When can I visit Walt Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Disney World when it will be the least crowded?
That's a question I get asked quite often as someone who lives about three hours away from the park who has a modest second home near the company's four central Florida theme parks. The answer, unfortunately, is that the Disney parks are always crowded.
Times that used to be slower, like the middle of the summer and the post-Christmas holiday weeks, are now fairly popular. Even late August, when Florida's kids are back in school and temperatures are unbearably hot, has gotten what would be considered reasonably crowded.
That's why Disney can raise prices (which it just did) and why it can charge higher rates during the most popular times of the year (generally school vacation weeks) while offering slightly lower prices at off-peak times. Disney does it partly because the market will bear those increases, and partly to at least somewhat smooth out its crowds.
Why is this good for Disney World visitors?
Christmas at the Magic Kingdom means capacity crowds. It's a site to see, but not a great time if you hope to ride a lot of rides, or even move around freely. Despite that, the combination of the park's holiday offerings and school vacation makes the period on and around the holiday unbelievably popular.
That popularity allows Disney World to charge peak prices. Consumers, at least ones who do any small amount of homework, understand that the parks will be insanely crowded. They're willing to put up with that (or think they are) to see Mickey Mouse wearing a Santa hat, or whatever else the holidays bring.
The same logic applies during other times kids are off from school -- the parks will be crowded, but there isn't much parents can do about that. If they want smaller crowds (and cheaper prices), they can opt to take the kids out of school, or go without them; Disney offers lower prices during the less popular times of the year. That does not impact crowds during the busiest weeks, but it almost certainly skims some people from the next tier of busy weeks and shifts them to periods that might be slower.
Savvy consumers don't visit during the February vacation periods for the northeast, or during the March weeks when Florida's schools are out. Instead, they come in early June before most schools are out, or wait until the last weeks of August when it's still crowded but local kids are back in school.
Disney (sort of) wants some people to stay home
Disney wants to price its theme park tickets to get the most it can from the most people. It's willing, however, to price some people out of a visit to its parks if it can make more money off of having fewer people cross its turnstiles.
If Disney can get $800 for a single day visit from a family of four (an extreme example, as few people visit for one day), then it would prefer to do that than sell twice as many tickets at half the price. Maximizing revenue is good for shareholders -- but in a sort of unintended benefit, it also helps visitors willing to pay the higher prices.
If Disney can raise its theme park revenue with fewer visitors, then both shareholders and visitors win. Peak periods will bring in more money, and off-peak times will bring in more money while offering a slightly better guest experience.