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That survey Disney sent me...

Disney made a lot of waves recently when they included a question in a survey for annual passholders about "surge" pricing for theme park tickets. At already over $100 for a day, the suggestion that peak seasonal periods may eventually be higher priced got a mixture of groans, head nods, and criticism in the fan world. The response from Disney was that it frequently sends out all kinds of polling to customers and one survey doesn't mean anything. But the company has faced growing anger from fans, families, and the general public that they are pricing middle class (never mind low income) vacationers out of reach financially. (There's also been a quieter lament that the parks have gone down in quality and service...though I've been around long enough to be less sensitive to it. There's always some element of this chorus present. Probably a more interesting line of analysis here is about price increases vis-a-vis quality expectations.) The Washington Post, in fact, just ran a piece about the topic of Disney's pricing problem.

They're not wrong. Disney certainly is running the most-attended attraction in the nation so they have little incentive to discount and can afford to raise prices until they reach the point of diminished sales. Disney has a premium brand and doesn't mind seeing itself as a luxury product worth luxury prices. Never mind that your $2000 a night hotel room on Walt Disney World property could buy you so many luxury nights in a nicer room elsewhere. The point here is that Disney is symbolic of other things going in in the American economy, first of all. Secondly, they've always been aspirational as a brand. Part of what made family trips to Disney theme parks so much a part of the shared American experience is that it became a rite-of-passage for American children. You can write a whole doctoral dissertation on the post-WWII Baby Boom and the rise of TV, suburban, and more general pop culture. Disney speaks "American upward mobility" in a way that sometimes we ourselves don't even understand. So the criticism of Disney in a major newspaper for leaving the masses behind economically is both 1) on point but 2) also a self-reflection of our current political situation.

That's the backstory.

So when I received a survey myself yesterday from Disney Parks, I was eager to take it. (I love a survey in general--which my family mocks me for.) I figured it was just your average "rate your experience" feedback survey, but it took a few twists that I thought deserved some attention and analysis. It started like normal feedback. They wanted to know whether I'd been on the website this Spring trying to book a trip. (Yes, I had.) But the rest of it really cut to the heart of "well, why didn't you?" And they asked some good questions about why I didn't!

In my case, I was using the official Disney World website as a kind of ghost, real-time, theoretical data source. I plugged in a fake date I had no intention of booking to see prices, availability, package possibilities, and what I could anticipate in a year (roughly, obviously) if we get around to planning an actual Disney vacation. And a few of the response options included this recognition from Disney of how people are using their website for planning. Interesting. (I'll note here that there's also a good deal of planning information you won't find on the official Disney site--such as daily crowd patterns, historical ride wait times. or the square footage of resort rooms, where outside sources have a nice niche.)

But the deeper I got into the survey, they wanted to know the full, finer details about what matters to you as a theoretical Disney guest. From parks being too crowded to the lack of an all-inclusive option. The back half of the questions really got into how often people travel, why they choose not just Disney World but Central Florida, how often people can afford to travel, and what could be changed to get us there.

On one hand, there's nothing truly exciting here. It's a major business doing what a major business should do--finding out from customers how to get more business. And how to respond to criticism. It's smart research. But, on the other hand, what impressed me (on some level--we'll see what comes of it) is that this guest research runs slightly counter to the narrative we're all perpetuating. Disney seems to be highly aware that price is a major obstacle for many families. Of course, they also seem to be aware--as I recently wrote about--that the planning process is overwhelming and a turnoff due to complexity. That was in there, too.

It's no secret that the most expensive part of your Disney vacation is probably going to be the theme park tickets. They weigh in at over $1200 for 4 days for 2 adults, 2 kids. Far outweighing the likely price of your resort room, food, or maybe even your airfare to get to Orlando. It's also no secret that Disney wants to keep you on-property and spending money once you arrive. I'm sure they have elaborate statisticians doing geeky data on what the right balance of "incentive to come" vs "money spent while here" is. See the ongoing debate about Free Disney Dining, the internet frenzy, and the push-pull of why they keep sloppily offering a discount they needed before but don't anymore.

I realize I'm being completely counter-narrative and devil's advocate here, but we all assume that Disney is greedy and going to keep raising prices and only out for profit without any sort of opposing force looking down-market. But what if...? When news of the surge pricing survey hit, my reaction was "fine." If most people come during the summer or spring break, why not use dynamic pricing like MLB? Higher demand should mean higher prices. The flip side of that could benefit those of us out for a bargain though if Disney played their cards right. How about a deep discount for those of us willing to pull our kids out of school to come during a "least crowded" time of year?

For those of us who follow the company--especially their theme park strategies--it's long been a mysterious box we can't see inside. Trying to figure out who, how, and why families get their secret, mailed codes is too complicated to discuss here. A few strategies are so-called "bounce back" offers to cheaply book a trip while you're on your current one. And they obviously discount to try to fill rooms if it looks like they need the incentive to bring people in during a given month or season. Their resort booking windows already reflect this. Being on Disney marketing lists helps if you want to get those secret off-season Free Dining offers. The one I most recently got was the free addition of the Park Hopper option if I booked this summer. That's the kind of thing folks are hoping for more of, I think. My two cents is that they could solve both the "planning complexity" and "budget" problems at the same time with a more advanced warning on how to get the price and conditions that suit us.

In other words, give us better ability to plan for the lowest prices, best crowds, and most perks value-wise upfront. Psychologically, it's frustrating when a company is forward-thinking enough to use high-tech wristbands to allow guests to reserve ride times from home 60 days in advance, but can't quite guard their rear on making information available to guests well in advance about how to be economical. Say what you will about baseball's soaring ticket prices, I at least admire the way you can look at the calendar for the year and easily see what days of the season you'll get the cheapest seat. Dynamic pricing (contrasted with the old one-size fits all every day) is annoying that the public loses the ability to get coveted dates at "normal" prices. (You can bet the Yankees in town are not going to be the cheapest seat of the year.) But maybe we're all busy complaining about that too much to see the upside of rock bottom prices for a night game in April if you want to be a counter-flow kind of fan.

Surely there has to be a better way for businesses to recognize us as that type of consumer? Data and marketing geeks, I'm waiting. I'd be more than happy to put my name on a company's list of, "hey, I'm interested in your product but only if you get the price below X amount." Heck, didn't Priceline pioneer this type of bargain-hunting traveler with "name your own price?" The travel industry has already switched over to allowing you calendar glances to search for the lowest price on a flexible date.

I'm secretly hoping that this survey Disney sent me recognizes that they need to do more to expand their visitor base using some of these user-friendly elements.