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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  • CastMember 02

    My question is in regards to Junior pricing, this is mostly used at WDW for the 7 day specials when they say Pricing is for 2 adults,1 Junior, 1 child. What constitutes a Junior? Thank You! Great Articles I absolutely love this series :)

    • WorldLover71

      I believe a junior is a third designation for someone between 10 and 17. They are not a child since they are over 9 and must pay full price for tickets but they are not an adult either since they are under 18 and can stay in a room with their parents/guardians for free. We took my 13 year old nephew last winter and he was considered a junior.

  • Michael Greening

    In an odd way, I was also a victim of the “One Disney” approach. Our company used to sell to Disneyland when the food/merchandise buyers were located in Anaheim and we had a wonderful relationship with the offices and the buyer (whom we are still friends with) As soon as it switched to the buyers being located in Orlando, that was the end of our sauces in Disneyland.

    It was a pretty big bummer!

  • PecosBill

    As of last Summer, WDW has eliminated child pricing for annual passes, how long before this translates to day tickets and the DLR parks?


  • Mountain Man

    As to what a child remembers, it might surprise you. My first trip to Disneyland was the first year it opened. I was three. I can easily remember my first ride down Main Street USA and the cast member who was driving. I remember the tall rocket ship and the fort..and how hot it was and how little shade was available back then. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience in these articles.

  • rwsmith

    Holy cow. My kids were 48″ at less than five years old. I’m not sure where the averages come from. I remember getting the stink eye taking my 28 month old daughter on Tower of Terror. When it was over she was balling her eyes out. Luckily when she caught her breath she screamed, “I LOVE this ride!”

    • JediPrincess

      I don’t think a 28 month old should be riding tower of terror, that doesn’t seem appropriate from a content or safety point of you. It sounds like you did what was best for you and not your child.

      • JediPrincess

        *point of view.

  • Epcyclopedia

    A question you may be able to shed some light on..

    After 9/11 and later when the Florida parks weren’t really recovering, the mission to cut costs was in full force and lead to some big mistakes and backpedaling from decisions that seemed good on paper. At Epcot, the explination given to the “deer in headlights” CM’s before they were to implement these bad ideas was always “Epcot needs 10k guests in ticket sales to remain in the black each operational day, we are precariously close to not achieving that goal (and some days we didn’t), therefor we must make cuts to stay in the black.”

    So Epcot experimented with many ways of cutting costs and while a few guests and CMs were injured due to stupid decision making, thankfully none were killed.

    Is the 10k a day in tickets true? Is it higher/lower/nowhere near there for the other various parks? How does guest spending once in the park factor into all of this? For example, if the average Epcot guests spend more per visit than the average DCA guest, does Epcot need to have more admissions than DCA to cover its higher operational cost still..?

    • The Accountaneer

      GREAT question. Yes, there are break-even attendance levels for each of the parks and you’re right, it was a very hot topic after 9/11. I, unfortunately, do not know Epcot’s. I do know the levels at DL and DCA and will use that as a topic for a future article! As a preview, post-9/11 DCA slipped below that level many times while DL even put their level at risk a few times. This prompted conversations around alternative operating scenarios (DCA closed Tue/Wed, DL closed one day/DCA closed the other, etc)…ok, I’ll stop here and add it to the article list!

  • chesirecat

    Great article, never considered accounting for a career but these stories make the field seem dynamic and intellectual in a way I didn’t expect. Obviously, Disneyland, like any business, is governed in large part by looking at costs from every angle.

    It would be interesting to hear your take on the sponsorships, such as Coca-Cola, Dole Whip . . . we all know that Coke gives Disneyland greatly discounted, if not free, product, as does Dole. But it would be interesting to here more about the concessions that Coke has forced on the park. Heard that Coke made Imagineering take out a talking water fountain when Toontown was being built due to their H2NO campaign.


  • ZedIzDead

    Cool article. My question is why don’t they have child pricing for APs? I paid $649 for a Premium pass for a 4 year old. Some of the cool perks for a PAP is discounts, free parking, and of course no blackouts. So of the three major perks, she can’t take advantage of two of them, plus she can’t go on everything. So why not a kids pap?


  • Spacepainter

    Fantastic article! Love the logistical points of view. Looking forward to the next one!

  • kindagoofy

    Thank you for sharing your perspective. This is a very different look at ‘behind the scenes’ magic!

  • MasterA1024

    Great Article!

    Im one of the guys who fall under the catagory of “Future Cast Members” and hopefully in Accounting or Buisness :) The path wont be easy but Walt said it himself; ” All our dreams can come true- if we have the courage to pursue them” -Walt Disney. The tips you put in are great and cant wait for more!

    I gotta tell ya; This article is great! Cant wait for the next one! Ive always loved those little details :) I remember when I turned 10 and went to WDW. My card said Adult and I felt like such a big kid!


  • ttintagel

    Kids certainly do tend to be taller these days than they were a few generations ago!

  • Pineapplewhip

    Loved this. Love the insight, behind the scenes and business side of Disney too. My oldest just turned 10, so now we have to buy 3 adult tickets. Not too big of a deal with small difference in pricing, as mentioned above, which brings me to my question that you’ve already said you cannot answer. Why is there such small difference? If you’re going to charge me an child’s price for my child that cannot take advantage of all the rides yet, why isn’t there more of a price break?

  • dsnygrl13

    We recently came back from a WDW vacation. We stayed 7 days at a moderate Disney property and included 6 day passports. Now Disneyland is ‘HOME’ for me. I grew up going every weekend (before they had annual passports), but in comparing prices for a comparable vacation on the west coast, we just couldn’t afford, nor justify the higher cost. Can you shed some light on why Florida is a better value as opposed to Anaheim?

  • QPerth

    Very much enjoying the stories from the other side of the office wall, can’t wait to hear more, thankyou!