My family went to Disneyland over the Christmas holidays. The drive from San Francisco took most of a day. The park was packed to the rafters, with wait times of over an hour on many rides. My next credit card bill will probably give me a heart attack.
And you know what? We loved it. We’ll almost definitely go back.
The reason? Disneyland feels like one of the few affordable splurges left in America. Despite the crowds and wait times, we never felt ripped off or taken advantage of. I never felt like a walking dollar sign or a second-class citizen.
Think of how rare that feeling is in America today. There aren’t many other companies that deliver a consistent first-class experience at a price a normal middle class family can afford.
Apple is one of the few I can think of.
So how does Disney keep packing them in?
Here’s what I found:
The prices are exactly right. One-day tickets to the park are just shy of the psychological $US100 mark. That’s not cheap, but crummy seats at an NFL game or big-name rock concert easily run that much, and a day at Disneyland lasts a lot longer.
This merchandising genius extends to the food and tchotchkes as well — a decent meal costs $US9 to $US11, about what you pay for lunch at a food truck in San Francisco. A plastic light saber for my son cost $US18 — just on the edge of being too expensive, but shy of the psychological $US20 mark. They’re geniuses at this stuff.
The parks are spotless. Both parks were wall-to-wall packed with people, and yet we didn’t see a single unattended mess the entire time we were there. No overflowing garbage cans — attendants were always emptying them. No paper or popcorn on the streets. Spills of ice cream or soda were quickly and quietly scrubbed clean. Coming from San Francisco, where piles of garbage adorn the parks and litter blows down every street, this was absolutely amazing.
The food is actually good. It would be so easy for Disneyland to take advantage of their captive audience and serve nothing but cheap junk food. But they don’t! A lot of the restaurants have special meals you can get only there, like gumbo. Lobster rolls with real lobster. A portobello mushroom sandwich that wasn’t like an afterthought like most vegetarian meals. A pasta and pizza buffet. Kids’ packs with fresh fruit and crackers. Plus plenty of burgers and fries if you want them.
Lots of rides, artfully done. Both parks combined probably have over 100 rides. The big roller-coaster attractions like Space Mountain are usually packed, but there are plenty of smaller rides that are fun as well — one of our favourites was the Bug’s Life ride, a short 3D movie that shows you what it’s like to be a bug, with special effects like getting sprayed with acid. (It’s actually sugar water, and it’s more fun than it sounds.)
Plus, they totally changed a lot of the rides up for Christmas — “It’s A Small World” ride replaced the usual theme song with “Jingle Bells,” and the Haunted Mansion was entirely rejiggered to Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” And all the rides are just beautiful, and cleverly done — the lines are long, but often wind through a couple of set pieces that that build anticipation, rather than simply guiding you through acres of concrete.
Disney owns the rights to all the good kids’ entertainment. Speaking of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” I didn’t even know it was a Disney movie. So is Pixar. So is Star Wars. For that matter, so is ESPN — one adult relative got sick of the crowds and spent a couple hours in the ESPN Zone restaurant watching football.
They have thought of everything. Need a stroller? Disney will rent you one for $US15 (just shy of being too expensive). Want to bring your dog? There’s a doggy day care area — all you have to do is come back to walk your pooch every four hours. Drink too much alcohol at the California Adventure side of the park, where they serve wine and beer? A smiling security guard will help you feel better as he escorts you from the park. (We saw this and it could’ve been an ugly disaster, but was handled perfectly.)
It’s just the perfect combination of pricing, marketing, and art-meets-science, all wrapped up with a customer-first bow. Again, a lot like Apple.
Apparently a lot of other people agree.
According to the Themed Entertainment Association (cited by Forbes), Disney’s parks drew more than 132 million customers in 2013. That’s nearly twice as many as its nearest competitor, Merlin, which operates Legoland.
You can expect that number to go up in 2014. In the year ended September 28, Disney’s parks and resorts earned $US2.6 billion in operating profit (up 20%) on $US15.1 billion in revenue (up 7%). That’s a profit margin of about 18% on a nicely growing business. It’s not just theme parks — Disney also operates resorts and cruises and other vacation experiences — but the theme parks are the main driver of that business.
Apparently there have been calls for Disney to raise prices on its theme parks to keep crowds down. But every person through the gates is another person who will spend money on food, Disney gear, and other extras. Disney knows exactly what it’s doing, and the parks seem to be doing great.
Sort of like how people were calling on Apple to lower prices a year ago to meet the Samsung-Android juggernaut. Apple ignored them, and the iPhone 6 is one of its most profitable products yet, while Samsung is struggling.