Has Disney Hit Capacity?
Most Magical Place on Earth.
When you have two children ages 5 and 7, it's not exactly a difficult task to sell them on the idea of at trip to either Disney Land or Disney World. So by taking advantage of a long holiday weekend, we headed to the mecca of magic in central Florida, anxious to create the lasting memories which Mickey and his pals hope will bring you back as often as possible. Disney is without question one of the world leaders in customer experience and customer service. Parks that are impecabaly clean and free of trash, employees who are as happy to be at work as their guests, and accommodation of even the simplest request with a smile are all hallmarks of the Disney experience. However upon looking back on our most recent trip, I can't help but think Disney has lost a few MPH off of it's fastball, at least in terms of the theme park experience.
So Many People, So Many Lines
Due to their locations in southern California and central Florida, both US Disney parks are popular vacation destinations for families who live in colder climate areas. Because of these destination feature, the parks have developed an annual cycle of busier "peak" seasons, offset by slightly less traffic season. Make no mistake, there is truly never an "off" season, even during times of the year when Disney is offering deals and incentives, the mass of humanity at any of their facilities may be too much for some people!
We've been fortunate enough to visit Disney World during points in the year that qualify for their "green" and "yellow" congestion ratings. Typically the weeks before/after major holiays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, the weeks typically utilized by schools for spring break in late March and early April, are considered "red" dates. Expect massive lines not only on the rides and attractions, but you'll also encounter difficulty securing dining options unless you book those ahead of time. Other parts of the winter are considered "yellow" which are the dates we try to take advantage of. While not as great as as "green" rating, these dates allow us to take advantage of favorable Florida weather, and give us a break from the freezing cold and snow of the midwest. "Green" dates are typically located in the late Spring, Summer, and early Fall dates on the calendar. Keep in mind that in exchange for a "slightly" less crowded park experience and favorable room and dining rates, the weather in Florida during July or August is oppressive at best. If humidity does not agree with you, stay away.
What jumped out at me about this particular trip, taken in the middle of January, was the amount of work and thought involved before even getting on the plane for Orlando. Booking dining reservations in advance is nothing new. Our kids have always liked the character dining experiences, and those typically require an advance reservation due to their popularity. However it soon became very apparent that in order to fully utilize the value of the dining plan we booked, we would have to reserve times for "normal" dinners and lunches for sit-down options at all of the Disney Parks. Maybe I never paid attention to it in the past, but reserving your dining arrangements two months before your trip, further requires you to start planning out the other components of your trip as well.
New And Improved Fast Pass
Disney management has done a fantastic job of acknowledging and addressing issues related to long lines for their more popular attractions. Several years ago the implementation of the "fast pass" system allowed guests to pull a ticket at a specific ride, allowing them to return to that ride later on in the day and utlilize a much shorter "VIP" type line. However even this system has its limits. On a recent trip to DisneyLand's California Adventure Park, I found myself standing in a line for over an hour, just to secure fast passes for a particular ride. While we were able to cruise right into the ride later on in the day, the total time spent standing in line between the fast pass line and the ride itself was still well over an hour.
Last year along with their new "Magic Band" program, Disney implemented Fast Pass Plus, which now allows you to book or effectively reserve your ride times before you arrive at the park. There are limits to the number of fast passes you can digitally attach to your wristband at any given time, so you have to pick and choose carefully which attractions to experience, while also leaving yourself enough time to stand in line for rides you do not have passes for.
Supply vs. Demand
Several times a year the Disney parks make headlines for hitting their undisclosed park capacity. Guests are forced to wait outside the main gates until a certain number of guests exit, not unlike the velvet rope crowd you see standing outside of a popular, trendy nightclub on a Saturday night. While having to wait just to get into the park will test anyone's patience, I cannot imagine the congestion and level of discomfort created inside the park. These instances typically occur during their highest peak, or "red" points on the calendar, but it raises the question, has the demand created by the popularity started to over-run the supply of magic and pixie dust offered in California and Florida?
Despite what they may publicly admit, the real goal of the Disney corporation and it's theme parks is to turn a profit. To create value for their shareholders. Stuff as much cash in scrooge's coffers and use it to build yet another popular ride or attraction. Things like increasing family memories and inspring dreams within children young and old sound great on billboards, but last time I checked, you can't pay a shareholder dividend with dreams and wishes.
Magic or Money
Maybe Disney is comfortable with the return the parks provide, despite it's issues with hitting park capacity. Maybe Disney is confident in its ability to manage their current demand through their reputation for customer service and hospitality. But at what point does the bottom of the bucket break? Does Disney eventually have to raise its park and hotel rates in order to slightly decrease the demand during the peak seasons? Will the shareholders accpet the risk of lower attendance with the hope or gamble on a pontially higher per guest profit? Because the Disney park brand is built on the ideals of imagination, wonder, magic and dreams, it is a fine line to walk between managing the experience you deliver, while at the same time remaning one of the most profitable companies in world.