Expectations were high for Walt Disney (DIS -0.46%) investors heading into Wednesday afternoon's earnings call. The company delivered, posting better-then-expected results on both ends of the income statement. The shining star in the report was once again the entertainment behemoth's domestic theme parks business. 

Disneyland and Disney World combined to bring in $5.4 billion in revenue for Disney's fiscal third quarter, more than double -- up 104% -- what the resorts rang up a year earlier. Segment operating income of $1.7 billion continues the record pace of the the high-margin recovery at Disney's gated attractions. 

It's great news for Disney shareholders, but the same can't be said about annual pass holders hoping for a return to the way things used to be at the parks that they grew up at. The House of Mouse is killing it now, and it's making it happen with park reservation requirements, premium-priced access to expedited queues, higher prices on just about everything, and a dearth of new annual passes to sell. If you're waiting for reservations-free park-hopper visits, complimentary FastPass access, low price points, and annual admissions without blockout dates or hoops to jump through, you're living in the past. Disney's Carousel of Progress is moving on without you.

Cinderella walking in the direction of her castle at the Magic Kingdom.

Image source: Disney.

You can't go back

Disney has its mouse-eared guests just where it wants them. Forget the stellar year-over-year growth, as Disneyland wasn't even open for all of the prior year's fiscal third quarter. The real time capsule is the fiscal third quarter of 2019. Disney parks are making more money now than they were before the pandemic.

Even with turnstile clicks still below pre-pandemic levels, the company is making more with less. Per-capita revenue is up 10% over the past year, but up a whopping 40% compared to how much guests were spending three years ago. Do you really think Disney is going to go back? 

Disneyland is no longer selling annual passes to new fans, and if anything, it seems as if the world's leading theme park operator has seller's remorse for the ones it did sell late last year. Disney referred to an "unfavorable attendance mix" weighing on Disneyland's performance. A year ago it didn't have any annual pass holders when it reopened a third of the way into the fiscal third quarter. Everyone had to pay for a single-day ticket. The company resumed annual pass sales in August, only to suspend them a few months later. 

The scene is slightly different at Disney World. The Florida resort is only selling its cheapest annual pass to new buyers that happen to be state residents. The Pixie Pass is limited to non-peak weekday visits. Disneyland and Disney World are letting current holders renew their year-round passes, but it's clear that Disney would prefer to fill its parks with guests paying more per day.

Comments made during Wednesday's earnings call didn't make it seem as if Disney would be expanding its annual-pass selling efforts anytime soon. It wants a "favorable" attendance mix that leans heavily on guests paying up for single-day tickets and on-site resort hotel stays. The company feels that the park reservations system -- as frustrating as it may be for folks planning park trips -- is a tool to help smooth out demand. It can release more spots when demand is light. Disney also mentioned that the restrictive Pixie Pass is another lever it can use if attendance trends start to deteriorate, as it can just free up some of the blockout dates. 

Disney has mentioned in back-to-back earnings calls that up to half of its guests are paying $15 for the Genie+ system that provides access to faster-moving lines at select attractions. The system only works if there are bodies filling up the standby lines, and that's where playing with the levers of frugal pass holders comes into play. 

Everything can change, of course. The economy can get so bad that Disney will need to be more aggressive in recruiting annual pass holders and ramp up its promotional activity. However, that doesn't seem to be in the near-term plans for the entertainment stock bellwether. Disney is making too much money to fix what it doesn't think is broken right now.