There are a little more than two weeks left in summer if we go by the calendar, but the season's as good as over tonight for The Walt Disney Company (DIS -2.81%). Labor Day marks the end of the peak travel period for theme parks and regional amusement parks across the country, and that's probably a good thing for Disney World.
The world's most visited theme-park resort -- home to Magic Kingdom, the world's most visited theme park -- is wrapping up what will likely be remembered as a disappointing season. Attendance has fallen at Disney World for the March and June quarters, and it won't be a surprise if the pivotal September quarter also falls short of last year's turnstile clicks.
The media giant didn't do its Florida resort any favors, playing a starring role in most (but not all) of the reasons why its attendance is moving lower this year. Let's count them out.
1. Tiered pricing made single-day tickets too expensive
Disney went from charging the same price on any given day to pricing in three levels based on demand. The shift to tier-based pricing was announced in late February, and while it resulted in no year-over-year increase during the off-season and a modest uptick during the regular season, it's produced a roughly 18% hike during the summer and other holiday periods.
Most guests aren't visiting Disney World's four theme parks on one-day tickets. Disney prices its multiday tickets aggressively, encouraging folks to stay on-site. Annual passes are also more cost-effective for regular visitors. However, these forms of admission have also moved higher over the past year. This may have been by design, to free up Disney's parks when they are the most crowded, but it's perhaps working too well, if attendance winds up falling for all four calendar-year quarters.
2. Animal Kingdom at night didn't seize the day
Tonight will be the last time that Animal Kingdom closes at 11 p.m. -- for now. Disney's plan to turn its fauna-themed attraction into a nocturnal destination didn't catch on. The original Rivers of Light lakefront show that was supposed to anchor the festivities failed to materialize in time for its Earth Day debut, and the replacement show a month later didn't impress. Some of the ballyhooed attractions like nighttime safari rides through its animal preserve suffered from poor lighting.
The park will close two hours earlier tomorrow, and by November the posted hours will end as early as 6 p.m. That should change by the time the year-end holidays come around, and hopefully by then Rivers of Light will finally debut -- eight months late, though that's better than nothing.
3. Blackout dates became the new normal
Another Disney move that seems to have backfired was reworking its annual pass plans late last year. The move created additional tiers, and the more economical levels block out access to the park during peak travel periods.
Increasing the price of the passes with year-round access by double-digit percentages likely pushed more passholders into the new tiers with blackout dates. It's a move that probably kept even more regulars out of Disney World this summer.
4. Disney's least visited theme park is a hard-hat zone
Disney's Hollywood Studios is in the process of building out Star Wars Land and Toy Story Land, and in the process it had to close several rides and attractions that were opened last summer. It has turned to temporary Star Wars-themed attractions to draw crowds.
The parks may seem busy, but that's only because the limited number of high-end things to do have attracted longer lines. With large sections of the park walled off, the near-term struggles continue to challenge the park to position itself as a compelling full-day destination.
5. Disney phoned it in when it comes to new attractions
Only one of Disney's four Florida parks opened a new ride, an unusual move after the chunky ticket prices that have kicked in for all guests. Epcot's Frozen Ever After is a crowd favorite...when it's actually running. It debuted in June, several months behind its originally slated opening. It suffered from prolonged downtime initially when it finally did open, and technical glitches continue; it was down again for a spell late yesterday morning.
With Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom essentially the same beyond the nighttime Jungle Book show at Animal Kingdom -- a lakefront spectacle that ends tonight -- it's easy to see why Disney World has been failing to attract tourists, even before we consider the issues specific to Latin America and Europe that have weighed on stateside travel.
In short, Disney went too far in pricing itself out of travel contention, and it hasn't done enough to justify the new prices.