Is Anything Free at Disney?

If the internet has taught us anything it’s that total ignorance of a subject is no obstacle to having an immediate opinion.

Two articles regarding so-called Freebies at Disney Parks were recently posted to a very popular Disney-Fan website. As an over-analytical person I took issue with the use of the word “free”, posted a comment, and suffered an instant backlash for my dissenting opinion.

I take no offense to these retaliations because I know that the counter blasts were less in defense of Disney than they were the offended trying to justify the price of their recent vacation in the Costliest Happiest Place on Earth.

I would like to take this opportunity, on my very own website, to flesh out my point of view a bit further. If you disagree with the assessments expressed in this blog entry, please, feel free to flame on in the comment section below!

Let me begin with the only two items from the aforementioned article that I would mostly count as free: the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom (the Magic Kingdom’s trading card game) and Celebration Buttons. The buttons truly are free to anyone celebrating a birthday, anniversary, bar mitzvah, first visit, or simply being at the parks for any reason other than just enjoying your Disney vacation. Buttons are given away on the honor system (Disney’s not checking anyone’s ID).

To play the trading card game all anyone has to do is locate the appropriate cast member where you’ll receive game instructions and a free packet of playing cards. If you enjoy the game you can purchase more cards (or trade the ones you have for potentially better cards). Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom targets multiple fan bases (the collector, the completist, the gamer, the Disneyana, etc), it’s well made and it’s fun. Obviously a lot of time, energy, and capital went into its creation and implementation. The game is very popular – and probably would be even if that first set of cards did cost something.

I say those two “mostly count as free” because admission for a single day is $100. Believe me, at that price, you ARE paying for those paper cards and little metal buttons.

Others will argue, “Nobody pays $100 a day! Everyone I know gets a multi-day pass and that lowers the price to $50 or $60 per day”.

First of all, there are a significant number of people that purchase single-day tickets at $100 per person.

Second, if you’re buying a multi-day pass… please don’t assume that you’re catching a break by purchasing more guaranteed time on Disney’s property. In this case Disney is the party who’s truly benefiting from this deal. By adjusting their ticket price on a sliding scale they’ve just enticed you (and your wallet) to spend more time within the 47 square miles they control.

If you happen to belong in the group of 89% of guests who visit Walt Disney World from out-of-state I bet you booked your trip in advance. Well in advance, too… because you know if you wait Disney will just raise the price. You definitely gave Disney your final payment 3 months before stepping foot on their hallowed ground; because that’s what they demand. It’s also required that you make a down payment of at least $200 at the time of booking. Now Disney has placed your money in a bank where they’re earning interest off of your “discounted” tickets.

When you book your vacation a year in advance (and don’t tell me no one does that – just try to book a Disney cruise) your $200 down payment – compounded monthly at 0.95% interest – suddenly becomes a paltry $201.90. Big deal! Except, Disney isn’t getting only your money.

In 2012 Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom saw 17,536,000 visitors. If only a tenth of them booked their vacations 12 months in advance that’s still 1.7 million people. If each person comes from a family of five people that’s 340,000 down payments each year or about 28,300 each month (if that number broke out evenly across each subsiquent month).

28,300 families multiplied by $200… with another 28,300 families depositing their own down payments for each of the following eleven months… compounded at 0.95% monthly interest… is about $403,000 worth of interest on down payments alone ($1.5 Billion NextGen initiatives don’t pay for themselves, you know).

Now tell us all about what a great deal you got by booking your multi-day vacation in advance.

Typically, when faced with this sort of information, people resort to the argument, “Well, do you know how much I paid to go see Lion King on Broadway? And that’s only two hours of entertainment. Compared to that paying $100 for ten hours in a Disney theme park is a bargain!”

Trust me, I understand the “perceived value” sales strategy.

Make no mistake, comparing the price of a Disney Theme Park ticket [specifically] to a Broadway or Sporting Event ticket price was a carefully crafted Eisner-era dynamic marketing tactic that has been extremely successful. You don’t have to look very far to hear others joyfully repeating this comparison as proof (to themselves just as much as others) that they received value for their hard earned dollars.

Let me be clear: paying $150 to sit in a molded plastic seat at a 3-hour sporting event is absurd. Paying up to $300 for two hours of Broadway entertainment (in a slightly more comfortable seat) is equally ridiculous.

Comparing those over-inflated prices to something else and then calling the comparison a “value” is preposterous.

That’s like having $10,000 to spend on a car. You go to the car lot and the salesman shows you $20,000 vehicles. After a bit of time and negotiation you finally settle on a $14,000 car. You then proceed to tell everyone how you got a real bargain and saved yourself $6,000.

No… you overpaid by $4,000.

I also understand the basics of market demand. If companies raise the price higher than the public is willing to pay… people just stop paying. From all apparent evidence people are happily willing to part with their hard-earned cash and receive less and less each time. The Theme Park’s soaring attendance records is all the proof anyone needs.

Now let’s move on to some of the more ridiculous claims of “freebies” on Disney Property.

The Art Class at Hollywood Studios: an in-park attraction. Claiming that’s free is like saying, “Boy isn’t it wonderful how Disney doesn’t make you purchase a train ticket to ride the locomotive around the park?”

Of course, people will argue that it’s not the actual attraction that’s free (duh!). The value is in Disney allowing you to keep your drawing of their character when you leave. Well. Bless. Their. Hearts! Disney’s actually allowing my child to keep her own pencil drawing! It was Disney’s paper and pencil lead after all… and I suppose they could find a way to monetize that…

It might be worth mentioning at this point that you’re unable to obtain this “free” drawing your child has made without first paying admission to their park.

Tell you what… your little Mouseketeer can come to my house and draw three circles and a smile on a sheet of paper all day and I won’t charge you either.

How about the All You Can Drink 4 ounce cups of soda at Club Cool? It’s FREE (again, after you pay to get past the front gate). Yeah, that’s great! You know who else doesn’t have to pay for it?! Disney. I hope you’re not surprised to learn that Disney doesn’t even pay for the paper cups. In fact, they charge Coke a substantial lease on that little spot of prime real estate. In short, Coke pays for everything from the product to the electric bill. Why? For the same reason bread companies pay to have their product at eye level in the grocery store: product placement. Disney is one of the world’s most easily recognized brands. Epcot’s average yearly attendance alone is around 11 million. What would you be willing to pay to place your product in such a prominent location?

There’s also the free Chocolate Samples at the Ghirardelli shop in Downtown Disney – which happens to be something that every Ghirardelli in every mall in every city does. Please do not confuse this as an act of Disney’s benevolence. This is a sales tactic that eateries have employed since man began paying for food – and it works. Most analysts agree that handing out free samples is the best way to introduce your product, collect feedback, entice customers to buy, and get repeat business. At the very least, companies handing out free samples hope the recipient will now feel rewarded (appreciated even), think warm-fuzzy thoughts about this company, and then go out and tell other people about the product. Word of mouth is always the best form of advertising and handing out bite-sized morsels is a pretty inexpensive way to jump start this campaign.

What about Resort Tours? Yes, I can’t begin to describe how grateful I am Disney doesn’t charge me extra to follow them on an hour-long sales pitch sprinkled with “facts” surrounding the “historic” hotel/lodge/watering hole we happen to be “touring”. As a Disney geek I will admit that there are some interesting stories about the real-life locations that inspired the resort’s design and how Imagineers work in an authentic look and feel. But don’t be fooled – these tours are designed to do two things: 1). entice those not already staying to book a hotel room in the near future and 2). reassure those who’ve already paid 3 times more than they would have at the Marriott down the street that they made a wise purchase. That sounds an awful lot like a commercial to me.

There’s no cover-charge at Atlantic Dance Hall… and it would be a joke if Disney started demanding a cover charge at this deserted hole. When was the last time you stepped foot in there?

Resort Campfires, Movies and Sing-a-Longs. Really?! What about the elevator in your Resort; is that not an A-Ticket ride? How about the pool? They’re already gating them. Should we be relieved Disney’s not charging resort guests extra for use of the themed pool area?

Regarding ANY of the Resort specific offerings: at an average of $400 per night… trust me… you’re paying for these bonuses. In fact, I’d go so far to say if you’re not using these resort benefits you’re getting ripped off.

We’ll finish with my personal favorite… ice water. Have we really reached the point where we’re thankful that Disney is giving away free water? Hardees does this! Why are there no money-saving tips posted in various vacation forums advising travelers to stop into Sunoco to load up on all the water you can drink from their free water fountains? Because it’s ridiculous!

In fact, name me one major (or minor) company that charges people for a glass of tap water! Target, Chipotle, Costco, the place my wife gets her nails done, H&R Block. I can go to my BANK and get a drink of water with nothing being debited from my account. Disney offering free water is nothing new or special.

What’s really happening here is, due to the overwhelming number of up-charges expected during a typical Disney vacation we’ve reached the point where if Disney hands us something and doesn’t expect payment we stare back in disbelief. The customer then returns from whence they came in a daze, mouth agape, breathlessly telling their friends and family and internet chat room buddies all about it.

“I asked for directions and it was FREE! I was willing to pay – had my trusty MagicBand ready – and the Cast Member said there was NO CHARGE!”

Disney is in a very unique place and they’re taking full advantage of it. They raise their prices and attendance goes up. So they double-down and raise their prices again. Even more people show up. Who’s to stop them? If I were in their place I’d keep raising prices until the market slowed (people stopped showing up). That’s just smart business. Why work harder when you can work smarter?

Let’s say you sell widgets. You work hard, probably 60 or more hours a week, and you charge a fair price.

Your competitor also sells widgets. He makes just as much money as you do (sometimes more) and works only half as hard. HOW? Because he charges more.

“I can’t charge more!”, you claim, “I’ll lose business!”

Yeah, you might. But on the business that you keep you’ll be making more money and you won’t have to work as hard. Isn’t maximizing your profit the main idea? Why did you get into business in the first place; out of the goodness of your heart? No. You got into business to make money.

All I’m saying is… don’t fool yourself into believing free ice water is some sort of magical bonus or that Disney is benevolent for “giving away” tiny little cups of soda or samples of chocolate. Disney is a business. They’ve been around for a long time now and they’re VERY good at math.

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