mount Everest 10 times, not because they enjoy it so much but because they feel they have to in order to recoup value for the amount they paid. Other gentler experiences are ignored.
I grew up in a time when even though my family was financially challenged, we could just wander leisurely enjoying Disneyland, even taking time to sit on a bench and just watch.
Those days may never return but at least there are three things that still remain certain in this world: death, taxes and admission increases at the Disney parks.