Culture

Class Warfare, Disney-Style?

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I’ve been a Disney enthusiast my entire life, and the biggest reason for my love of Disney is the fun and excitement of Walt Disney World. I even used a family trip to Walt Disney World as the “hook” for my first book, Football, Faith, and Flannery O’Connor: A Love Letter to the South!

Vacations to Walt Disney World have been a family tradition as long as there has been a Walt Disney World. My parents went there on their honeymoon, mere months after the resort opened, and our family has made the Vacation Kingdom of the World a destination at least once a year since. My siblings and I have instilled this Disney obsession into the next generation as well.

One of the things I’ll admit to is the fact that a Disney vacation is expensive. We save, plan, prepare, and look for bargains anywhere we can — at the same time, we splurge once in a while on a more expensive part of the Disney experience. We believe that the joy and excitement we receive from our trips to Walt Disney World are worth every penny.

Part of the preparation for a Disney vacation is research, which means I spend a good bit of time perusing Disney-related websites and blogs. A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon a blog post that blew me away. Over at World of Walt (a site I admit I don’t check out often), Herb Leibacher wrote a post titled, “Has Walt Disney World Decided to Skip the Middle Class?” The subtitle provides an interesting glimpse into the mindset behind the post: “Ever increasing prices and profits, oddly combined with increasing crowds, make many wonder if Disney will become a playground exclusively for the world’s top 1%.”

Yes, that’s right. Mr. Leibacher pulls out that old standby: the class-warfare trope. Let’s take a look inside the post, shall we?

When Disneyland opened in 1955, it cost $1 to get in and an additional 10 to 30 cents per ride. Translated into today’s terms, that would be an admission price of about $8.83. Considering that a single day at the Magic Kingdom now costs $105, it’s easy to see that prices at Disney parks have gone up. A lot.

However, it’s also interesting to note that when Disneyland opened, most amusement parks had free admission. Many thought that Walt’s crazy plan to charge any admission fee at all meant that he was doomed to fail.

How could Walt charge $1 for something that everyone else provided for free?

The question of Disney’s pricing approach was controversial back in 1955, and it is still a hot topic of debate today.

Usually the basic economic law of supply and demand applies: the more you charge for something, the less of it people will buy.

It seems the Disney Company has figured out how to use business magic to get around economic laws.

The author then goes on to detail many of the premium experiences that Disney offers, pointing out some of the extremes. None of these premium experiences that Leibacher names prove essential to a great Disney vacation — in fact, most Disney vacationers will never spring for a $2,000-per-night bungalow or partake in a $225 wine tasting and will yet be perfectly satisfied with their time at Walt Disney World.

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Leibacher goes on to contradict himself a bit by looking at the value that comes with a Disney vacation — things like free transportation and the savings that come with multi-day tickets. He concludes by pointing out:

The trade group that represents theme parks, the Themed Entertainment Association, states that the stagnation of middle-class incomes is one of the biggest challenges for parks. That means they look to the rich, a business strategy which Scott Smith, a business professor at the University of South Carolina, calls the “right strategy.”

Still, Smith admits it is sad that all families can’t afford a Disney vacation.

The article feels a bit incomplete, and the author just doesn’t seem to deliver on the promise of his headline. He makes a valid point that even the most ardent Disney fan would admit to: Walt Disney World is expensive. The price increases at Walt Disney World have even outpaced inflation in many cases. Here’s one example: an episode of the Retro Disney World podcast pointed out last year that a night at Disney’s Contemporary Resort cost $44, which translates to $257 in 2014 dollars. As of this writing, rooms at the Contemporary during the August-September “value season” range from $400 to $615 per night, depending upon the view!

Okay, here’s the thing. I don’t presume to know Mr. Liebacher’s political leanings, nor do I know his true motives. But he’s taking the wrong tack; a class-warfare explanation for Disney’s rising prices simply does not work. Disney has raised prices nearly every year, and guests keep coming. In fact, to cite Liebacher’s own numbers, attendance has more than doubled between 1986 and 2014!

Yes, rates go up, and yes, so does attendance. But it’s not just the filthy rich — or the “one percent” (I despise that phrase, but apparently Liebacher doesn’t) — who are going to Walt Disney World year after year. Every trip we take, we see families of all types having the time of their lives.

You see, if families want something badly enough, they will make it happen. As a friend of mine said in an email discussion about this post, “Anyone can save and spend as they like. Welfare recipients have flat screen TVs and expensive cable packages.” Families scrimp, save, plan, and prepare for a Disney trip. (And the planning winds up being half the fun!) A Walt Disney World vacation doesn’t have to be a luxury indulgence, either — Disney offers plenty of options for the budget-conscious.

In the next couple of weeks, I’m going to share with you some of my favorite ways to make a Disney trip a reality on a budget. I hope you’ll join me as I try to dispel the myth that a Walt Disney World vacation is only for folks with money to burn.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock.com / Katherine Welles and the author