It took a bit longer than usual, but Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Magic Kingdom finally got so crowded this holiday season that it had to turn some guests away. It happened just before noon on New Year's Eve, historically the resort's busiest day in terms of guest counts.
The park had hit the second of its four closure phases by 11:45 a.m., one that denies folks with single-day tickets without premium reservations from entering the park. Folks staying at a Disney resort, annual pass holders, and folks with "park hopper" multi-day passes were still let in the crowded theme park despite the "filled to capacity" notices posted at Disney's other theme parks.
The last week of the year is routinely a busy one for Disney. The theme parks have been slammed in recent days, but it hasn't been as crowded as it's been in previous years. Dec. 31 was the first partial park closure of the season. Disney's Magic Kingdom had to turn guests on single-day tickets away four times during the final week of 2014, according to park-planning hub TouringPlans.com and at least twice in 2015.
It's different this time
It probably wasn't a good sign when none of the Disney World parks hit enough capacity to start turning guests away on Christmas Day. Disney's Magic Kingdom had to close its park to walk-up guests with one-day tickets on Christmas morning in 2014 and again in 2015.
Capacity itself hasn't increased at Disney World's parks over the past year, and at Disney's Hollywood Studios it has actually decreased. A lack of holiday dates running at full capacity may seem problematic to investors, but that's the wrong way to approach the situation. This is a different Disney World than it was a year earlier, and that's actually good news for stockholders.
There are a couple of reasons why it isn't a surprise to see fewer "filled to capacity" situations at Disney World this season. Disney shifted to demand-based pricing earlier this year, making it 18% more expensive to a buy a one-day ticket to the Magic Kingdom than a year earlier. Disney also hiked the prices of its annual passes with blackout dates in the double digits, making it more expensive for regulars wanting to hit up the park during peak season.
Having Christmas fall on Sunday also played a part in mixing up school breaks, with some schools letting out later than usual in the holiday season. Weeklong guests also typically travel on Sundays, thinning out attendance at the parks.
The good news is that the price hikes on tickets and annuals passes allow Disney to generate a lot more revenue -- and considerably more operating income -- with fewer guests. We'll find out in a few weeks how the holiday quarter played out for Disney, but it won't be a surprise if revenue and earnings move higher for its theme parks division despite iffy attendance. There is more to this game than raw guest counts, and Disney's making the magic happen.