I had a chance to talk to (the delightful) Dave Smith of the Disney Archives this past weekend. He had some interesting things to say about Disney's ticketing system and, in-turn, the origins of the annual pass.
A Premium on the New: the D-ticket
As we all know, Disney attractions used to be ticketed with park admission being free or low-cost and each attraction requiring a separate ticket. The park started in 1955 with A, B, an C tickets. The D-tickets were added in 1956 as the park needed increased capacity after its initial success in 1955. These D-tickets were for Tom Sawyer's Island, the Skyway, and Storybook Canal Boats. The D-tickets weren't exactly considered the "best" attractions, but they were the newest. So we see some example of Disney doing "supply and demand" pricing with new attractions (demand is greater for new attractions). This conflicts with the later, colloquial "E-Ticket" meaning that "better" tickets meant "better" attractions.
The origins of the Annual Pass
Disney began phasing out the tickets because they created the perception of increased cost. Even if you spent less per day using tickets, the psychological effect of constantly paying for attractions throughout the day gave the impression of high cost. This is where the bundled ticket books and eventual elimination of the ticket program in favor of "all access" admission came from.
The elimination of the ticket books created one problem: locals had been using the $1, ticketless admission pass to visit Disneyland to eat, shop, or otherwise just soak in the atmosphere. These locals would not be able to do this with the elimination of ticket books and ticketless, $1 admission. Disney came up with the annual pass for these locals, allowing a larger up-front charge to defer the cost of multiple (attractions included) visits. With attractions now included with the cost of admission, there really was no other way for locals to visit casually throughout the year.
- Disney charging "more" for new attractions is probably something we'll continue to see as it's something in Disney's DNA from inception. Think ticketed preview events, etc. Disney has been aware of supply and demand issues involving new attractions from the beginning. Honestly, I'm amazed Disney doesn't charge an extra $5 a head for Carsland admission for the first year or something to that effect. Many would happily pay it, and those that wouldn't could simply wait a bit longer until the land entered "normal" park status. This seems like a fine way for Disney to build expensive, Tokyo-level lands and attractions without taking the full brunt of the the extra costs. It is effectively no different than having a ride start out as a D-ticket and then moving it to a C-ticket after a few years. I guess the alternative is to raise ticket prices every time a significant addition to the park is made, but they seem to already have an annual ticket price increase thing going.
- The annual pass program came from humble, honest beginnings before turning into the monster it is now. I still think the annual pass is a fine thing for some, but it shouldn't be the primary entrance method as it is now. Eliminate all but the Premium pass (effectively raising the price of an annual pass) and lower day ticket prices a bit. People going to the park 3-4 days a year should be buying tickets, not annual passes.