The Mouse House wants to act as if its theme parks are for everyone, but that’s not the reality.
That can certainly be the case as both places offer endless fun, a chance to live out fantasies, see beloved characters brought to life, and experience both nostalgia and cutting-edge technologies.
All those things happen at the company’s theme parks, but they’ve increasingly become out of reach for many Americans.
That’s not some evil Disney plot engineered by Jafar, Scar, Cruella De Vil, or Chief Executive Bob Chapek. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand.
Disney has only so much capacity in its theme parks, and it has two ways it can maximize revenue at Disney World and Disneyland:
Get as many paying customers in the gates as possible using variable pricing to manage demand among the parks (four in Florida, two in California) while using that same pricing model to drive traffic during less in-demand periods.Charge as much as you can to maximize ticket revenue per guest, perhaps reducing overall attendance.
Disney has in fact used a mix of the two. It has slightly constrained capacities from 2019 levels to ensure that guests have a decent experience. It then makes up for curtailing the crowds by piling on added charges that are more or less required for anyone to enjoy the experience.
When you add those more-or-less-mandatory charges to the price of your tickets — which have not increased since 2019 — you have a vacation that for many Americans is not affordable.
Matt Stroshane/Walt Disney World Resort via Getty Images
Here’s What a Basic Disney World Vacation Costs
While Disneyland attracts lots of tourists, the much-larger Disney World is the company’s true tourist destination.
A trip to Disney World, which has four theme parks — Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, and Epcot — requires four full days, so let’s say 5 nights in a hotel, as well as tickets to the park, and extras including Genie+ and Lightning Lane.
Food, of course, costs extra as does transportation, but those can vary a lot based on where you live and exactly how frugal you plan to be when it comes to eating, so we’ll use low-end estimates.
Here’s what a Disney World trip — five hotel nights, four park days — would cost a family of four in the last week of September 2023 (checking in Sunday, Sept. 24 and checking out Friday, Sept. 29).
Those dates avoid a weekend. And where possible the most cost-effective choice is being made except for things like Genie+ and Lightning Lane, which affect the quality of your visit. So that means single-park passes (no park hopping and a value hotel).
Theme park tickets (single park, per day, 4 days): $1912.72Hotel (Disney’s All-Star Music Resort, basic room): $897.81Genie+ (Per person, per day, four days): $240Lightning Lane (one per day, prices vary): $200Airfare ($350 round-trip, per person): $1,400Airport transportation (bus per person, each way): $480 Food: ($10, breakfast, $15, lunch, $30 dinner): $880
Those travel numbers for airfare are likely low, but as we said, they vary depending on where you fly from. The food estimate assumes fairly modest meals.
Still, that leads to a five-night, four-park-day trip that costing $6,010.53.
Putting Disney World’s Cost in Perspective
While middle-class income isn’t a hard-and-fast number — it varies based on where you live — Pew Research defines middle-income Americans for a family of three (as of 2021) in a range from $52,200 to $156,600.
If you fall in the middle of that, roughly $100,000, it’s easy to see why a $6,000 Disney vacation may not be something you should spring for, even if you can actually manage to save up the money (or are willing to go into debt for it).
Disney won’t say this — it makes for a bad tagline in a commercial — but Disney World has become a playground for the wealthy.
Managing capacity at the popular collection of theme parks means mostly pricing the middle class out or making the expense a poor choice for the vast majority of Americans.
That’s not something the company did to be mean or to make its parks more exclusive. It’s a simple matter of capacity and demand driving prices to the point that many people can’t afford to pay them.