My Love/Hate Relationship With Disneyland

For Christmas this year, I went in together with my dad and my boyfriend and bought my sister and her family a 3-day vacation to Disneyland. My sister, for her part, is hugely excited, so we've been talking about Disneyland (where she'll be in exactly one week, as of writing this piece) quite a bit. It's really got me thinking, though, about my own, personal feelings about Disneyland.

People who know me well know that I absolutely love Disneyland ... but I've also come to dislike many aspects of it (and the Disney company in general). I think that there are many people in this world who fall on one end of the Disney spectrum or the other -- they're either diehard Disney fans who can't get enough, or else they absolutely loathe the parks and probably couldn't be paid to spend time there. I've met both types of people, and honestly, I sympathize with both sides.

My conflicting views about Disneyland were created throughout the span of my lifetime. As a child, I thought there was very little that was better in this world than a trip to Disneyland. I spent many birthdays at Disneyland, and my parents knew that the most delightful surprise for me would be to find out that we were taking a trip to Disneyland. Growing up, I could have conversations about Disneyland for hours, and my dream job was to one day play a princess at Disneyland. As I matured into adulthood, my feelings didn't really change. I've still made many trips out to Disneyland with friends, significant others, my son, and even on my own. Although I understand that much of the draw for me is about nostalgia and reminiscing about wonderful times in my past, there is a draw about Disneyland that has never disappeared for me. Even to this day, as a 30-something, I feel the Disney pull now and again and still feel lots of anticipation and excitement in the days leading up to a trip.

But in recent years, I've noticed something else as well. As excited as I get for these trips, and as much as I keep going back again and again, when I'm actually at Disneyland I don't always have as much fun as I think I'm going to have. And it's this change in perception and experience that I want to analyze and talk about.

When I was very young, the Disneyland experience was quite different than the experience now, I think. As residents of Southern California, my family and I would sometimes wake up and just decide to spend the day at Disneyland. We'd have a fun, leisurely day there, making a circle around the park and riding all of the rides in turn, until we made it back to the entrance. After that, we'd have time to go back and do our favorites again. We'd bring sandwiches from Subway or Togos and go eat in the now-extinct picnic area, and not feel like we were losing any valuable time. We would watch parades and favorite shows like Fantasmic! (and I remember when that show premiered, and the first time we watched it as a family when I was about nine-or-so years old). Each visit would be marked with time spent browsing the stores at the end of the day so that each of us children could choose a souvenir (one of my old souvenirs, a plush Thumper toy, is still in my possession, passed down now to my own son after more than twenty years). I have many, many fond memories of these magical days with my family.

Things are a bit different now. These days, the experience always feels much more frenzied, with rushed hopping all over the park to collect Fast Pass tickets (I'll explain those in a moment if you aren't familiar with them) and fit in as much as you can fit in a single day (or more, depending on how many days you're staying). I find myself stressed and anxious in regards to timing everything, and by the end of the day I'm beyond exhausted -- physically and mentally.

I think there are a few reasons why this is the case for me, and they boil down to two main issues that have risen within the last 10 - 20 years. First, overcrowding is a huge problem at Disneyland (there's really no such thing as an "off-season" anymore -- whenever you go, you're likely to face huge crowds), and second, the prices have skyrocketed beyond what feels like a fair price for what you often get.

See, the reason I think I get so stressed out is because you have to pay top dollar to go to Disneyland. The price of a single day at only one of the parks (no park hopping allowed) is up to $100 a person (which means that a family of four is looking at $400 right off the bat just to get in the gates). I get why they have been raising prices so much, and I'll get into that in just a moment, but my point here is that when you pay so much money and then find out that you're going to spend all day fighting huge crowds of other people and waiting in tremendously long lines for damn near everything, you start to feel a little ripped off.

Disneyland knows overcrowding is a problem, too. The park was not built to handle the current number of daily guests that it now accommodates, and you can truly feel that when you go. Of course, there are times that are more crowded than others -- holiday weekends, for instance, or the last few weeks of December (I went once a few days after Christmas, and will never subject myself to such a nightmare again) -- but you have to expect that there are going to be crowds no matter when you go. The days of choosing to visit on a Tuesday in early February so that you can "walk on" everything (the term that we theme park geeks use to refer to not having to wait longer than 5 minutes or so for an attraction) are long gone. You can't even avoid crowds on rainy days anymore. Disney fanatics don't give a shit -- they'll wrap themselves in plastic raincoats and flood the parks anyway, because rain doesn't deter Disney fans anymore.

Part of the reason I think this is happening is because Disneyland has not been able to figure out whether they want to be a community theme park that caters to locals or a large resort that caters to out-of-towners and others traveling long distances. When I was growing up, Disneyland was small. There was one park, and it was very easy to see and do everything in a single day. If you wanted a resort-style vacation, you went to Walt Disney World in Florida (which my family did twice when I was growing up). Locals loved that they could make day trips to Disneyland, and this fondness among them is still there to this day. Lots of locals still buy season passes and head on over to Disneyland for a single day or afternoon, or even treat the park like a community "hang out" location where they and their friends can just chill for a few hours.

This is in stark contrast to the types of guests who come from afar to experience the continuing expansion that is Disneyland. Over the years, Disneyland, much like its sister parks Florida, has grown tremendously, taking on the name of "resort" (rather than simply "park"), with two theme parks, three overpriced hotels (seriously ... it can be upwards of $300 - $800 a night to stay in one of them), and an extensive shopping and dining district called Downtown Disney. Guests can now book dining reservations for expensive character meals or in viewing points for shows like Fantasmic! months in advance. If you don't have such reservations, you're usually out of luck, too (gone are the days of just showing up to the Blue Bayou, which looks out over the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and getting seated, as we used to do when I was growing up).

I'm not saying that expanding into a resort isn't a good thing. I enjoy walking around Downtown Disney, and I like the overall resort "feel" of Disneyland these days. I like the second park, Disney's California Adventure, and its incorporation of thrill rides and Pixar-themed attractions. But Disney needs to figure out how to balance the ever-growing out-of-state and out-of-country demand with the local demand. Because when you combine lots of out-of-towners and lots of in-towners frequenting the same parks all the time, the result is a ridiculous level of overcrowding.

Disneyland started to address this issue back in the 90's with the introduction of the Fast Pass system, which they invented to help combat extremely long lines (it was becoming common during this time for popular rides to have lines two or more hours long). The idea of the Fast Pass is that everyone has to wait the same amount of time to ride ... but you don't necessarily have to wait in line. It's like a reservation. You use your admission ticket to retrieve a Fast Pass ticket for a certain attraction, and the Fast Pass will give you a time to come back and essentially skip the line. So while you're "waiting" for your turn to ride, you can go do something else -- ride something with a shorter line, get something to eat, see a character, or do whatever.

My family was pretty resistant to this idea at first, as the Fast Pass system slows down the standby line considerably. When you're in standby, your line is consistently stopped to allow for Fast Pass holders to come through and bypass you, so it was kind of frustrating at first. But when we learned how to utilize the passes ourselves, we realized that they do allow you to save lots of time in the parks and do many more things ... if you know how to use them correctly.

Locals (such as myself) quickly learned how to manipulate the system. We would bounce all over the park, collecting as many Fast Passes as we could, before finally using some of them. This put others, who did not necessarily know that you could obtain more than one pass at a time, at a distinct disadvantage. The Fast Pass system is based on times, you see, with only a certain amount of passes being distributed for a certain time frame. When all of the passes for all of the time frames (in hour-long return-time increments, such as 1:20 - 2:20, or 5:45 - 6:45) are gone, then they're gone for the entire day. How quickly all of the Fast Passes go depends on how popular the attraction is, and how many people are at the park that day to collect them.

This, anyway, created a situation in which locals who knew the system were essentially hoarding so many Fast Passes that others were missing out. Disney remedied this situation by changing the Fast Pass system so that you could only hold one Fast Pass at a time. But then, locals began saving up old admission tickets and bringing them in so that they could cheat the new system and still collect many Fast Passes at once. Disney found out about this, too, and fixed this situation as well, making sure that only tickets used for admission that day could be used to obtain a Fast Pass -- old tickets would generate a non-usable Fast Pass.

The final "trick" of the so-called "trade" that locals would do to save time was save up their Fast Passes throughout the day and only use them when lines were particularly long. So, for example, a person would get a Fast Pass ticket for Space Mountain that would tell them to come back between 1:00 and 2:00, but they'd actually come back at, say, 5:00 (and by this time, they may have accumulated multiple tickets). And this was allowed -- you couldn't use a Fast Pass before its scheduled time, but you could certainly use it anytime after. This eventually resulted, though, in long lines even for Fast Pass holders because too many people were coming back at the same time, so Disney put a stop to this, too. Now, if your Fast Pass says to come back to the ride between 1:00 and 2:00, you have to come back between 1:00 and 2:00, or else your pass will expire and you won't be allowed to use it (trust me, I've tried).

What this means is that now, jumping around all over Disneyland in an anxious frenzy is almost a requirement if you want to get everything in. You jump somewhere to get a Fast Pass for something, then bounce somewhere else to try to get other things in, and then jump back to the original ride when the Fast Pass time has arrived because you don't want your pass to expire. And, to top it all off, you usually want to bounce to another popular ride before heading over to the one you're about to go on so that you can grab another Fast Pass, just to make sure you're using every minute of the day wisely. If you decide to forgo the Fast Pass system altogether in order to avoid this anxiety-ridden nonsense, then you will inevitably be waiting in long-ass lines all day long, and definitely won't be able to get everything in ... and this results, of course, in the depressing realization that you've spent a shitload of money on a day at Disneyland, only to spend the majority of it waiting around in huge lines.

To put this in perspective, imagine that you spend $100 for a day at Disneyland and you're able to fit in about 10 rides (which is actually a lot when the park is crowded and you aren't using Fast Passes). This would mean, essentially, that you have spent $10 per ride (also taking into account the ambiance and shit that people pay for). When you think about it this way, you want to make sure you get in as much as possible, and the only way to do that is to utilize the Fast Pass system. But ever since Disney cracked down on the various ways people were taking advantage of the system, you also must submit to a fast-paced, jumping-all-over-the-park type of visit.

Really, it's come down to whether you prefer high levels of stress so that you can fit lots of things in (in which you face the possibility of just trying to get through each ride to make it to the next instead of enjoying everything fully) or slow down, wait in long lines all day, and get very little in.

In an attempt to get around this, some locals started pulling some pretty awful shit (because, apparently, they wanted to make sure that if they didn't get nice things, nobody got nice things). Somebody found out that Disneyland issued a disability pass to guests who were unable to stand in long lines for long periods of time (people with severe physical disabilities, or autistic children whose days could be ruined by standing around in lines). These passes enabled guests with disabilities to enter a ride through its exit, and they wouldn't have to wait. Well, locals started to realize this was a thing, and someone caught wind of the fact that it's illegal for Disney to inquire about a person's disability, or ask for proof of it. So people started getting themselves disability passes when they weren't disabled so that they wouldn't have to wait in lines.

Honestly, there is a certain breed of Disneyland local, usually season pass holders who frequent the parks throughout the year, who act quite entitled when it comes to these things. They don't think they should have to wait in lines like everyone else. A part of this, I think, stems from the fact that many of them remember times when a ride on the Matterhorn wasn't a guaranteed 45 minute wait (or more), and they're kind of resentful that they don't really get to experience that anymore. But, for whatever reason, some of them thought they were so entitled to skip lines that they pretended to be disabled. And then, those assholes actually spread this as a "tip" or "trick" or "life hack" at Disneyland all over social media. So, suddenly, huge groups of people were running around with disability passes, bypassing lines and ruining the experience for those who were actually disabled (as well as those who were not, as such behavior increases waiting times for everyone else).

So Disneyland was faced with a dilemma. How could they accommodate their guests with disabilities while, at the same time, nipping the exploitation of disability passes in the bud? They decided to refine the disability pass just a bit. Instead of allowing guests to enter a ride through the exit, the disability pass was treated like more of a Fast Pass, in that guests were given a time to return to a ride, and at that time they could go bypass the line. The new disability pass differed from Fast Passes, though, in that the time never expired and guests could use it on any ride they wanted (unlike a true Fast Pass, which could only be used on certain, popular rides). Disneyland hoped that this new pass would be less desirable to its non-disabled visitors and help alleviate the stress on the system.
It didn't work. Essentially, having "Fast Passes" that never expired and could be used on any ride in the park was still tempting enough to cause guests to abuse the system. Non-disabled guests still came in droves for these passes, and sometimes every single person in a large group of people would get one of their own so that they could accumulate dozens of passes at the same time. So Disney eliminated the disability pass altogether, and does its best to accommodate severely restricted people without the pass, on a case-by-case basis. It's a shame, really, that some people who face real challenges can no longer experience the park in ways that work for them because other guests thought it was acceptable to exploit their accommodations.

Disneyland has begun to realize that this type of (usually local) customer, as well as other locals, presents very specific problems in terms of crowd control. Back in the 1980's, Disneyland began to sell annual passes so that those in the area could pay one lump sum and visit the park again and again. They thought that this would help keep attendance up even during the off-season. Throughout the years, there have been various deals for Southern California residents, too. A few years ago, Disneyland liked to promote "2-fer" tickets, in which Southern California residents could buy a day at both parks for the price of one. There has always been a special Southern California annual pass, too, which featured many blackout dates (dates when these pass holders were blocked from admission to the parks), but the price was very reasonable. As a result of these deals, as well as local infatuation with Disneyland, the number of Southern Californians with annual passes has grown exponentially within the last 10 years.

The result of this, as I mentioned before, is that Disneyland now has to balance hoards of locals who show up all the time for day trips, with guests who view the experience as a full-on vacation. These guests buy rooms at the hotels (or the adjacent "good neighbor" hotels within walking distance), buy multi-day tickets, and are usually determined to get as much out of their visit as they can (because they know they probably won't be back for a while). There have been more and more of these vacationing guests at Disneyland in recent years, and, quite honestly, they're the guests that Disney wants there. They're more likely, after all, to spend lots of money on food in the park and souvenirs such as Mickey Mouse ears or a $50 stuffed animal. But the problem is that more and more vacationers are reporting shitty experiences on their trips mainly due to one thing and one thing only: the huge crowds that no one wants to deal with.

So, it's become a problem. And while Disney doesn't want to piss off its local customers, who have been a steady source of reliable income pretty much since the park opened in the 1950's, it also doesn't want to deter out-of-town vacationers from choosing Disneyland as their destination.

Which brings us to the second source of contention that I mentioned earlier: The huge expense of Disneyland. Prices have been going up for years, but they've spiked sharply in recent years. Again, just to spend one day at one of the parks, a person has to shell out $100 a person. If they want park-hopping privileges (the ability to go from one park to another in a single day), it's up to $155 a person. If you want to go to the park for multiple days, you're looking at hundreds of dollars per person (although it's really a better deal because the price-per-day actually decreases the more days you buy). No matter how you look at it, though, that's a lot of money just to get through the gates of a theme park. If you want to buy snacks or meals in the park, or any kind of souvenir, you're looking at even more.

Very recently, though, Disney made a few changes, one of which includes varied admission prices depending on when you go. So the prices I listed above are only good if you choose to go on less popular days -- if you go during any of Disneyland's busy seasons, you pay even more. But the biggest change, I think, occurred within the realm of Disneyland's annual pass system. Disney decided, you see, to eliminate the special, discounted annual pass that was specifically for Southern Californians. There are only a couple of options now if you want to buy an annual pass -- the Disney Deluxe Passport (which features black out dates for every holiday season as well as every Saturday during the summer months) for $599 a person, the Disney Signature Passport (which also features black out dates, but far fewer of them) for $849 a person, or the Disney Signature Plus Passport (which has no black out dates, as well as other benefits) for $1,049 a person. And Disney also removed the option (which they used to have) of purchasing a half-priced ticket to enter the park if it's one of your black out dates.

The only extra benefit that Southern Californians now get that others don't is the ability to finance their annual passes, making monthly payments rather than a lump sum (and in all honesty, I can't even imagine dropping over $4000, for a family of four to go to Disneyland all year long). Nobody else but those in Southern California can finance their passes this way. This has become a source of contention for non-locals, too, not only because non-locals can't finance their passes, but also because the monthly payments have contributed to the severe overcrowding. I mean, $4000 sounds ridiculous all at once ... but how about $333 a month? Some people pay less than their car, house, or even electricity payment to make annual passes happen. With the cheapest annual pass listed above, a family of 4 from Southern California can pay $200 a month for a year of Disneyland. For many people, that is doable and worth it.

But, again, this is a huge contributing factor to the ridiculous crowd levels in the parks. I honestly think Disney should seriously reconsider allowing the financing option for Southern Californians. Let them drop thousands of dollars for annual passes like everyone else, if that's what they want to do.

In my opinion, though, Disneyland has realized that there were huge issues with the overcrowding of their parks and knew they had to do something about it. And although it seems like an easy solution to simply lower the capacity and turn more people away at the gates, such a thing is easier said than done. For example, what if people planned a vacation, flew all the way from wherever, and were turned away at the gate because the park had already reached its limited capacity? Also, Disney is, first and foremost, a company -- a very successful company at that -- and whatever decisions they make for their customers needs to be in line with the decisions they make concerning their profit margin. Cutting off the number of people who are able to enter the parks and undoubtedly angering people is probably not the best way to ensure they're making money.

So they decided to hike prices. This, I think, is a win-win for Disneyland because the number of guests will decrease (even if people want to go, they'll be priced out because they simply can't afford to go), but they won't be losing money because the people who do still go will be paying so much more. This does, of course, leave some people feeling disgruntled because they've been priced out, but the truth of the matter is that Disneyland is deciding, it seems, to move away from the community park that caters to locals and fully taking on the resort label that caters to vacationers. This is hard for locals such as myself, who remember going to Disneyland quite often at, like, $30 a person. But things change, and this is the path Disneyland has chosen for its future. Disneyland is a vacation now, not a day trip like it used to be. And I guess time will tell whether or not this new strategy will work for Disneyland. (Once again, I think it would work better if they eliminated the monthly payment option for local passholders.)

Because, in all honesty, I think there will eventually reach a point where the prices get too high, when Disney experiences a loss in revenue because the price has become too steep for most people, and the product simply isn't worth it to them. But until that point, Disney will continue to raise its prices because they can and they know people will continue to come. For now.

As for me, I supposed I've reached that point already. $100 for one day at one park is no longer worth it because the crowds have become so heavy that it's often not enjoyable anymore. I miss Disneyland, and I will always love Disneyland ... but I also hate it. I hate that it's become this. I hate that many times I feel like I am paying a huge sum of money for the "privilege" of standing around in the heat, with numerous other people, doing very little except waiting in lines. No matter what you want to do -- a ride, a show, see a character, get some food -- you will likely be waiting a long time because the crowds have gotten that out of control. I still find Disneyland to be magical, and I think their attractions are still top-notch -- but for what I'm actually getting when I go to the park, the price has finally become unreasonable.

Until, you know, I go again. Because (who am I kidding) we all know that I fucking will. And that, I suppose is exactly what Disney relies on.