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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Planning a Disney vacation may soon get easier, and for that you can thank the pandemic and the influencers — really

Posted By on Tue, Jan 19, 2021 at 2:37 PM

  • Photo via Disney/Facebook
In July, when Walt Disney World reopened, annual passholders could renew their passes, though new passes haven’t been sold since then. But in California, where the healthcare system has been overwhelmed by the pandemic, theme parks have essentially been shut down since March.

With the death rate in the region doubling and officials having to lift air quality limits in order to ensure crematoriums can keep up with COVID-related deaths, it’s clear Disneyland won’t be reopening anytime soon. After multiple extensions, the resort made the unprecedented move last week to shut down the current annual passholder program.

Disney has been rumored to be looking at a reservation-style system for years. In late 2015, Orlando Weekly’s Seth Kubersky noted that the (new at that time) security checkpoints found at the entrance of Orlando-based theme parks was just the start of a multi-step process to better handle safety and crowd levels. Those comments have proven prophetic, as Disney introduced a very similar system when the Orlando theme parks reopened in July. The system is currently in use due to social distancing required decreases in-park capacity. Similar approaches have been used at other attractions, such as the Louvre, for years as a way to better predict crowd levels.

The move to eliminate annual passes, at least in their previous form, may help address the self-entitlement that cast members have complained about for years. It may also help limit abuses to the system. Disney has played a game of cat and mouse with passholders abusing the system for years.

Some passholders have made a career out of abusing the system, either via social media or by reselling items purchased within the parks. In recent years, the introduction of any new thing, from cupcakes to restrooms, has been met with long lines filled with social media influencers looking to cover the event. Resellers quickly gobble up every new retail item.

As with all admission tickets, the terms and conditions of annual passes strictly prohibit commercial uses, but that hasn’t slowed a steady stream of content creators and resellers from making covering the parks their sole source of income. Entire websites and YouTube channels are now dedicated to tracking the drama between Disney influencers. Even as some influencers are now questioning their symbiotic relationship with the massive corporation, there seems to be an endless supply of new fans willing to replace them.

click to enlarge Hand sanitizer station placed at Walt Disney World's Transportation and Ticket Center. - PHOTO BY SETH KUBERSKY
  • Photo by Seth Kubersky
  • Hand sanitizer station placed at Walt Disney World's Transportation and Ticket Center.
Early in the pandemic, many content creators were panicking. On his website, Pirates and Princesses, Thom Pratt, who notes that covering Disney is just a “part-time income” for his family, acknowledges the days of full-time influencers filling Disney parks every hour that they’re open may be coming to an end.

“I do think the influencer bubble might burst because many people simply will have to find another career path as covering Disney parks as a full-time job simply isn’t viable right now,” Pratt says. He adds he’s thankful for his other sources of income: “As someone who used to literally cover Disney for a living, I am incredibly thankful I don’t rely on that as my primary income right now.”

It’s not just influencers who have become a problem for Disney. Passholder groups, some dressed like biker gangs, have also caused drama in recent years. A 2018 lawsuit claimed one such social club, the White Rabbits, used Mafia-like tactics to scare another social club’s leader. In court documents related to the case, the White Rabbits' self-proclaimed leader is quoted as saying, “nothing happens in Disneyland without my permission.”

After years of half-measures and purges of passholders found to be violating terms and conditions, by dramatically altering the passholder program altogether, Disney may finally be able to address the widespread misuses and entitlement the former program helped create.

In the August Q3 earnings call, Disney CEO Bob Chapek made it clear that the company was looking to go after higher-spending vacationers over 'less valuable' annual passholders when he said, "Different guests, depending on where they're coming from, have different relative values in terms of their contribution as a guest to the park. And typically, someone who travels and stays for five to seven days is marginally more valuable to the business than someone who comes in on an annual pass and stays a day or two and consumes less, you know, merchandise and food and beverage."

The company maintains that the pause in new annual pass sales in Florida is only temporary. In announcing the California passholder program's cancellation, the company acknowledged that they were “developing new membership offerings” but gave few details on what this will look like. 

Bill Zanetti, a theme park analyst who teaches at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management, said in an interview with Orlando Weekly that the future of the annual pass program, in both Disneyland and Disney World, may be influenced by the current park reservation system in use at Walt Disney World. That program requires all guests, including annual passholders, to reserve their park admission before showing up at the resort.

“Disney has been looking at changing the Annual Pass programs for years. Forecasting attendance more accurately and forcing attendance to be the same every day through artificial control methods seem to be the primary goals. A couple of years back, Disneyland came out with the Flex Pass, an AP offering that required you to ‘book’ the days you wanted to visit in advance. It was quite popular, mainly because of the price point being much lower than the other options. It’s actually very similar to how reservations are required now for the parks in Florida. I really don’t see the reservation system going away in the future, though it could take another form.”

Zanetti doesn’t find it surprising that Disney chose Disneyland as the place to first cancel the current annual pass program. He points to Disneyland’s heavier focus on locals than Disney World, where a higher percentage of visitors come from outside the region. This, according to Zanetti, is why Disneyland has a bigger emphasis on annual passes, and therefore why any changes to the program would likely begin there. “Disneyland is really an amazing regional theme park that wants to be a resort destination. They’ve done a great job in doing so, but the population density of Orange County, California, is so high that there’s a huge local population within 30 minutes.”

The reliance on locals could be seen at Disneyland when annual passholders would flood the park on certain days. By relying on locals instead of out-of-town visitors, Zanetti says, a park will see more dramatic shifts in crowd levels throughout the day and on weekends versus weekdays.

“Disneyland’s crowds are dependent on the workweek. Disneyland could be quiet in the morning but could get a huge influx of people in the evening after they work. When you go to WDW, you are likely not working that day, so you can go all day. That’s during normal times, of course.” But Zanetti notes that currently, Disney World is operating much more like a regional park reliant on locals. “With the current state of things, WDW is operating much more like a local’s park. Weekends are more crowded because visitors don’t need to work on weekends. That’s the difference with locals.”

In August, Chapek confirmed half of all visitors to Disney World were locals. It can be assumed that many of these locals are annual passholders, meaning a large percentage of guests at WDW are annual passholders using the existing reservation system to access the parks.

Many Disney fans have expressed their approval of the current reservation system in use at the parks. Like others in the theme park fan community, Zanetti expects some form of the reservation system to remain in place and a new annual pass program to be introduced that compliments it. This may replace the current carte blanche style system with one that has a predetermined number of visitors per pass.

Disneyland introduced an annual pass similar to this in 2019, ahead of Star Wars' debut: Galaxy’s Edge. As Zanetti referenced, that program, known as Flex Passport, required reservations on select days while less crowded days, all of which were weekdays, were ‘good to go’ and didn’t require any advance planning.

Flex Passport was one of the last major changes to ticketing overseen by the then-current president of the resort Josh D’Amaro. Four months later, he was named the President of Walt Disney World though he quickly was promoted to Chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences And Products in early 2020 when Bob Chapek stepped out of that role to become Disney CEO. D’Amaro, who has worked at Disney for over two decades, is known for his on-the-ground leadership style and frequent face-to-face interactions with annual passholders.

The park reservation system also seems to have limited the number of influencers in the parks as witnessed with the debut of new additions, like the recently opened bathrooms in the France pavilion, where crowds were seen but nowhere near the levels that such an event would've caused prior to the pandemic. The same can’t be true for Disney Springs, where no ticket or reservation is required. When local cookie bakery Gideon’s Bakehouse recently held its grand opening, influencers flocked to the event, causing an 11-hour long wait at the cookie bakery.

D'Amaro spoke to Roger Dow, the president of the U.S. Travel Association, in August indicating the current Disney World style reservation system is likely here to stay, stating that the system leads to a better experience for casts and guests alike.

The reservation system for annual passes has been tried at other Disney resorts as well. Shanghai Disneyland's lowest tier annual pass requires reservations and only allows a select number of passholder reservations per day.

Disneyland also debuted MaxPass in early 2017, about a year before D’Amaro’s move to the resort. This paid digital FastPass system is similar to WDW’s FastPass+ system but only allows for day-of reservations. Since its debut, there have been rumors that a similar approach would eventually be rolled out at Disney World. Currently, the entire FastPass+ system at Walt Disney World is turned off.
click to enlarge PHOTO BY SETH KUBERSKY
Disney World’s digital FastPass system required weeks of planning before visiting, with the most popular attractions often filling up nearly two months early. At Disneyland, MaxPass seemed to merge the paperless FastPass system's benefits while keeping what made the original day-of FastPass system work. It allows guests to skip the lines but doesn’t require months of planning to get on rides. Once FastPass returns to Disney World, the system may resemble MaxPass more than the previous FastPass+ system.

Disney World may also look to its older sister in California for another big move. Prior to closing, Disneyland allowed for dining reservations just 60 days in advance, while Walt Disney World had pushed out the reservations to a full six months. For Disney World visitors, having to decide when and where they were going to eat half a year before visiting, followed by having to book their ride reservations two months before visiting, proved confusing and stressful.

When Walt Disney World reopened in July, the dining reservation window had shrunk to the same 60-day format used in California. There’s no indication that this will change post-pandemic. Instead, Disney looks to be using this once-in-a-lifetime slowdown to address out-of-control reservation and annual pass systems that made parks on both coasts far less enjoyable than they once were.

For some, the opportunity to explore new hobbies and vacation spots during this time has been enough for them to ask if another Disney vacation is worth the price and planning.

Disney has yet to share details on what the parks will look like post-pandemic, but it’s clear the company is using this time to address issues the parks have been facing for years. It’s still too early to know if this will be enough to make planning a trip to the parks easier. For Disney, even if that doesn’t end up being the case, the changes may be worth it because they may finally eradicate the social club gangs and influencers that previously filled the parks, and for that, they don’t need anyone’s permission.

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