I noticed a phenomenon that happens in the comment section of just about any article written about Disney: people complaining about how expensive it is or talking about how they can’t afford it for their families any longer. Since it’s the Internet, where people tend to voice negative opinions and attack something more often than being positive and uplifting, I’ve long skipped over a lot of the gripes because my family enjoys Disney, although we view it as a once-in-many-years very special treat. Elizabeth Taylor was married more times than I will ever see the inside of a Disney park. When you can afford to vacation at a place fewer times than someone had a big fancy wedding, then you know you are not Disney’s real target audience.
The reason it’s all so expensive is that regular people like us are not Disney’s true target demographic. The Disney parks really are meant for people who have deep, deep pockets and who are not pinching any pennies or saving up their spare change in jars to be able to afford a big trip down to Florida or over to California. Disney really wants people to come who could decide this week that another Saturday of polo in the backyard or shopping in Paris sounds boring…so let’s all fly down to Disney for some fun times on the rides instead.
In the movie Jurassic Park, there’s a famous scene not long after the big reveal that the park’s founder, John Hammond, really did bring dinosaur back to life. The slimy attorney working for Hammond is giddy at the thought of all the money that Jurassic Park is going to make. Hammond, in the film, is portrayed as Walt Disney-esque…in that he isn’t interested in price-gouging and squeezing every last penny out of his guests. He is a dreamer who built a magical place full of wonders that he wanted people to enjoy. He didn’t intend to give it all away for free, but he wanted regular people to enjoy it too, alongside the very wealthy people who would also like to come. The sniveling lawyer just wanted the super-rich to pay through the nose for the experience…though he did begrudgingly offer to allow a “coupon day” or something every blue moon. That was the bone he offered to throw to middle-class families who wanted to have all the fun and wonderment too, though they really couldn’t afford any of it without big family sacrifices.
I think we need to be realistic in that a trip to a Disney park is really the modern equivalent of someone going on a grand tour of Europe or a big African safari 100 years ago: it is a spectacular thing that is spectacular because regular people don’t get to do it every year (or even more than once or twice in a lifetime). I’ll be honest and say that going to EPCOT for a day is better to me than actually traveling around the world. Disney has condensed all the best things about foreign countries and put them all in one place, so I can enjoy the music and food and some shopping without all of the hassles of leaving the country and dealing with the parts of traveling abroad that are not at all fun. The same is true with the Animal Kingdom park, where I can pretty much experience what it’s like to go on an African safari and spend time in a remote African village…but without contracting malaria, being eaten by anything, or being kidnapped and/or murdered by warlords. Hooray for Disney for all of this. It took a lot of time, imagination, and know-how to pull off all these experiences, which truly are wonderful and special.
And I expect truly wonderful and special things to be ridiculously expensive. That is how capitalism works. The most desirable things will always cost the most. My family loves a big steak dinner, but our household budget doesn’t allow us to have that more than a few times a year. I know there are families out there who can afford to have the finest steaks every night, which they no doubt eat in the fanciest restaurants. These are places where my family and I can only afford to stand outside peeking in the windows, getting just that small glimpse of how the other half lives (and eats). I accept my reality that while I can dream of big, thick steaks all I want, I will be eating hamburgers and hotdogs for dinner instead and will only get one of those steaks once in a very great while, and that’s okay.
The Internet seems to be full of people who are mad they can’t have the steaks every night and who feel going to Disney should be as cheap as a day at Chuck E. Cheese’s (though, even that can get expensive if you let it). I don’t understand those people or what their problem is. But, I think they are missing the part where Disney clearly is not targeting or catering to members of the middle-class with their offerings. Disney is not in business to make every day “coupon day” and the era of Uncle Walt welcoming everyone with open arms to come experience his magical kingdom of wonders is long gone.
The old business model from Uncle Walt’s days was unsustainable. So, to survive, Disney brought in MBAs to be less caring/sharing and more aggressively, in-your-face consumerist. This was a departure from “the happiest place on earth,” where families could enjoy a day together without breaking the bank and a deliberate switch to Disney seeing itself as a place determined to make as much money off its guests as possible every day.
People who remember the pre-1980s Disney are the ones that I feel are most upset by how things are now, instead of just accepting the Disney we have as the only one that exists. Maybe since they have memories of Disney not turning you upside-down and shaking you for every last nickel and dime, they feel the need to bemoan how expensive everything there is now. But, I think they aren’t being realistic because going out anywhere is expensive to my family.
A trip to the movies one afternoon is over $100: 5 tickets, $30 snacks, and parking add up to more than I can spend on clothes for myself for a whole year. I don’t bemoan that, though, because we’ve found alternatives (like watching movies at home and making our own snacks and having just as good a time). I’m okay with my kids growing up and seeing a trip to the local movie theater as a big adventure. Even more rare is a night watching one of the pro sports teams, which would set my family back a small fortune. That is a very special treat that comes around once or maybe twice a year at most. A trip to a Disney park is, relatively speaking, the most rare and special treat of all. Which, when you think about it, is how it should be.
I like a bargain and I want to save money as much as the next mom, but let’s all be real. No one needs to go to Disney on a trip in the same way that we need to be able to buy food to put on the dinner table or buy clothes to put on our backs. Disney is not a necessity in life and Disney is a business that needs to do whatever it has to do to survive. If those prices are what it takes to keep Disney alive and thriving and re-investing in new rides and attractions forever, then I think it’s worth it.
I think it’s fun to save up our spare change and keep track of our little family Disney Fund. Since it’s something out of our normal reach, everything down there in Orlando becomes that much more special. I know that when we reach the park we’re not going to find any bargains and that everything is going to be expensive, just as if we had saved up for a trip to France, we would not be surprised to find everyone there speaking French (and uninterested in handing us anything for free or discounting it all for us). Disney isn’t in the business of providing an easy reality for us; it is in the business of selling a high-quality fantasy world to us for a premium price.
For middle-class families like mine, that means Disney is that five-star steak restaurant downtown that we hear people talk about getting to eat in every once in a while…and we dream of going there too one day while we eat our hamburgers and hotdogs and macaroni and cheese for dinner as a family. None of this upsets me the way that it upsets some people on the Internet who take to hating Disney and grousing about the prices. Just because something is not affordable on a daily basis doesn’t mean it’s something that people have to resent. We can’t have everything we want every day of our lives. Some things we have to save up for. Some things get to be special and rare. Some things are so special that we only get to dream about them.
But, having something special to dream about and hope for is what makes life interesting to me. Giving my kids the very rare gift of a Disney trip is an unparalleled joy for me. Would I feel that way if we could do this every weekend? I don’t think so. When steaks become as commonplace as hamburgers they lose their specialness too.