Theme Park News: Everything at Disney Parks Just Changed Forever. Here's Why.

Theme Park News: What Disney World’s new Annual Passes say about the future of its parks

Contributed by
Aug 31, 2021, 2:15 PM EDT

It’s another wild week over in theme park news, where the last dregs of summer are truly bringing the heat when it comes to updates. Following Disneyland’s Magic Key program, which began sales last week, Walt Disney World just revealed their new passes, pricing tiers, and other details that may be surprising to some long-time passholders. Let’s get into it:

ANNUAL PASSES ARE BACK. HERE'S WHAT IT MEANS.

Walt Disney World’s new Annual Pass program has arrived, and with it, the future of Disney Parks has taken shape.

On Monday, Disney World announced it would be resuming sales of annual passes on Sept. 8 by sharing details of an all-new passholder program. The four tiers, ranging from $399 to $1,299, will include occasional bonus reservations and work off a new, integrated calendar said to make managing bookings even easier. 

Credit: Matt Stroshane

Florida residents can continue to make monthly payments on passes at every tier; all other buyers must pay in full, but 15 percent renewal discounts will still be offered for multiple current passholders. (Tickets can be upgraded to passes prior to use or during one’s Disney World vacation. For more details, click here.)

Only upper-tier passes are available to non-residents: an $899 (plus tax) Disney Sorcerer Pass, which is available to Disney Vacation Club members, and a $1,299 (plus tax) Disney Incredi-Pass, the only pass that standard park guests can purchase. (Floridians have access to ‘em all.)

As for the perks? Theme park parking, as well as dining and merchandise discounts, are included for all passholders but PhotoPass, previously included, is now offered as a $99 annual upgrade for all tiers. It’s cheaper than a one-off vacation purchase, as Memory Maker costs up to $199 for a single trip, but considering it’s not included with Disney World’s Genie+ as it is over at Disneyland — which doesn't even offer a paid annual upgrade for Magic Key annual passholders — it marks a series of strange choices, considering photographers will still need to be in place on both coasts and PhotoPass pictures shared on social media of friends on Splash Mountain or a family on Seven Dwarfs Mine Train are, in a way, free advertising for the parks.

Confused yet? I hear ya. But instead of training my computer to recognize the phrase Disney’s Incredi-Pass — which, drat, it already has — by further breaking down pass details, we’re instead going to focus on the larger implications of it going forward.

The past few weeks of announcements have upended the entire way guests have grown accustomed to visiting the parks. Parking, reservations, admission, early park arrival, ride queueing — all of it has shifted or been repackaged into a new reality. At this point, all major tentpoles of a Disney vacation have either returned, been changed, or have been announced to debut at a later date. (Disney Dining Plan has been confirmed to return, along with club-level hotel lounges.)

Passes had not been on sale to the general public since Disney World’s March 2020 closure, so their return marks the Florida resort’s grand return to normalcy this fall. All eyes will be on Cinderella Castle when the media blitz begins for the resort’s 50th Anniversary, Oct. 1, along with the subsequent 18-month long in-park celebration. (Things are by no means OK in Florida, but a glimmer of good news: it appears COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in the Orlando area may have peaked.)

Now, some have grumbled about the Disney World pass prices, but I’m going to keep it extremely real: This is a pretty good deal. Yes, regular park-goers could benefit from a lower-tier pass instead of being forced to buy the $1,400 carte blanche option, and DVC members got kinda screwed (more on that below), but it could have been so much worse.

An out-of-state family of four forking over $5,600 for annual passes sounds outrageous, but again: Price hikes haven’t kept the most passionate and deep-pocketed fans from coming back and they’re dragging thrifty guests down with ‘em. Take Boo Bash tickets, for example. Though prices are higher than before, they’ve now sold out on all available nights. (We may be hitting a wall on what folks are willing to pay soon, however — I'm still keeping an eye on those egregiously priced Christmas party nights, none of which have yet sold out.)

The perks, access, and flexibility we had prior to the pandemic? They’re not coming back. These aren’t the Disney Parks from 2019 — I say, as my own Disney World annual pass collects dust inside my Apple Wallet, a replacement for a $2,199 Premier Pass that allowed me to go to Walt Disney World and Disneyland, any day of the year, no advanced planning necessary. We simply aren't going back to the way things were, both inside and outside the park berm.

Yes, Disney Parks are expensive. This isn’t the egalitarian American right of passage it used to be, because this isn’t the Disney it used to be. This is New Disney we’re talking about here, a box office-leading, streaming-centric corporate conglomerate, and, as much as life-long fans will rightfully bemoan paying more and sometimes getting less, they’re pricing experiences this high because people are still willing to pony up.

This sudden barrage of news is proof that The Walt Disney Company wisely chose to pull off a massive upheaval of its parks policies right now, in the final news cycle prior to the parks preparing for the next narrative surrounding its 50th Anniversary, which starts in 30 days. By the time we're talking Harmonious and Remy's Ratatouille Adventure, the impact of new pricing tiers and reimagined FastPass will be old news among Disney die-hards. And, as tired as I am from staring at a screen helping confused guests sort out the details, I can't help but recognize a bit of corporate brilliance in looking forward with a clean slate.

Credit: Kent Phillips / Walt Disney World

There are, however, some places with room for improvement.

The bumpiest road I see ahead for Disney Parks is how these changes affect the average guest, particularly when it comes to communication. Freaks like me know the ins-and-outs of this stuff by heart within a day of its announcement, but for a casual guest, there’s a bit too much language, too much instruction, too many details surrounding the supposed “ease” of newly announced procedures. Disney World in its FastPass+ heyday was already too much for some folks to handle, and, like me "cleaning" by shoving my toiletries under the sink and calling it a day so long as the door stays shut, the problem hasn’t actually been resolved by its solution. Imagine trying to wrap someone’s head around Disney Genie, Genie+, Lightning Lanes, Return Times, Virtual Queue, and Boarding Groups day-of, while they’re in vacation mode? At 7 a.m.? If they even know to wake up that early? Good luck. 

With no pre-trip log-on necessary or essential save for dining reservations — soon, there’s no Disney’s Magical Express reservation driving them to that website either  — it’s now less likely that guests will pay attention to e-mail reminders to log on, download My Disney Experience, and commit to learning the lingo with the advent of Disney Genie prior to arrival, likely causing more day-of commotion than ever before.

Same goes on the ground: No longer will captive audiences view informative videos play on loop on said Magical Express, which ends at the top of 2022, or be briefed by front desk employee, due to the advent of online resort check-in. (Yes, to do so they have to visit the website or use the app, but one is unlikely to leisurely explore either when a timely, singular task is at hand.) It also makes the decision to remove Must Do Disney Stacey, the beloved in-room TV parks guide, look even more foolish. Who else is gonna explain all this stuff to travelers going forward, an executive on YouTube

The same applies regarding the value felt from one’s purchase. You see, for a long time, Disney has lived in this sweet spot of offering premium experiences, currently dubbed Enchanting Extras, that don’t affect a standard guest’s experience. Now, the multiple layers of upselling — Genie+ for FastPass-like access, Lightning Lane add-ons to skip the line on in-demand rides — are not just happening elsewhere, but in front of their very own eyes, every time a ticketholder or passholder sees a guest woosh past them as they stand in a queue, boiling in the midday sun. (There is currently no Genie+ add-on for annual passholders on either coast, who must pay the daily rate to utilize it.)

As I previously mentioned, WDW standby lines are likely to improve for everyone because of FastPass+’s removal, but tell that to a tired parent after four days of watching guests zoom by and, well, it might not be such an easy pill to swallow after everything else they’ve paid for. (I regularly get questions from guests wondering “who is getting special access within the FastPass lanes?" not knowing they’re mostly being used these days by Disability Access Services and the occasional VIP Tour.) That instinct is undeniable, and will surely play out in Disney's favor in enticing more Genie+ holdouts to cave and spring for quicker access to rides, but I don’t anticipate that purchase being one that goes over happily.

Guests don’t want to feel nickel-and-dimed; that’s why the seamlessness of the Disney Dining Plan, which will return by the year’s end, has worked so well for so many families over the years. Daily access to Disney Genie+ can be pre-paid prior to arrival, but only for the entirety of one’s trip, as single-day access must be purchased day-of, requiring yet another 7 a.m. reminder to use it to its full potential. I predict the multiple layers of repeated attraction upsell within the new Disney Genie program, both for passholders and ticket holders, will make the process feel like more of a cash grab than it actually is.

And then, there’s the issue of Disney devaluing its own products. There’s usually one sector of guest who gets hit the hardest with pass increases, and this time, it’s Disney Vacation Club members. Now, with a pricier pass, upsells, and a higher tier of pass required for holiday visits, families will be required to spend more to keep visiting... the place they’ve already committed to visit.


DVC owners who want to go at Thanksgiving or Christmastime — often a key reason for why they buy into the long-term program — now have to opt for the top-tier $1299 Incredi-Pass, considering those two holidays comprise the sole blockout dates for the $899 Sorcerer Pass. Fold in the $99 PhotoPass upgrade on one account and $99 waterpark upgrade for a family of four and Disney's regulars are rightfully feeling squeezed, with some guests clocking over $1000 of increases for their families to renew into the new system in the coming months. (And, if you bought someone else’s contract? You’re not eligible to buy the Sorcerer Pass, which requires ownership of a “blue card”.)

By signing a contract, Disney Vacation Club guests, after all, have essentially committed to visiting these places for the next few decades. These consumers are already committed to paying for meals, souvenirs, special event tickets, and vacations, essentially, in perpetuity for their lifetime — so why overcharge them when they walk in the door? These are your biggest fans, they’ve ponied up enough of their savings to prove it: They deserve free photos of themselves in the park and a reasonable price increase, for goodness sake. 

For the average guest, though? Some of these new policy changes could work out brilliantly, particularly if Disney Genie delivers on what’s promised. Either way, this fall in the Mouse House is going to be nothing if not interesting. 

Links! Links! Links!