New Symptom of Inequality: Disney World

Magic KingdomThe following article appeared in the June 14, 2015, issue of the StarTribune that was initially written by Drew Harwell for the Washington Post.

When Walt Disney World opened in an Orlando swamp in 1971, with its penny arcade and marching-band parade down Main Street U.S.A., admission for an adult cost $3.50, about as much then as three gallons of milk.

Disney has raised the gate price for the Magic Kingdom 41 times since, nearly doubling it over the past decade. This year, a ticket inside the “most magical place on Earth” rocketed past $100 for the first time in history.

Ballooning costs have not slowed the mouse-eared masses flooding into the world’s busiest theme park. Disney’s main attraction hosted a record 19 million visitors last year, a number nearly as large as the population of New York state.

But rising prices have changed the character of Big Mouse’s family-friendly empire in unavoidably glitzy ways. A visitor to Disney’s central Florida fantasyland can now dine on a $115 steak, enjoy a $53-per-plate dessert party and sleep in a bungalow overlooking the Seven Seas Lagoon starting at $2,100 a night.

For America’s middle-income vacationers, the Mickey Mouse club, long promoted as “made for you and me,” seems increasingly made for someone else. But far from easing back, the theme-park giant’s prices are expected to climb even more through a surge-pricing system that could value a summer’s day of rides and lines at $125.

“If Walt [Disney] were alive today, he would probably be uncomfortable with the prices they’re charging right now,” said Scott Smith, an assistant professor of hospitality at the University of South Carolina whose first job was as a cast member in Disney’s Haunted Mansion. “They’ve priced middle-class families out.”

As one of the biggest man-made attractions on the planet, Disney World has led the way for the theme-park industry to boost its prices, often on a yearly basis. Universal, Six Flags and other parks in Orlando, Southern California and elsewhere have followed in Mickey’s big footprints, worried they will otherwise look like bargain-barrel runners-up.

Disney and theme-park leaders have defended their rising prices as a logical response to record-setting attendance, with Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler saying the company is “committed to ensuring all our guests have a magical experience.”

“We continually add new experiences, and many of our guests select multi-day tickets or annual passes, which provide great value and additional savings,” Wahler said.

But some see Disney’s magically ascending price tag as a reflection of the country’s economy, where stagnant wages and growing inequality have transformed even the way Americans take time off.