Calling Disney World to cancel her annual pass was almost as nightmarish as navigating the state’s overwhelmed unemployment benefits system this year.
Jen Vargas says she was on hold for five hours with Disney. It gave her enough time to decide on dinner, cook and eat the meatless tacos, do the dishes and then some.
Craig Hicks once went to Disney World up to five times a week, snapping photographs of a beautiful Florida sunset behind the Cinderella Castle to share on social media. That was before the pandemic. Now, that unlimited access is gone, even though Hicks still pays $70 a month for the annual pass.
Among Disney World’s annual passholders, frustration and anger has surfaced this summer about how the theme parks have handled the unprecedented coronavirus for among its most devoted fans.
There are a litany of complaints: No open advance reservations since resort guests and people playing full price for tickets snag them first. Waiting in long lines at guest services or being on hold for hours with Disney to troubleshoot problems. And confusion over how their refunded passes are calculated in a formula that isn’t clear. Some people are still waiting for their money to arrive, too.
Last month, the company mistakenly charged lump bills for people paying monthly installments for their annual passes at a time when many are out of work and when the parks were still shut down.
Disney apologized and refunded the amounts, but the company is now facing three lawsuits over what happened, including a federal one filed Monday by Flagler County resident Jamie Heindl, who said the company charged her in July even though her pass already had expired.
“Disney had a bad hand and played it poorly,” said Rick Munarriz, an analyst for the investment website Motley Fool, adding that Disney hasn’t communicated well with passholders. “Disney dropped the ball. They dropped the Epcot ball.”
But it’s a tough time for all theme parks in what have been historic times, Munarriz was also quick to point out.
Never before has Disney World shut down for such an extended period time and then reopened again when the former business model of packed crowds is completely disrupted. Florida’s coronavirus cases are on the rise, adding to fears of large gatherings.
“Annual Passholders are some of our most loyal guests, and we want them to know how much we appreciate them,” Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger said in a statement. “We are offering passholders multiple options on how to manage their passes as we all adjust to these unprecedented times.”
Disney is controlling its crowds, although executives have not said by how much. Munarriz estimates it’s around one-fourth to one-third of normal capacity.
That means annual passholders can no longer park hop or spontaneously visit. New rules say they make up to three advance reservations at a time although many weekends and availability at Hollywood Studios are hard to get.
The situation reminded him of when he subscribed to “Entertainment Weekly” and then afterward the magazine started publishing monthly, joked Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
‘A very tight leash’
Munarriz agrees the passholders’ issues are legitimate.
“For the most part, it’s right for them to feel cheated. They paid for something and aren’t getting it,” said Munarriz, a Disney annual passholder himself. “Disney is keeping a very tight leash on how many people they are letting through the turnstiles. It’s a very brutal business call that Disney is making, but it’s one that’s understandable if you take three steps back and take off the Mouse ears and look at … supply and demand.”
On Tuesday, Disney CEO Bob Chapek gave some insight on the company’s priorities.
“Typically someone who travels and stays for five days to seven days is marginally more valuable to the business than someone who comes in on an annual pass and stays a day or two and consumes less merchandise and food and beverage,” Chapek said during an earnings call.
Chapek said as Florida’s coronavirus cases rose, a higher than expected number of travelers were nervous about flying to Orlando and have canceled their reservations. Disney has used those cancellations to add more availability for locals and annual passholders who account for about 50% of the attendance now at Disney World, Chapek said.
But Munarriz warned that in the future, possibly after a coronavirus vaccine is available, Disney will eventually want to grow attendance to theme parks. If the economy and international travel are still slumping, Disney will once again need to turn to its passholders, he said.
Walt Disney Co. also is big and savvy enough to pull at people’s heartstrings to try to win passholders back, he said.
‘There’s no rule book’
Vargas, the passholder on hold for five hours to get her refund, says she understands Disney has never dealt with something like this before and knows the situation evolves, changing daily.
“I know there’s no rule book,” Vargas said, who, in some ways, has Disney in her DNA. Her grandfather helped build Disney’s Contemporary Resort and her mother worked there as a cashier.
She decided to cancel her annual pass during the pandemic, as her freelance work in social media and video producing took a hit. The five hours on the phone exasperated her, the final straw after dealing with other issues since the pandemic.
“There’s some ownership that Disney is not taking on behalf of their passholders. I don’t think it’s right, pandemic or not. It’s their brand. It’s their product. It’s their parks,” said Vargas, 42, of Orlando.
Would she ever buy a pass again?
Vargas said she wasn’t sure, but she won’t likely chose the more expensive options again.
Hicks, the amateur photographer, misses the spontaneity of going often to Disney World, before the coronavirus.
“If I decide to get up in the morning and want to go to Disney, I’m going to Disney. That’s what I’m accustomed to and that’s exactly what I’m paying for,” said Hicks, 37, of St. Cloud, whose background as an electromechanical engineer led him to working in the attractions industry.
Now, it’s a “nightmare” to get reservations, he said.
Hicks expressed frustration at the out-of-towners who ultimately cancel their reservations, taking up spots from everybody else. Why couldn’t Disney charge a $10 cancellation fee like it does with dining reservations? he asked.
Without his steady Disney World trips, Hicks found another way to get his theme park fix. He’s going more to Universal Orlando, he said.
Even so, not all those in the passholder ranks are unhappy.
Disney recently announced a surprise 30% merchandise discount exclusively for passholders, so Amanda Napier saved a few bucks when she bought a new pair of Mouse ears.
“I thought that it was really nice of them to do,” said Napier, who lives in Pasco County.
Disney also announced Wednesday it will mail special magnets as a free gift to passholders this month.
“It’s our way of saying, ‘Welcome back to the magic, Passholder family!‘” Disney said.
Napier’s last visit to Disney World impressed her with the short lines at the Magic Kingdom and the strictly enforced safety rules.
It was harder to book a reservation for Hollywood Studios but there was plenty of openings for the other three parks, said Napier, 40, an employee in the New Port Richey city manager’s office.
“Honestly, they’ve done a great job,” Napier said.