About ten years ago, I wrote an article in this space with an idea called “Declining by Degrees.” Since it’s been a couple years since I’ve written about it, a fresh look is warranted to see if, on balance, things have been moving forward or backward.
A quick refresher: the concept of Declining by Degrees (DBD) is that Disney’s changes to the parks are not uniformly positive (by just adding new things), and in fact the deletions may outpace the additions. Worse, if that happens while prices also go up, you’ve got the classic “paying more and getting less” scenario. Because cuts to the experience are sometimes individually small and memories are fickle, the larger public as a whole doesn’t revolt. It’s similar to the old tale about a frog sitting in water slowly brought to a boil; it never senses the need to jump out, and eventually dies. So if Disney gives you less and charges you more, it’s a decline, but one that occurs by degrees.
So where do we stand now? We could start with perhaps the most visible metric of DBD: price. To avoid being “the frog” in warming waters, we need to go wider than short-term hikes in price, though they can re-enter the conversation after we establish the slope of the longer time horizon. For the moment, let’s talk about just the Magic Kingdom to keep this simple. It’s not useful to go back to 1971 because individual ride tickets were still in use. In 1982, the new all-day passport cost $13.25 (about $33 in 2015 terms when adjusted for inflation). In 1996, it cost $38.50 (about $59 in 2015 terms). By 2006, it was up to $67 ($80), and in 2015 it was up to $105 (by 2016, it now costs as much as $124 for the Magic Kingdom in peak periods).
So using 2015 inflation-adjusted dollars, it went from $33 to $38 in fourteen years, a 15% increase. The next jump (ten years) went from $38 to $67, a 76% increase even though the time period was four years shorter. The last ten year span went from $67 to $105, a 57% increase.
We can say that prices are rising in absolute terms (duh – admission costs more), and we can also say that they are rising in relative (i.e., inflation-adjusted) terms. However, the acceleration of the pricing increases is not as bad in the most recent decade as it was in the decade before that. I’ll spare you (and me) from having to calculate the second derivative to attach numbers to the acceleration, but I think it’s enough to point out that the middle decade actually showed the biggest jumps–and it’s no coincidence that year (2006) was when I first wrote of the Declining by Degrees phenomenon. We had just come off the decade where it had jumped the most. In the more recent decade, the jump is less extreme. So you could say that the “urgency” of the DBD problem has actually, surprisingly, waned a bit in the past decade–speaking purely about park admission price.
It does seem, looking at the overall pace of price increases, that the company did not behave in its early years like it did later. By the mid 1990s, when sort-of-new CEO Michael Eisner had finally fixed Animation (his focus the first few years), he started paying attention to the parks. Rides were added at a faster pace than before during his tenure, but the prices went on an absolute tear. From 15% increases in 14 years to a 76% increase in ten years is a pretty remarkable jump. The parks always seemed affordable before this point, and have always seemed expensive after this point. You could build a case that in the early 1990s the parks were underpriced, especially given the willingness of customers to pay higher prices. “Charge what the market will bear” goes the saying, and they’ve certainly been testing that. Intuitively, it has felt for several years now that the correction from “underpriced” to “reasonably priced” is behind us, and additional price increases just feel greedy.
Before we leave price, it’s worth remembering that price is not equivalent to value. The Magic Kingdom of 1982 may have had a nostalgic favorite of yours (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? Mr. Toad? Skyway?), but it also had far fewer rides than 2016. And we must honestly admit that a great many things have been renovated, modernized, and updated in today’s park. The 2016 Peter Pan line could, in some ways, be considered its own attraction. Ditto the many interactive games in the park, to say nothing of the actual expansions and new ride additions since then. So, yes, the park has gotten more expensive over time. It’s also added many things and has more to offer these days. We aren’t comparing apples to apples here.
Let’s use this moment to reflect on the harder question of value. Value turns on more than just attractions; it’s part of the experience. If Cast Members are rude to you; that’s part of the value equation. Just like when there is trash on the ground all day, or in attraction queues. It’s relevant how crowded the parks are, how long your wait times were, how many rides you were able to visit, and how tasty (or irritating) your restaurant experiences were. There are a billion other examples. Disney creates its magic (I’ve tried to shoehorn it into something called Immersion Toward Interesting Illusion) in part by creating so many details that people are willing to suspend disbelief. Take away a few of those unconscious details and the customer may only feel like something is amiss, but not know what is wrong. If that happens every minute on their vacation, suddenly it feels less magical, but they can’t really put their finger on it. This is the exact reason why burned-out lightbulbs matter. If the point is that Disney is supposed to feel “separate” from the real world, then real world occurrence (like burned out light bulbs) should be avoided. They used to be avoided by changing bulbs when they reached 80% of expected life–Disney publications themselves from the 80s say this–but these days you see bulbs take days or weeks to be replaced after burning out. Clearly, something has changed in the budgeting for maintenance. A decline by degrees.
That’s all fine as far as theory goes, but we were going to check on status. This gets very subjective very quickly, but it feels like most things are the same as they were two years ago. Lightbulbs, to focus on one thing alone, are still burned out. Cheerleader hair bands routinely litter the summit of Expedition Everest (the Magic Kingdom doesn’t have quite so egregious a violator of its own). Trash still accumulates in attraction lines. The self-serve nacho cheese sauce is gone from restaurants, almost certainly for liability reasons. There are still structural problems, like the reliance on College Program and International Program workers (they come in enthusiastic, which is great, but they don’t stay for years by definition, so there is little chance to build the kind of culture and pride you see in Disneyland’s Cast. Or used to, anyway; I’m not sure if it’s still intact).
But the truth is not that one-sided. It’s hard to be completely negative on this score if you are trying to be objective. Tomorrowland keeps getting new paint (the new Carousel of Progress look, for instance, seems like something they “didn’t have to do”). The Sorcerers game and the Pirates card games don’t bring any money and yet require upkeep, so they too represent small steps forward. Yes, they took away nacho cheese from the restaurants, but in the meantime Pecos Bill added self-serve guacamole, which has to be expensive for them.
In the 80s, Disney tried to roll out a program of making sure their staff didn’t waste labor, waste effort, waste hours, and waste food. “Control the Controllables,” it was called, and it was part of a national movement in business. It meant that the things they actually had control over – how much to portion the side of French fries, for example, should be controlled, and not worry so much about other things like how each customer differed from the next one, and trying to anticipate every need. To me, it feels like the front-line staff and all the experiences associated with the “front line” in general are about where we have been for the past 15 years. They are controlling their controllables, while balancing efficiency/profit with Guest service. There are good and bad Cast Members, of course, but by and large they are trying. Their efforts create the “forward motion”, but larger fiscal forces shape the declines.
A cut in budget is presumably behind the reason so few Custodial CMs now travel through queues to clean overflowing trashcans, or maybe it’s a boneheaded dispute over turf. The budget is also to blame for burned out light bulbs, or overworked maintenance crews, and deferred fixes to broken animatronics.
Because, you see, a less-visible lever in the value mechanism is budget. A company’s profit is income minus expenses (duh), and if you can cut expenses, you increase profit. No second derivative needed here! That may look good on the employer side, but the customer’s perception of value is going to be impacted by the budget.
And budget is foremost on the minds of the strategic planners. It used to be a rank guess, albeit influenced by years of practice, to estimate how many visitors would come on a given Sunday in October, and then schedule staff appropriately. Approaches to data have modernized, and much more is now a science than ever before. Do you feel the parks are crowded? THIS IS BY DESIGN. The data tell them how many staff to schedule at Big Thunder so it will function at exactly “x” capacity, where “x” does NOT equal “the most we can do, ever”, but rather “what we should be doing given the expected size of the crowd and the desire to give visitors 8-10 rides per day.” Yes, they run the formulas with that logic. They know by decades of Guest surveys exactly how few rides per day you can experience and still leave happy (answer: 8 to 10), so they adjust all other inputs on the budgeting and scheduling side to maximize operations around those figures.
Could they schedule more staff and open more restaurants to keep the walkways clear? Absolutely they could, but only if the forecasts told them they needed to. The use of FASTPASS+ is absolutely a part of this discussion and their strategy. They can drive profitable hotel business by including Free Dining (not that expensive for them) and longer FP+ reservation windows. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: in many ways WDW is basically in the hotel business, not the theme park business.
The problem with mining data, introducing analytics, and exploring Big Data is that these strategies work. They deliver what you were looking to do, which is maximize profit while minimizing expenses. The reason this is a problem is that minimizing expenses jeopardizes the vaunted “Disney Difference” — those tiny details that add up to immersive interesting illusion. These details make Walt’s parks the ones that avoid the “grab every dollar they have” mentality that Walt was trying to get away from with traditional carnies and midways. Walt once chastised a popcorn vendor in Disneyland for not keeping the stand full to the brim with popcorn; Walt wanted the visitor to see a vital Disneyland, one never “about to close down.” Forget about stands full until closing in today’s park; often the stands are closed now, cleaned, emptied, and abandoned before the park itself even closes. Walt would probably be chastised by today’s strategic planning department for wasting resources.
What’s driving this need to maximize profit? Simple. The Walt Disney Company is a publicly-traded stock, and like most such companies, Disney feels it has to deliver results every quarter that are not just steady (that would be a “stodgy” stock; one that today’s investor sells instead of buys). Rather, the results have to improve over last time, over and over and over. You see the numerical problem. In good times, the additional income is all you need for the extra profit. But in lean times, you cut costs. And if they have to be better time, after time, after time, after time (this is Wall Street, remember?) – eventually you cut some of the things that make you who you are.
So where do we stand? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (“the more things change, the more things stay the same”). Yes, there are visible declines all the time. Yes, the overall trend is still downward. Yes, there are upward swings that buck the trend, but they do not establish a separate and dominant trendline. And finally, yes, it’s the budget and the financial maximization that now, like before, drive the decline by degrees. These same forces, part of which includes charging what the market will bear, are behind price increases for annual passports, including the huge leaps seen more lately at Disneyland.
So is it all a big wash at the Magic Kingdom? You could say that on the question of MK’s price and value prospect. While the verdict on overall DBD in this park’s admission price is neutral (or maybe “hung jury” is a better way to describe it) in this one park, I do think there are significant declines happening in other parts of Walt Disney World. The prices (and thus price/value ratios) of the up-charge private parties are not at all the same discussion as the price for regular admission. The increasing monetization of festivals is another point we could look at (and will, in future articles). The major construction at DHS is a necessary evil, but that doesn’t mean it’s fair to continue to charge a full day’s admission price. If we broaden the discussion beyond MK admission prices, in other words, the murk lifts and it looks a lot like Disney has been declining by degrees in some important ways. (Though truth be told, not necessarily in all ways. Disney Springs is a success story in my eyes). We’ll continue to tackle these one at a time, but I wanted to start with the flagship park and point out that although we will see some significant declines in future columns, it’s not all bleak, and the sticker shock of today’s numbers sometimes benefits from the wider context of history.
Jump in and help evaluate the modern WDW experience. Or, if you wish, stay laser-focused on the MK price tag and its value. Discussion and disagreement encouraged (but please be kind to one another in the process).