No one ever leaves Disney World in Florida thinking it was an inexpensive experience. Walt Disney (DIS -0.12%) theme parks aren't cheap. Over the years, Disney World's admission, food, lodging, and merchandise prices have far outpaced inflation.
But there's another side to that story.
A counterpoint to Disney's perpetual pricing upticks was on display at Epcot this weekend. The International Festival of the Arts kicked off on Friday, but it wasn't the unique international food stations, art displays, or even signature rides and attractions drawing the crowds when the park opened. Guests were lining up to buy a popcorn bucket made in the form of Figment, an iconic Epcot character that we'll get to shortly.
Disney is charging $25 for the bucket, and that includes a $5 portion of rainbow-colored popcorn. The line on Friday snaked throughout the park, and at one point the wait time was quoted at more than seven hours. Some of the people in the queue snapped up as many of the buckets as possible, despite the stated limitation of two Figment containers per guest, and listed them for sale on marketplace sites. Of the more than 200 that had already successfully sold on eBay by Saturday, the average final selling price was well north of $100, with one going for as much as a shipped price of $292.75.
The narrative on social media among Disney World enthusiasts is largely the outrage over the resellers. They took up spots in the line for the sake of potentially making four to five times their initial investment. However, there's also another side to that story: Why aren't we talking about how Disney is leaving money on the table by charging so little for the Figment buckets in the first place? No one wants to discuss that, because it would mean conceding that the historically premium-priced resort sometimes undercharges its guests.
One little park of inspiration
Before we get into the reasons I'm about to be ridiculed on the Disney socials for defending the media giant's pricing, let's talk Figment. Unless you've been to Disney World's Epcot, you probably have no idea who the yellow-eyed, pink and purple amalgamation of real and fictional animals is to inspire such a feeding frenzy. He arrived to Epcot in early 1983 as the star of Journey Into Imagination, a slow-moving ride inspiring guests' creativity. The ride opened just a few months after the park itself made its debut in late 1982.
The ride has been through a few updates, but Figment's still there. He's appeared in a few brief cameo roles outside the park and even inspired a comic book series, but he's mostly unknown outside of Epcot regulars. In fact, Monty Python's Eric Idle got into a humorous but heated exchange with fans last year when he mistook Figment for another character. This is relevant because Idle stars in the ride with Figment. He explained that he has never been on the attraction, recording his part from a Los Angeles studio. In short, even the current Dr. Nigel Channing from the ride itself has no idea who Figment is.
The lack of recognition outside of Disney World enthusiasts has probably helped fuel his popularity. Figment has become a secret handshake of sorts among Disneyphiles, so of course launching a festival with a collectible plastic popcorn bucket bearing his likeness was going to be a major draw.
The line for the Figment buckets was substantially shorter by Saturday, but still more than an hour for most nostalgia-hungry collectors. Disney is smart. It's apparently well-stocked this time, and eventually the resale prices on third-party marketplaces will slide to meet the supply. The problem is that merchandise flippers continue to be an issue for collectible Disney theme park releases. Making more buckets -- and charging more for them -- is one way to solve the problem, increasing its profits along the way.
Suggesting that Disney could charge $45 and more than double its profit -- it has to cost less than $5 to make and transport these bad boys in bulk -- is going to be unpopular. Disney is routinely blasted for raising prices on annual passes, special events, and premium theme park experiences. Inflation is only partly to blame for the spikes in food, beverage, and merchandise prices.
But even when Disney World gets criticized for raising prices, the outcome is typically that it could be charging even more.
- The after-hours Halloween party that returned to the Magic Kingdom last summer after a two-year hiatus came with a bit of sticker shock. Starting prices were 63% higher. The internet was outraged. Still, every night sold out.
- The return of annual passes in September came with scaled-back perks and higher prices. They sold so well that Disney World suspended the sale of the more popular options two months later.
- Disney followed the lead of most of its rivals, introducing premium-priced access to expedited ride queues three months ago. It was a controversial move, but the "Lightning Lane" access to the best attractions -- the ones that require one-time payments -- has often been more popular than the pre-pandemic platform that was included at no additional cost.
Disney World isn't cheap, and it will probably never be because it doesn't have to be. It's the premium play in entertainment stocks. It's expensive, sure, but until parkgoers flinch, Disney has more pricing elasticity and flexibility than it may think.