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Lawsuit says Disneyland’s Magic Key annual pass program favors daily ticket buyers

A masked couple poses for photos in front of a statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse at Disneyland on May 3, 2021.
A masked couple poses for photos in front of a statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse at Disneyland in May. A lawsuit claims the park’s new annual pass program unfairly blocks out pass holders in favor of daily ticket buyers.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court alleges Walt Disney Co. deceived buyers of a new annual pass who thought they would get unlimited access to the park but instead say they were blocked out in favor of daily-pass buyers.

The lawsuit by Jenale Nielsen of Santa Clara County, who is described as a longtime Disney customer, claims that Walt Disney Parks and Resorts sold her a Dream Key pass for $1,399 with the understanding that no dates would be blocked out to enter the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. The Dream Key is the most expensive of the passes Disney introduced in August under a new annual pass program dubbed Magic Key.

Soon after buying the pass, Nielsen says she found that she couldn’t make a reservation to visit the park on any weekend in November, according to the suit. When she checked the Disneyland reservation website, she saw that the park was open for reservations for single- and multiple-day ticket buyers, who are charged up to $224 per visit.

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She is asking the court to certify the complaint as a class-action suit on behalf of the 3,600 people who have purchased Dream Key passes.

“Ms. Nielsen reasonably believed and relied upon Disney’s advertisement and promise to mean that, if Disney had capacity at its Anaheim parks, Ms. Nielsen and her fellow Dream Key pass holders would be allowed to make reservations and visit the parks,” the lawsuit says.

The Disneyland website says buyers of the pass are notified that they are not guaranteed access to the park, regardless of the price of their annual pass.

“We have been clear about the terms of the Magic Key product and we know that many of our guests are enjoying the experiences these passes provide,” spokeswoman Liz Jaeger said. “We will vigorously defend our position as the case proceeds.”

Magic Key includes four options, ranging in price from $399 per year for Southern California residents to $1,399 for the Dream Key with no block-out days and the greatest flexibility for making reservations. The primary difference between the new program and Disney’s old annual pass is that Magic Key requires a reservation before visiting the park.

The resort website through which the Dream Key is sold says: “Park reservations are subject to availability and are not guaranteed for any specific dates or park.”

Nielsen’s lawsuit accuses the media giant of breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, concealment, false advertisement and unfair competition, and seeks damages and attorneys’ fees.

The lawsuit was originally filed in November in Orange County Superior Court but was moved to U.S. District Court because the case is a potential class-action lawsuit that involves “a matter of controversy that exceeds the sum or value of $5,000,000,” according to court records. The lawsuit says Disney collected more than $5 million selling the Dream Key.

The lawsuit is likely to strike a chord with many Disneyland fans who have complained since the new program’s debut that the passes do not guarantee a reservation to visit the park — even the more expensive ones. Reservations are made through an online calendar that changes on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis.

Under the previous annual pass program, reservations weren’t needed and annual pass holders could visit as often as they wanted, as long as it wasn’t on a day marked as blocked by their annual pass.

The Disneyland Resort began requiring reservations after reopening in April from a 15-month pandemic closure to maintain capacity restrictions required by state health officials to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. But once the state-imposed restrictions were lifted, the resort kept the reservations system as a way to better manage its crowding problems, which often led to hours-long lines for attractions and frustrated visitors.

The previous annual pass program contributed to the crowding problem, according to theme park experts, because too many Southern California park fans were using their annual passes to deluge the parks, which discouraged visits from out-of-state tourists or international visitors, who tend to spend more money per visit than locals.

Disney does not release attendance figures, but a report by the engineering firm AECOM estimates that in 2019, Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park hosted a combined total of 28.4 million visitors. The number of people who hold annual passes has long been believed to hover around 1 million. According to one estimate by financial analysts at UBS, those pass holders have made up 50% of all annual visitors to the Anaheim resort.


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