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Jam-packed Disney theme parks to vary admission price to spread out visitors

Disney plans to charge higher admission when times are busy and less when visitors are fewer in an effort to influence tourist behavior and accommodate more people, but with fewer peaks and valleys.
Disney plans to charge higher admission when times are busy and less when visitors are fewer in an effort to influence tourist behavior and accommodate more people, but with fewer peaks and valleys.
Published Oct. 6, 2015

Facing record theme park attendance, Disney is taking the next step in crowd control with plans to charge higher admission when times are busy and less when visitors are fewer. The idea is known as demand pricing — some already are calling it "Uber-style" pricing — that Disney hopes will influence tourist behavior, spreading out theme park visits to accommodate more people but with fewer peaks and valleys.

That's not all that's changing with admission to Disney parks. Annual passes just got overhauled with some prices soaring by more than 30 percent and topping $1,000.

Better get used to it. Florida has seen previews of flexible pricing with "early bird specials" at restaurants, matinee movie discounts, bargain mid-week or off-season hotel rates or paying less to fly on off-peak days or hours. But more demand pricing is on the way. More recent examples feature plans to charge variable prices on expressway toll lanes, enticing drivers to pay less for toll roads other than at peak commuting times of the day. Ride-sharing innovator Uber already uses "surge pricing" to charge a premium when demand for transportation is highest.

Disney will charge less at theme parks or feature added perks on slower days or possibly raise prices even further or add restrictions to theme park use at peak times — typically weekends and major holidays. Attendance around the Christmas and New Year's holidays is the highest of the year at both Orlando's Walt Disney World and Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.

"We have to look at ways to spread out our attendance throughout the year so we can accommodate demand and avoid bursting at the seams," Walt Disney Parks and Resorts chairman Bob Chapek told the Wall Street Journal. The world's biggest theme park operator will start surveying visitors on demand pricing options this week. Perks to lure more visitors to off-peak times could include free parking or free photos taken with theme park characters.

Disney has not set a date for the adoption of demand pricing. The strategy would be a first for Walt Disney Co. in its domestic parks since Disneyland opened 60 years ago. Like most theme park operators, Disney has typically raised its single-day admission price, slowly but surely. A one-day pass to the Magic Kingdom hit $105 earlier this year, breaking the triple digit admission barrier for the first time.

Demand pricing won't simply help even out the current flood of Disney park visitors. The recent success of Disney's Frozen attraction and — brace yourself — the anticipated boom in attendance to see the upcoming Star Wars attraction are forcing Disney to find ways to squeeze ever more people into already crowded theme parks and still offer an enjoyable experience.

Both Walt Disney World and Disneyland enjoyed record attendance for each of the past three fiscal years, as well as for the spring quarter that ended in June.

"Given the way demand-based pricing works in other industries, it isn't difficult to foresee a time when visiting one of Disney's parks on a major holiday would cost substantially more than the current $105 maximum price for a single day adult ticket in Orlando and $99 in Anaheim," the Journal reported this past weekend. "Visiting on a weekday in the winter, by contrast, could come at a significant discount."

What Disney — the No. 1 theme park operator in the world — does in pricing often influences what other major theme park operators charge for admission. Last year, Disney theme parks racked up more than 134 million visitors. That's up from about 112 million in 2006.

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Disney's challenge, of course, is to keep growing attendance and revenues without undermining the theme park experience by sheer overcrowding or — dare we say it — eroding the sense of value tourists have long enjoyed attending Disney attractions.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.