Why Disneyland should eliminate its annual pass program

The Disneyland Resort has stopped selling two of its four Magic Key annual passes, while Walt Disney World in Florida has stopped selling three of its four annual pass levels. It might seem odd to suggest that a company drop a product that is so successful it’s selling out. But Disney’s theme park annual passes are not a traditional consumer product.

In theory, Disneyland and Walt Disney World could sell an infinite number of annual passes. Some cynical fans might suggest that Disneyland came pretty close to doing that before it ended its old annual pass program earlier this year. Just as long as only a small percentage of annual passholders show up on any given day, Disney’s parks would be able to accommodate them and still sell a bunch of tickets to other visitors.

But more than a small percentage of passholders were showing up on many days before the pandemic shut the parks. Passholders filling the parks crowded out other potential ticket buyers, which helped Disneyland make the decision to scuttle its old annual pass program when it was facing state-mandated capacity restrictions to reopen.

Disneyland’s new Magic Key program requires passholders to make advance reservations to visit the parks, as does Disney World’s rebooted annual pass program. Even though state capacity restrictions are gone, Disney is using the reservation system to control the number of people in the parks — specifically, the number of Magic Key or annual passholders in the parks.

Looking ahead to January and February, you can see wide-open availability after New Year’s Day for regular Disneyland Resort theme park ticket purchases, while many dates already are booked for Magic Key holders. Disneyland does release inventory to Magic Key holders as it monitors regular ticket sales, but Disneyland overshot that earlier this month when it released a bunch of December dates following widespread complaints from Key holders who could not get reservations. As a result, it’s almost impossible to buy a one-day ticket to Disneyland or California Adventure for any date between now and New Year’s.

That means that Disneyland is, once again, frustrating potential customers and leaving money on the table by giving away discounted admission to its passholders. Meanwhile, many people who bought Magic Key passes are frustrated by not being able to use them.

Why keep bothering with this mess? Neither Disneyland nor Walt Disney World needs an annual pass program to keep its parks comfortably filled throughout the year. Selling variable-priced, date-specific tickets allows the parks to manage their crowd levels. Seasonal discounts to local residents can help pad attendance as necessary during the school year, without the frustration of maintaining an annual pass program.

If Disney wants to cultivate customer loyalty, it can reward frequent visitors with “surprise and delight” benefits such as free parking, food and merchandise discounts and access to special events. But it should make guests buy regular tickets to get them.

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