Disney passholder changes make some locals feel left behind

disney world annual pass
Florencio Bulanhagui didn’t like what he saw in a questionnaire about possible future restrictions on Walt Disney World passes.

The Disney survey asked what he would do if his pass blocked access a couple of months after the opening of a new attraction, parade or show at a theme park. Would he pay additional admission to get an early peek? Upgrade to a pass that allowed him to visit? Or simply wait until the restrictions were lifted?

“At some point if it became too expensive, I might just focus my money back toward another theme park,”

said Bulanhagui, 38, of Orlando.



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Asking about a concept in a survey doesn’t guarantee it will become reality. Still, just seeing the question irritated Bulanhagui, one of many Floridians whose love affair with Disney has been soured by increasing prices and restrictions. Some have downgraded their passes to cheaper ones. Others are giving them up altogether.

Financial results might be reflecting the trend. From April through June, 4 percent fewer visitors passed through the turnstiles of domestic Disney theme parks — while the resort’s hotel occupancy rose 3 percent.

“Either the out-of-town visitor who doesn’t stay with them or the local, maybe a passholder, maybe not, those are the ones they’re losing at this point,” said Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider.

Disney did not make executives available for an interview. A spokeswoman pointed out Florida residents receive discounts on tickets while those with passes enjoy price cuts on merchandise, food and hotels. Disney also said it will unveil new passholder benefits and another Florida resident ticket offer this fall.

“Our annual passholder programs offer an exceptional value, and passholders enjoy access to special holiday events early in the season and are among the first to experience new offerings at the parks,” the company said in an emailed statement. “We are always looking for new ways for this valued group of guests to experience the magic of Disney.”

General tickets cost more as well. Four-day Florida resident ticket specials costing $159 last year didn’t return this January. Disney sells a four-day Florida resident package starting at $219.

As Disney’s theme parks have become more crowded, the company has tried to discourage some visits during its busiest periods. The strategy has included a revamp of the annual-pass system. In October, prices rose 22 percent to $649 for Florida passholders wanting admittance during Christmas and spring break.

Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger told analysts in May executives are willing to sacrifice some attendance. Revenue has still risen, because guests are spending more on average.

Not all passholders feel neglected. “What you get for the money is definitely worth it,” said Christian Cassady, a Vero Beach bookkeeper.

But Mike Sanders of Wesley Chapel said the October price change was the breaking point for him and his family.

“You look at the big picture and enough’s enough,” said Sanders, 39, a marketing manager.

Annoyances to some locals include a FastPass system allowing hotel guests to reserve ride times about two months in advance but forcing others to wait until 30 days before a visit. That means Central Florida residents can have difficulty getting onto popular rides unless they wait in long lines.

Candi Clark previously lived in Loganville, Ga., and used an out-of-state annual pass to take frequent vacations. She, her husband and three kids recently moved to Winter Garden, meaning they can now qualify for Florida resident passes that cost $100 less apiece. Still, living in the shadow of Cinderella’s Castle, she has become a little more jaded.

“They really cater to people who are staying on Disney property, so locals and even people from out of town who may not be able to afford to stay on Disney property kind of get the short end of the stick,” said Clark, 35, a photographer.

Disneyland fans in California also say they have given up their passes as price changes there sent the cost of ones allowing 365-day-a-year access rose to more than $1,000.

Disney World has introduced some new perks. Through September, passholders can buy deeply discounted Park Hopper tickets for others. Disney has also added free parking to lower-tiered passes and tossed in complimentary downloads of photos shot on rides or by its professional photographers.

Guests like parking for free. Because they visit so frequently, though, many shrug off the keepsake photos.

Some Disney devotees say they have started to prefer Universal Orlando, where pass prices have also increased but remain significantly cheaper than Disney’s. Universal has two theme parks while Disney has four. Its higher-priced passholder benefits include parties and tickets to Halloween Horror Nights.

Judi Axel, 69, of Clermont, had switched to a less expensive Disney pass and is considering one allowing only weekday visits. Axel said in an email she had been a devoted fan for years “until Disney started to treat the “locals” like something to be tolerated.”

Blocking out theme-park access could add insult to injury.

Disney had no comment on the survey but noted that many ideas it asks about in questionnaires don’t come to fruition.

The survey did not make clear whether blockout dates could apply to a new attraction or an entire park.

Exploring the idea might be timed to the upcoming Star Wars land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, experts said.

While it would help manage huge crowds, “it’s not the warm-and-fuzzy kind of thing you would want to do to your loyal patrons,” former Disney executive Duncan Dickson said. “I’d be just real careful of ticking off my loyal base.”