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Disney knows how to bring a smile to a child’s face and a dent to their parents’ wallets.
Since the end of the global economic downturn, Walt Disney World and the rest of Disney’s vacation businesses have rebounded to record financial results, helped by splashy investments in cruise ships, hotels and theme-park attractions.
But the biggest driver of Disney’s growth has been something simpler: higher prices.
During the past three years, Walt Disney Co.’s parks-and-resorts division has generated more than twice as much new revenue by raising prices and getting visitors to buy more than it has by growing attendance, according to company regulatory filings.
Per-visitor spending at Disney theme parks has climbed about 20 percent since the company’s 2010 fiscal year, the low point of the economic downturn for the company’s parks-and-resorts businesses. Attendance has grown about 8 percent during the same period.
Disney described its growth as “balanced” and noted that its theme parks are drawing record crowds.
“We are really pleased with the investments we’re making in our parks and resorts around the globe, and these experiences continue to be very popular with our guests,” spokeswoman Christi Erwin Donnan said. “We offer a terrific product that our guests love, and this has led to record attendance for us.”
The pricing trend is even more striking in Disney’s hotels, the vast majority of which are at Disney World. Per-room spending — a combination of the nightly rate and spending in hotel restaurants and gift shops — has jumped 18 percent during the past three years, while overall bookings have grown about 5 percent.
All together, Disney has added about $1.6 billion in annual sales during the past three years by raising prices, reducing discounts and selling more food and souvenirs. That’s more than Disney Cruise Line generates annually, according to some analyst estimates.
Disney’s closest competitor — Comcast Corp.’s smaller Universal Parks & Resorts — has attributed its own growth during the past three years as much to attendance gains as spending increases, though it does not disclose precise figures. Comcast executives have said they expect attendance and hotel sales to continue growing rapidly during the next few years as they open new Harry Potter-themed lands at both Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood and add thousands of hotel rooms in Orlando.
By contrast, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. is focusing on pricing more intensely than Disney. The Orlando-based company said last week that it generated a company record of nearly $1.5 billion in revenue last year, even though attendance at its parks slipped 4.1 percent. The reason: It was able to lift revenue per guest by 7 percent.
Analysts say much of Disney’s pricing growth reflects a recovery from the recession, when the company offered steep discounts to prop up attendance and hotel occupancy. During its 2010 fiscal year, for instance, Disney World’s hotel promotions included a seven-nights-for-the-price-of-four deal.
Disney has whittled ticket discounts, too. In 2010, the company offered a four-day, pre-summer pass to Florida residents for $99. Last year, that same promotional ticket cost $129, a 30 percent jump.
Similarly, Disney sold a four-day promotional ticket to members of the U.S. military for $165 in 2010 but $198 in 2013, a 20 percent increase.
“They aggressively discounted during the recession to keep the parks and hotels crowded and their park employees employed,” said Michael Nathanson, a media-industry analyst with MoffettNathanson LLC. “As the economy hopefully recovers more, we expect that growth will come from a more balanced set of drivers.”
Disney also has pushed its base prices higher during the past three years. The trend is especially evident in ticket prices at Disney World, where the resort has been trying to make far more from visitors who buy multiday passes.
For instance, at the start of 2010, Disney World charged just $6 more for a four-day ticket than it did for a three-day ticket. But from 2010 to 2013, the resort nearly tripled that difference to $17. And it more than tripled the difference between four- and five-day tickets, from $3 to $10.
Although the individual dollar amounts are small, the cumulative impact is enormous. Disney says most of its visitors opt for multiday passes.
Disney says part of the reason it has been able to raise prices is that it has invested in new attractions for which travelers are willing to pay more. Disneyland, for example, boosted annual-pass prices by 20 percent to 35 percent just before opening its immensely popular “Cars Land” area in Disney California Adventure in mid-2012.
At the much-larger Disney World, however, only one of the four theme parks has received a similar level of capital investment in new attractions since 2010: the Magic Kingdom, where Disney is completing a $425 million Fantasyland expansion. Disney World has made several smaller upgrades elsewhere, such as renovating Test Track in Epcot and Star Tours in Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Rather than new rides, some of Disney’s biggest recent investments at Disney World have been features aimed squarely at driving more in-park spending.
A major element of the Fantasyland expansion is the 526-seat, Beauty and the Beast-themed “Be Our Guest” restaurant, which functions as a rapid-turnover counter-service eatery during the day and a pricier table-service restaurant in the evenings. To boost sales further, Disney ended its ban on alcohol sales in the Magic Kingdom with the restaurant, opting to add beer and wine to the menu.
Generating more visitor spending is one of the primary objectives of Disney World’s billion-dollar “MyMagic+” program, which includes a new ride-reservation system and microchip-embedded wristbands that can be used as credit cards. With MyMagic+, Disney hopes to get more guests out of attraction lines and into shops and restaurants, make in-park purchases more convenient and collect more personal data about visitors that can be used to devise more-effective marketing offers.
Chad Emerson, an author who has written about Disney theme parks, said the company wants to see how high it can push prices and spending at Disney World before it invests more capital trying to grow the giant resort’s attendance even further.
“They are trying to find out where the ceiling is on per-guest spending,” Emerson said.
There are signs that Disney may be easing up on pricing. When Disney World raised ticket prices again last month, it did so by more modest margins than it had during the past couple of years.
That could suggest “the pricing opportunity post-recession, particularly for the multiday passes, is winding down and price increases are returning to normal,” Doug Mitchelson, an analyst with Deutsche Bank, said in a recent research note.