You can teach an old theme park operator some new tricks, but it doesn't mean the audience will enjoy the magic show. Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) announced a couple of changes to the perks it offers guests staying at one of its Disney World resorts in Florida. It seems theme park enthusiasts aren't pleased with the moves.
The world's most visited theme park resort is nixing Disney's Magical Express, a complimentary shuttle bus service it offers guests staying at one of its on-site hotels who fly in to Orlando International Airport. The offering will be discontinued next year. Disney also announced it will allow visitors staying at one of its resorts access to its four parks a half hour before day guests later this year, in celebration of Disney World turning 50 in October. Disney World fans naturally aren't happy to hear that a free transportation service is being eliminated next year, but they're also not as tickled as you might think about the early access.
I wanna be where the people are
Disney doesn't put out official attendance metrics, but industry watcher Themed Entertainment Association estimates that 58.8 million people went through the turnstiles at Disney World's four gated attractions in 2019. With more than two dozen on-site lodging options the media giant wants to make sure that it houses as many of its day guests.
Disney's Magical Express is a brilliant perk. It gives visitors flying in an experience that can't be logistically matched by non-Disney hotels. Luggage checked in at the arrival airport is whisked directly to the hotel room, giving guests the freedom to start park hopping sooner. The biggest advantage of all -- from a Disney bean-counter perspective -- is that it eliminates the need for a rental car. This is a pretty big deal, as Disney knows that there are plenty of cheaper and sometimes better restaurants, shopping, and rival attractions that would be easily accessible if a family were to rent a vehicle during their vacation. If revenue per resort guest dips in 2022 you won't have to look far to find a reason.
There is no logical reason to end Disney's Magical Express in 2022. There will be rail service from Orlando International Airport to Disney Springs, but that's not likely to open for at least a couple more years. It will also be a premium service with a less convenient schedule than the current continuous flow of shuttle buses. Even when Brightline's rail connection is complete guests will still need to travel another leg from the Disney Springs entertainment complex to their room. Even more guests will start fuming about Disney starting to charge for parking at its resort hotels three years ago.
Disney is encouraging guests to use ride-sharing services to get to the resort, naturally. It doesn't want you anywhere near the car rental agencies. However, getting its guests comfortable with the personal mobility apps will only mean more trips outside of the Disney bubble. Eliminating Disney's Magical Express will save Disney money, but it will be the end of a major experience differentiator. You can probably still hear the echoes of the high-fives that area hotel operators were exchanging on Monday.
30 for 30
The second piece of perk news -- opening all four of its parks 30 minutes early for Disney resort guests -- would seem to be good news. It gives guests a reason to choose a hotel on Disney property over a more affordable comparable offering. However, this benefit is rubbing some fans the wrong way because the Extra Magic Hour it is replacing used to open a single park to all resort guests for an entire hour before the official opening. There would also be a different park open exclusively to resort guests for two hours in the evening.
Disney's hands are largely tied on this one. With its current approach to capping attendance in the new normal and requiring advance park reservations it couldn't return to opening a single park an hour early. It would offset the balance of available reservations. It's also hard to do a lot with just a 30 minute jump on day guests, even if it will cost Disney twice as much to staff four parks for a half hour than it did to keep just one gated attraction available for an extra hour in the morning. The lines should be considerably shorter than with Extra Magic Hour with resort guests spread across all four parks, but don't let that advantageous gem get in the way of this week's rumblings on social media.
At least Disney is trying to get back to normal. It bumped its capacity from 25% to 35% a couple of months ago. It began letting guests park hop -- visiting more than a single park in a day -- this month. Even in a pandemic and a recession folks are coming back to Disney World. Not every move Disney makes is going to be popular, but it's hard to argue against a company trying to claw its way back and keep a key component of its business financially feasible.