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Column: Have Disneyland tickets outpaced inflation? Yes, but ...

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Disneyland at 60: the “happiest place on Earth,” but by no means the cheapest.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

You don’t have to be an economist to know that a visit to Disneyland (or any Disney park) has become a lot more expensive over the years.

The latest illustration is Disney’s abrupt hike in the price of its top-ranked unrestricted Annual Pass to $1,049 from $779, an increase of nearly 35% at a stroke. That increase has some of the local parks’ most loyal customers denouncing the company as “greedy,” as my colleagues Samantha Masunaga and Hugo Martin report.

The run-up in the cost of a day, not to mention a year, at Disney resorts (a one-day, one-park ticket now costs as much as $99 per person, not counting parking or food or Disney-themed geegaws) prompts us to look at what we might call the Disney Price Index: How have the company’s price increases corresponded to consumer inflation? 

Has the value of a day at Disneyland doubled in the last twenty years with the addition of no E-ticket attractions?
Disney-tracker Brian Krosnick
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The short answer is that over the life of the Disney parks, they’ve outpaced inflation, sometimes significantly. But things are more complicated than that when you’re tracking price changes over 60 years, dating back to Disneyland’s opening in 1955, and given changes in the economy and American lifestyles.

Moreover, these are changes in the price of a product that also has changed — dramatically. In some respects, the Disneyland of today — especially the Disneyland/California Adventure complex of today — would be unrecognizable to a park visitor in 1955 or even in 1990.

This is a familiar problem for inflation-trackers. How do you weigh improvements in a product over time? It’s not an issue for, say, produce or gasoline, but it is for things like computers, refrigerators, cellphones and cellphone service, which have become more powerful or efficient over the years, or even cheaper: The original Macintosh computer cost $2,495 in 1984, which would be more than $5,700 today. For that price now, you could buy two fully tricked-out top-of-the-line iMac desktops, each about a gazillion times more powerful than the original (not an actual calculation). 

Still, it’s useful to examine how Disney prices have changed over time. 

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Price of happiness keeps rising

Annual passes at Disneyland have risen much faster than inflation in recent years.

Disneyland’s one-day adult admission price in 1955 was $3.50, including a $1 entry fee and a booklet with eight ride tickets (A, B, and C, with C for the most elaborate ride, the Jungle Cruise). Today, according to the consumer price index, that would be $31; you could buy individual ride tickets for up to another 35 cents ($3 in today’s money), if you wanted, say, another Jungle Cruise ride. There were 18 ticketed and five free rides on opening day, the company says; by the end of the season, according to the website Mouse Monthly, there were 38, and it calculates that hitting every one in a day would cost $7.50 in coupons, or about $65.40 today — about two-thirds of today’s single-day pass. 

But of course there’s much more to do at Disneyland in 2015. Disney says Disneyland and California Adventure together offer more than 100 “attractions.” Still, as a share of median U.S. income ($4,400 in 1955, $52,250 today) a day at the park has risen from about .08% to .2%. 

Over Disneyland’s first decade, admission and ride prices kept pace with inflation, but the park was evolving rapidly; by 1959, there were D and E tickets for ever more elaborate rides. In 1981, Disney dumped the coupon book and charged a flat $11 for admission and rides — a bit less, incorporating inflation, than a standard entry and coupon book cost in 1955. That might have been the high-water mark of value pricing at the park. By 1990, that price had risen to $27.50, or about $50 today, although the park recently had been upgraded with Splash Mountain.

Star Wars - Themed Lands Coming to Disney Parks

Coming eventually: Star Wars Land at Disneyland, seen in this company-issued rendering. Will sharp price increases be far behind?

(Walt Disney Co.)

The big jumps in pricing began in 1995, and as Brian Krosnick observes at Theme Park Tourist, they didn’t coincide with new high-profile attractions. The last big addition to the inventory of E-ticket-grade rides, he asserts, was Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye that year, when admission was $33 (or $52 today). By the park’s 50th anniversary in 2005, the price was $56 (about $68 today). A year later, came a jump to $63, or more than $74 in today’s money.

Overall, Krosnick calculates, the price of a day at Disneyland almost doubled in its first four decades, 1955-1995 — but that was the period in which modern Disneyland was being created.

Over the next 20 years, the price again almost doubled, reaching its $99 level now. That’s a period in which “Disneyland has remained untouched,” Krosnick writes, with the addition of no major rides.

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“Has the value of a day at Disneyland doubled in the last twenty years with the addition of no E-ticket attractions?” For the record, Disney lists numerous new attractions that have opened at Disneyland since 1995, but plainly none that Krosnick would characterize as top-value.

That brings us to the annual pass, which was introduced in 1984. For Disneyland, the program was plainly aimed at locals in Southern California, who always represented the largest chunk of parkgoers. (By contrast, Florida’s Walt Disney World caters to tourists.) The price of these passes has sharply outpaced inflation, especially in recent years. They’ve more than tripled from $329 in 2004 to $1,049 now, a period in which inflation should have added only about 25% to the price.

But despite fans’ complaints about Disney’s “greed,” it’s proper to regard this run-up as an effort not to extract the last penny from customers, but to control demand. The annual passes bring more visitors to Disneyland and California Adventure than the parks can comfortably handle, especially during holidays, when the gates sometimes have had to be closed against visitors — never a great option. As my colleague Hugo Martin reports, the parks may even toy with variable pricing during high-demand periods, like airlines or freeway toll lanes.

The bottom line is that for most of its history, Disneyland retained its original value as a California attraction — by some measures, even enhanced its appeal. In recent years, the park has become more oriented toward pricing at whatever the market will bear. Given its robust attendance figures, plainly a $99 admission fee isn’t much of a disincentive to the customer base. Disneyland sets the pace for Southern California theme parks such as Universal Studios, Legoland and Sea World, which are all cheaper by the day but not always by much.

That’s a sign that we haven’t seen the end of price increases, even sharp ones, at Disneyland (duh). A major refurbishment is in the offing, with the opening of Star Wars Land sometime in the next few years. With a blast of promotion and customer interest to be expected, the stars are the limit. 

Keep up to date with the Economy Hub. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see our Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.


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