Accountaneering Disney: The Calculus of Defining a Child at Disneyland

Written by The Accountaneer. Posted in Accountaneering Disney, Disneyland Resort

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Published on April 30, 2013 at 4:00 am with 48 Comments

Hello again MiceChat!  First of all, thank you all for the many kind words left in the comments!  I was overwhelmed by the response to my first article.  While I had assumed that the pictures of the Rocket Rod destruction would be popular, I had no idea the level of interest was so high in the decision making processes behind the magic.  Before I jump into a new topic, I thought I’d circle back and touch on a few outstanding questions and topics that were left in the comments of the last article.
Career Path: It wasn’t necessarily clear in the article, but I am no longer employed by the Walt Disney company.  I had a great run but many reasons led me away to other endeavors.  I won’t go into the personal side of the decision, but from a professional perspective I saw change coming to Disneyland that didn’t align with my interests.  While I was at Disneyland, it was a relatively self contained operation.  We reported up through the larger Parks & Resorts organization but for the most part TDA had everything you would need to run a standalone Resort.  The current OneDisney initiative meant a combining of the Orlando and Anaheim operations resulting in a very different Team Disney Anaheim.
Take, for example, what was previously known as Foods Finance.  During my tenure this group owned the financial planning for all aspects of the Foods operations.  From managing the revenue “per caps” (Foods revenue divided by attendance) down to labor expenses.  In today’s TDA, that function is pretty much centralized in Orlando.  While on paper one can understand the leverage and efficiencies this can drive, it has unfortunately resulted in a situation where all Finance careers run through Orlando. I’ve always loved to vacation in WDW, but for me personally it definitely fell into the “nice place to visit but wouldn’t want to live there” category (again, purely for personal reasons).  This simple fact has definitely limited any regret I had leaving Disneyland.
Lastly, on the career topic, many of you commented that you are studying Finance and would love to get on this career path.  I encourage you to follow your dreams but one challenge I fear many will face is the severe lack of true entry-level Finance jobs at Parks & Resorts.  The vast majority of roles require previous work experience (the luxury of an in-demand employer).  As much as I’d like to say that working in the parks was the enabler for me to make the jump to Finance, I fear the two were mutually exclusive.  I’m not saying this to discourage our young readers, I just wanted to let them know that I don’t really have an entry-level roadmap to follow.  As anyone can tell you, ANY successful career will involve some lucky breaks and a healthy dose of “who you know.”  That holds true in my story as well.
Rocket Rods: I said in my article that the Rocket Rods can really get Disneyland fans worked up, and that certainly came through in the comments!  A few people asked about the genesis of the ride’s creation, but that decision pre-dated my employment at Disneyland.  There were a few comments about how the scrapping of the vehicles was a mistake.  This is one of those things where my passion for Disney and the “right” thing to do were definitely in conflict.  I’d be the first to volunteer to preserve an old Rocket Rod vehicle…what a great piece of Disney history!  But the realities of the situation led to the pictures I shared.  From a financial perspective, there was a need to write off the outstanding balance of the investment.  Unlike an old Toad ride vehicle, the Rocket Rods were still a depreciating asset on the books.  The cleanest way to get them off the books was to destroy them and take the write off.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I can’t imagine a situation where there is upside for the company to keep them around or sell them off.  Due to the highly specialized nature of the vehicles, there was really no chance of reusing any significant piece of the vehicles.  Plus, it was a piece of history that everyone wanted to forget.  Disney would never reuse them on display or as a prop (just brings up bad memories) and if they were sold to collectors, one could only imagine the negatively-slanted uses that could surface (I can already envision the YouTube video of people sitting in a vehicle talking about how the ride broke down again…years later)!
More Details: A few people asked for some more specific details…for example, how much was written off the books when Rocket Rods failed.  While I’m hoping my articles will be insightful and provide context, specific numbers will be scarce.  Besides the years that have passed which cause me to only remember approximations, I don’t feel comfortable sharing certain specific details.
OK…time for the next topic!  I don’t have a really cool wheel to spin like our friend Bob Gurr, but let’s pick another topic out of the Rocket Rod scrap heap and move forward!
I’m going to jump back to one of my early projects in Finance.  The Revenue Management group at Disneyland was the team tasked with managing the pricing and offers for both the admission tickets and hotels.  If you bought a ticket or rent a room at Disneyland, this team determined how much you paid.

Defining “Child” at Disneyland

In early 2000 there was a disconnect at the domestic parks in what was considered a “child.”  At the Disneyland ticket booths, a child ticket was for an individual aged 3 through 12.  Walt Disney World had recently re-defined a child as ages 3 through 9.  At the food locations throughout Disneyland, it mostly mirrored the 3 to 12 age, but there were a few inconsistencies.  The question presented to the team was whether the domestic parks should standardize at 3 to 9.
As I mentioned, the Revenue Management team owned this analysis.  So while one could argue about what was right for a restaurant’s kids meal, the decision was being driven by the ticket booths with the agreement that foods would follow.
Over my years in Finance, I can say this was one of the few analysis I performed where the “competitors” in the marketplace were a major input to the decision.  For the most part, decisions at Disneyland were made in context of what was best for Disneyland… not caring too much about the moves that Knott’s, Universal, Busch, or Six Flags were making.  This was a luxury of being a market leader.  That’s not to say we didn’t pay attention to the competition, we did, but for the most part it was rare for one of a competitor’s decisions to significantly impact a decision at Disneyland.  Today that may be different, especially given the massive investments at Universal Studios, but back during this time period Disneyland stood mostly alone with the other parks picking up the business that was left over.
This research began with looking at not only those other theme parks, but also looking at other non-theme park attractions as well.  Despite me being a lifelong amusement park nut, one thing immediately popped out that I had never realized.  The Disney Parks were virtually the only parks in the country that priced based on age (arguably the more Guest-friendly approach).  Many other parks priced based on HEIGHT.  The cut-off between child and adult for the majority of those non-Disney parks was 48 inches.
Taking that piece of information, we looked at the age of your average 48 inch tall child in the United States.  Much to our surprise, 48 inches was the average height of your typical 8 or 9 year old.  If you look at the reverse and start with Disneyland’s cut-off of 12, the average height of that child is somewhere around 60 inches!  So while most parks in the country were capturing adult pricing at age 9 or 10, Disneyland was waiting until age 13.  Disneyland was operating at a financial disadvantage (and that’s not even factoring in abuse as parents lie about their child’s age).
That, in and of itself, was a powerful argument for a change to 9 years old.  We, however, went one step further.  Disneyland (DCA wasn’t open yet) is one of the most child-friendly parks in the world when it comes to height requirements.  Once your child is tall enough for the Indiana Jones Adventure (46″) they can ride every ride in the park…46″ is right in that 7-9 year old age group.  Ignoring Indy, your average FIVE year-old (40″) can ride every ride in the park (this was before the Matterhorn was increased to 42″).
Now look at your average Six Flags or Cedar Fair park.  You pay an adult price at anything over 48,” but that does NOT mean that a child can experience all the same rides as an adult.  It is not uncommon for the headlining attractions at these parks to have height restrictions all the way up to 54″ inches.  Just for fun, let’s look at Cedar Point.  A 49″ child is paying “adult” price but can’t ride Mantis, Maverick, Raptor, Top Thrill Dragster, Wicked Twister, MaXair, Power Tower, WindSeeker, or Witches’ Wheel.
So, to recap, Disneyland was charging child prices up to age 12 in a park where your average 5 year old can ride every ride except one.  These other parks were cutting off child pricing at age 8 or 9 and the child still couldn’t ride many of the premier attractions.  That’s not even factoring in the variety of attractions…your 6 year old at Six Flags is going to face a day small spinner rides and perhaps a family coaster or two while that same 6 year old can ride the Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, numerous dark rides, and the entire mountain range at Disneyland!
Side note…you’ll notice Disneyland doesn’t sell “Adult” tickets.  Back in 2000 they sold “Regular” tickets (it looks like now they simply list the ages).  This was a purposeful choice of words because we were NOT telling you that your 10 year old is an Adult, we were telling you that your 10 year old is old enough to pay Regular admission.
As with any major decision at Disneyland, we outlined the planned public response for when the story broke.  The general feeling was this would be a one-day blip in the papers (which it was) and as you’ll see in this New York Times link, the entirety of the official statement hinged on the findings that I outlined in that last paragraph.  ”‘We believe our attractions are enjoyed by people 10 years and above, based on height requirements, so the change was appropriate.”
Unlike most of the analysis I took on over the ensuing years, this one was as close to a no-brainer as we could get.  Now that I am a parent myself that pays full price to vacation at the Disney Parks, I have to laugh a bit when I whip out my credit card to buy a child ticket…but I’ve completely forfeited my right to complain!
I’d love to hear your comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them for you or incorporate them in a future article. Until next time…keep your pencils sharp and your beans counted!!!

About The Accountaneer

The Accountaneer grew up going Disney parks and was quickly hooked on the pixie dust. He soon found himself sharpening pencils and counting beans for the world's favorite mouse. He hopes to share with readers a little insight on how decisions are made in the Happiest Place On Earth.

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  • Sifferz

    Keep these coming! Hearing about the business side of Disney is far more interesting than I ever would have guessed. Great article :)

    • TacAlert

      Yes please. Better than reading article after article of how a trash can has a scratch or a piece of gum wasn’t scraped off the ground. Great articles so far.

  • I had no idea that’s how those sorts of decisions were made. Really interesting stuff. Thank you! Can’t wait for the next one.

  • StevenW

    My first reaction is “What Difference Does that Make?”

    The price difference between a child’s ticket and an regular ticket is almost non-existent. For a one day ticket, the difference is merely $6. That’s all. SIX DOLLARS. $87 for 10 and up, $81 for 3 to 9.

    Then the starting age of the child to be charged is 3 years old. This is rather young, but is the norm for most parks; however, I can’t help feeling that the starting age should be at least 4 years old.

    The average 5 year old could ride most attractions, but the parent has discretion to avoid very intense rides and screen for content. Thus, I think it is correct for children to pay less if this is even possible.

    • The Accountaneer

      Great call out on the price difference. There is a major difference in time though. Back when this happened the child ticket was a $10 or 25% discount off the adult ticket ($41 vs $31). That is a pretty good discount. As to how the 25% discount devolved into what it is today…that’s a whole different topic! And one I won’t write on as I’m not making today’s ticketing decisions!

      On a side note the link wasn’t working on my tablet…we’ll get it fixed, but in the meantime, it is here:

  • KingEric

    Yes please keep these stories coming!

  • dl3000

    Thanks Accountanteer, as an engineer I do love some analysis. This is a great take on the numbers side of running a park and their influence on management’s decisions.

    I’m sure there were lots of 10-12 year old kids that were getting by on the Child’s price that should be paying regular before the age was lowered. I’ll bet that capturing all that revenue added up substantially to the bottom line since I imagine admission is one of the biggest revenue streams at the parks.

    Quick question, why did Disney never switch to height based pricing since parents can’t lie and it does look like once you’re 46″ tall, all of Disneyland is open to you. Was management concerned that it that it was too significant of a change for the guests compared to just lowering the age?

    • kate-e

      Age vs. Height has always been an interesting take on pricing.
      It’s almost like height, although tough to enforce at the ticket counters, would make more sensible approach to pricing for Disney.
      Another question to add on to dl3000′s is…Due to the recent events of children under 14 not being allowed to be unattended, why doesn’t Disney have a ticket structure like Tokyo Disneyland ( Adult/Junior/Child)?

      • The Accountaneer

        I think one could argue that age is a bit more “Guest-friendly” approach. I don’t specifically remember any conversations about switching. A few thoughts off the top of my head: If you’re planning your trip to DL or WDW a year from now, you know exactly how much you’ll be paying. You do not need to hope your child doesn’t have a growth spurt! Also, Guests are generally more familiar and comfortable with the age approach (especially comfortable are those parents that use the opportunity to “stretch” out their 10 year-old’s 9th year…a minority but we all know it happens). Go ask a parent on the street how old their child is…quick answer. Ask how tall they are in inches…uhhhhh…. There is something that is less invasive (psychologically) and more easy to comprehend to simply ask how old the children are rather than than to make them stand up against a height check sign.

  • eicarr

    It should be 9&under to cut down on strollers!!

    Great article

  • InspiredByWalt

    I really enjoy reading your articles. It brings a whole new perspective to my fandom of all things Disney. Of course we all know The Mouse will be paid, but it’s absolutely fascinating to understand the decision making behind the financial moves, especially as they relate to Disneyland.

    Keep ‘em coming!! :-)

  • wave789

    Was it ever in the cards to adjust the starting age of a child ticket? It was brought up already, but I think a starting age of 4 is most appropriate due to what the child will be able to remember and comprehend.

    • Atomobile

      I agree. Realistically, I have found that prior to age 5, none of my children seems to recall much from their visits to theme parks or on vacations at all (Nor can I to this day). Somewhere between 4 – 5 children become aware of their surroundings in a way that begins to stick to them. That being the case, I’ve always wished that companies would toss height and age out the window and focus more on maturity and sense of experience. If my kid can’t remember what he did, I dislike paying for the experience. If he remembers and we can relive the memories, I’m more apt to want to pay for such experiences over and over to add to the “emotional deposits.”

      Once past that early memory, but unwillingness to take chances and go on the big rides, one would be IN that “child ticket” phase, followed by a thrill seeking “Young Adult” phase which could last right up to the 40′s, after which a major number of folks begin to prefer taking it easy and just eat and ride trains. Finally the “senior” behavior of sitting and watching the young ones enjoy themselves phase takes over, so another price tier for that experience. OF COURSE not ALLfit these categories and some take life head-on from a tot and keep going until they step into the grave, but human nature being what it is, I’ve always felt that if vacation providers and theme parks used these kinds of attitudinal benchmarks, they would ultimately narrow the transitional fringes and find greater numbers of guests willing to “pay what was fair for the experience they wanted” and gain overall market share.

      In dealing with the height though, I rather enjoyed the Hershey Park way of measuring guests by comparing the brand of candy bar that represented them. Once my kids saw that one was a Kiss, one was a Reeses and one was a Twizzler based in their height, there were no further arguments about what they couldn’t go on, and a great deal of excitement over seeing “their candy” on a ride entrance. They identified with their candy brand in a joyful way which brought further fun to the experience and even led to associative purchases in the shops at the end of the day as they each HAD TO HAVE a candy that matched their status in the park. If I could get a photo of my boys each standing next to their Disney Character, as they measured up to see who’d be greeting them as a height sign at attractions, I’d be a happy dad, not to mention how the kids would love seeing me be Goofy all day long… I think Disney misses a trick here.

      • The Accountaneer

        I don’t ever recall a conversation about the lower limit of the age range. Speaking 100% as a parent I have no problem paying for a 3-year old to enter the parks. I’ve taken my kids at all ages. Last year we took the kids on a trip to WDW. One of my children was not even two yet. Sure, they may not remember that trip when they’re 18, but we still hear about it constantly on a weekly basis. This past year of hearing about “Bumbos” (Dumbo), “Dollies” (Small World), and all the characters shows that my child absorbed it all. My biggest concern is our next trip to DL because my youngest still talks about the favorite ride…”Donald Duck ride”…which is the Gran Fiesta Tour at the Mexico pavilion at Epcot! All that to say…the joy we’ve gotten over the past year having taken the kids at young ages eliminates any concern for me to pay for a three year old! I realize, however, each parents’ experience is unique. I’ve heard of parents who have ended their trip early because their 4-year old doesn’t want to ride anything. Kids are unique!

        @Atomobile When I was working there we tested Goofy’s Magical Measure which used ultrasonic height check machines to check height once then we’d issue wristbands with a character indicating what they could ride. Thanks to Google I found this picture of it in action at DL:

        Perhaps I’ll write an article in the future talking about why that didn’t make it past the testing phase…

  • David Hollenbeck

    Interesting. I’d just like to compliment you on your writing style and ability to take something that I would normally find dreadfully boring like depreciation (I’m in the creative field) and make it at least understandable to non-accountants, but more impressively, interesting to non-accountants. I know you guys are the target of huge scorn and ridicule, but without you, creatives can screw things up on an epic scale. It’s been demonstrated over and over again. You guys have your own ways of being creative and looking at it through that lens, I think, helps bridge the seemingly vast differences between the two fields of work and helps us realize we should be on the same side more. We’re just cooler, you’re richer – j/k!

    • The Accountaneer

      The last sentence is by far the best comment…LOL!!! Although I’d like to think I’m somewhat cool, you’re right, I don’t hold a candle to those creatives!!!

  • fcanfield

    Very good description of child pricing. I do remember the 3 price tickets and still have “Junior” tickets from my kids.

    What I would like further information on is “Senior” tickets. When I first became eligable, about 15 years ago, Disneyland di offer a very hefty discount for senors which has sadly disappeared.

    • The Accountaneer

      Interesting call-out on Senior tickets. That must have pre-dated my time there as I don’t recall having ever seen them!

  • red barchetta

    Do you find Al Lutz’s persistent use of the term “bean counters” to describe those behind these very decisions offensive?

    • The Accountaneer

      Offensive? No way. At the end of the day we’re all talking about having fun at a theme park. And while yes, it was my job, it was still just a theme park. I don’t take my passion for this stuff serious enough to get offended about anything. There are way more important things in life. I read Al’s writing way before I started at DL (usenet anyone?)…so I knew being the “bean counter” wasn’t going to make me anyone’s best friend!

  • WaltsMartini

    Fascinating! It’s very rare that we get to see these decisions from the perspective of a Disney fan AND a finance person. Great second article. Would love to hear more about the fiscal story behind the “first” DCA. And, being closer to WDW than DL, would like to hear more from your perspective about the OneDisney initiative and its pros (from the financial side) and cons (from the fan side – different merchandise please!)

    • The Accountaneer

      Great topics to write about…but I may have to punt.

      When I started, DCA was already starting to rise. So I wasn’t involved at all in the original budgets, business plans, etc. There was, of course, hearsay around the office but I don’t want to write based on hearsay. In the future I’ll write a bit about the aftermath and triaging!

      Regarding OneDisney, I left the company prior to it really taking over DL. I have some insight from co-workers who are still there, but I’m focusing my writing on my own personal experiences.

      Thanks for the kudos!

  • ralfrick

    Those average heights actually seem rather low. The boy hit 48″ when he was six, and he was consistently one of the smallest kids in his class.

    • The Accountaneer

      48″ is still on the high-end for a 6 year old boy according to the standard charts…50th percentile is about 45.5inches. 48″ is 50th percentile for a 7 year-old boy:

      I also used some generalizations since the girls chart differs from the boys…

  • DobbysCloset

    What a smile you gave me today, counting those magic beans.

    As a very short kid and still short as an adult, I didn’t reach 60 inches until I was past twelve, and that’s as far as I got! Kids are a lot bigger these days, I think…but I remember how long it took for me to be able to “drive” at Autopia…forever.

    “You must be this tall to ride” signs were an annual rite (ride?) of passage throughout my childhood…. On my last trip I bought a “Judge me not by my size” Yoda T-shirt which I’ve since passed on to an even shorter adult…

    You mention how things are done at other parks — there are other parks? I think I went to one once, but it wasn’t the Happiest Place on Earth, just a collection of oversized carnival rides with trash blowing about…

    • martinjbell1986

      Well said!

  • Big D

    I’ve always been a fan of paying based on height rather than age. It will never be perfect, because there will be kids who are taller then 48″ who are not going to go on those rides, but it does seem more fair then paying based on age, and it’s not possible for parents to lie about their kids height the way they lie about their age. But, there’s no perfect answer and no matter how Disney decides to price their tickets it will negatively affect someone. I was more surprised to learn that Disney has an age limit for buying a kids meal at a restaurant. Why would there be an age limit for that? If an adult wants to buy a kids meal why would’t they be able to? It’s not like a kid is getting the same meal as an adult at a lower price.

    • The Accountaneer

      See my response above about height vs. age.

      Regarding the kids meals, it’s my experience that while the 3 to 9 year age is listed, they are not enforced at all. You can even ask a CM for a kids meal for an adult and they won’t have an issue with it. So why are the ages there? Dunno! I’ve noticed ages on a lot of kids meal menus at non-theme park restaurants too…