Just when you thought that a day at Disney World couldn't get more expensive, Disney (NYSE:DIS) is testing a new premium parking category. The leading theme-park operator is starting to offer visitors to the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT the ability to pay a premium in order to park closer to the entrance, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Drivers are paying $35 per vehicle -- a $15 markup to the $20 that it's been charging since late last year -- for preferred parking at Florida's two most visited theme parks. If you thought Disney's move last month to charge different rates for its one-day tickets based on the time of year was extreme, imagine how you'll feel when even cars have to deal with tier pricing.
Disney isn't breaking new ground here. Central Florida rivals SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) and Universal parent Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) (UNKNOWN:CMCSK.DL) have offered preferred parking for years. SeaWorld offers a premium-priced option that's a shorter walk to the turnstiles at both SeaWorld Orland and Busch Gardens Tampa in Florida. Comcast offers two pricing levels within its massive parking garage structure as well as an even pricier valet parking option. Legoland Florida and even some of the country's regional amusement park operators also cash in on folks that are willing to pay up to save wear and tear on the feet as well as time with more convenient preferred parking.
The undisputed leader in theme parks is merely following the masses with the test. What can go wrong? Well, it's riskier than you think. For starters, it can dent customer satisfaction by slowing traffic at the lot entrances. Guests will have a choice to make as they approach the park, and that can slow the transaction. It also means that folks that normally park for free -- those with the priciest annual passes as well as guests already staying at one of Disney World's many resort hotels -- now have the option to pay the difference (an extra $15) for the upcharge parking. This might also make things more challenging for the parking attendants that now need to filter a new layer of access.
There's money to be made, of course. Is it worth it?
The thornier issue is that preferred parking changes the park dynamic. Disney hasn't followed its smaller competitors into paddling every revenue stream that's available. SeaWorld Entertainment and Comcast sell passes at their parks that offer guests access to expedited lines. Comcast's Universal Express and SeaWorld's Quick Queue give follks with either limited time or unlimited means the ability to pay more -- as much as $149.99 more at Universal Orlando -- to bypass the long lines.
Disney, on other hand, has made FastPass available at no additional charge to all guests. Visitors can square away as many as three expedited queue reservations ahead of time. Yes, there's a caste system within the platform. Overnight guests can reserve their three FastPass times before other visitors, routinely filling up the availability for some of the more popular rides and attractions. Disney also offers on-site guests additional hours to access the parks, but that's not something that materially impacts day guests within the published operating hours.
Setting up different pricing tiers for parking opens the door for Disney to begin charging for FastPass, at least an enhanced FastPass platform where visitors can either square away more ride reservations ahead of time or not have to deal with the hourly reservation windows at all. After all, once the upcharge genie is out of the bottle even Aladdin won't be able to cork it back up.