Is Disney Still an Affordable Vacation?

I’ve been to Disneyland three times in my life, and Walt Disney World once.

The first time I went to Disneyland, I was too young to appreciate or remember any of it, except for the part where my parents rented a stroller for my little sister, parked it outside of a ride, and couldn’t find it afterwards. (The domestic is always more compelling than the spectacular.)

The second time, I was maybe nine years old, and I remember my parents were pretty firm about the rules: my sister and I were each given a small amount of money for a souvenir, and that was ours to spend — and it also meant that we were not allowed to spend the day asking our parents to buy us everything we saw. We had our own money, and that was it. (I also feel like we were both given a set of mouse ears, although I don’t remember if that was this trip or the earlier one.)

My sister and I each ended up buying pins, and in one of my less-impressive moves as a sibling, I deliberately neglected to tell my little sister that she was standing one rack over from the good pins; that is, she was looking at a bunch of Mickey and Minnie pins, and I was looking at all the princesses. I remember wanting something that my sister did not also have, and so I kept my mouth shut — and felt awful about it as soon as we were standing in line to hand over our money.

When I was in high school, my family went to Walt Disney World, and by then my sister and I had allowances and jobs, so, again, there was no expectation that we would walk into a store and beg our parents to buy us something.

I can’t remember if I bought anything on that trip; at that point in time, every dollar I had went towards music and clothes, because I was in high school. (That’s me in the picture, by the way, rocking a bucket hat and Sailor Moon tank top. I didn’t say my fashion choices were good.)

And two years ago, I went to Disneyland on a discounted ticket as part of VidCon’s Disney Day. I didn’t buy any souvenirs on that trip either, but I did pay for a wine flight in California Adventure, because I have my priorities. (It was very good wine.)

I’ve always thought of Disneys Land and World as places that were designed to hit nearly any price point; if you have enough money to get in the park, you can have a great time without spending anything extra. Disney even lets you bring snacks into the park, so you could in theory get by without purchasing any food.

Well, now things might be changing. To quote the Washington Post:

For America’s middle-income vacationers, the Mickey Mouse club, long promoted as “made for you and me,” seems increasingly made for someone else. But far from easing back, the theme-park giant’s prices are expected to climb even more through a surge-pricing system that could value a summer’s day of rides and lines at $125.

The surge-pricing system has not yet gone into effect, although it’s being discussed as if it were an inevitability. Right now, the base price for one day at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World is $105, which, to my jaded eyes, seems reasonable; I mean, I just paid $45.25 to go to a concert, so why not pay $105 to spend a full day at Disney? It’s less than the cost of a decent pair of shoes, or a fancy meal, or an average pair of jeans.

Of course, it isn’t just $105 unless you’re a single person who absorbs food via photosynthesis. If you’re going with a family, it’s $105 per person ($99 for kids between ages 3–9), and you probably have transportation, lodging, and meal costs on top of that. A Disney vacation could easily hit $1,000 before you even arrive at the park.

To understand how these costs have skyrocketed, the Washington Post includes a chart to remind us that in the 1980s, a Magic Kingdom ticket was roughly $20. They also list some of the more popular Disney extras, such as the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutiques that “sell a $195 pampering for little girls that includes a makeover, hair-styling, a costume and a princess sash.” If you are taking your family on a once-in-a-lifetime Disney vacation, are you going to get the $195 makeover? Are you going to allow your children to dine with the Disney Princesses at Cinderella’s Royal Table (where Disney helpfully suggests that you should plan to spend $60 per adult)?

Would I have been a child who begged my parents to let me have breakfast with the princesses, and was disappointed when they said no? It feels like that’s the real game-changer here; it’s not that Disney at its base level is unaffordable to the middle class — although I am well aware that $400 for a family of four is right on the edge of “affordable” — it’s that there’s so much extra stuff that you feel like you’re missing out.

You feel like a have-not in the middle of the Happiest Place On Earth. That’s what the Washington Post means when it writes that Disney is no longer for the middle class.

But what do you think? Do you think Disney is an affordable vacation, for your definition of affordable? And would you be happy to just go and enjoy the rides and parades, without paying for any of the extras?

This story is part of our Travel Month series.

Photo credit: Andy Castro

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