How theme parks like Disney World left the middle class behind By Drew Harwell June 12, 2015 Some 1,000 persons turned out in Albuquerque, New Mexico to greet Mickey Mouse on Nov. 14, 1978, as he celebrated his 50th birthday with a whistle-stop train tour. (AP Photo/John Holmes) When Walt Disney World opened in an Orlando swamp in 1971, with its penny arcade and marching-band parade down Main Street U.S.A., admission for an adult cost $3.50, about as much then as three gallons of milk. Disney has raised the gate price for the Magic Kingdom 41 times since, nearly doubling it over the past decade. This year, a ticket inside the “most magical place on Earth” rocketed past $100 for the first time in history. Ballooning costs have not slowed the mouse-eared masses flooding into the world’s busiest theme park. Disney’s main attraction hosted a record 19 million visitors last year, a number nearly as large as the population of New York state. But rising prices have changed the character of Big Mouse’s family-friendly empire in unavoidably glitzy ways. A visitor to Disney’s central Florida fantasy-land can now dine on a $115 steak, enjoy a $53-per-plate dessert party and sleep in a bungalow overlooking the Seven Seas Lagoon starting at $2,100 a night. 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. “If Walt [Disney] were alive today, he would probably be uncomfortable with the prices they’re charging right now,” said Scott Smith, an assistant professor of hospitality at the University of South Carolina whose first job was as a cast member in Disney’s Haunted Mansion. “They’ve priced middle-class families out.” Tourists crowd around Cinderella’s Castle to watch a performance at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Thursday, Sept. 2, 2004. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack) As one of the biggest man-made attractions on the planet, Disney World has led the way for the theme-park industry to boost its prices, often on a yearly basis. Universal, Six Flags and other parks in Orlando, Southern California and elsewhere have followed in Mickey’s big footprints, worried they will otherwise look like bargain-barrel runners-up. Disney and theme-park leaders have defended their rising prices as a logical response to record-setting attendance, with Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler saying the company is “committed to ensuring all our guests have a magical experience.” “We continually add new experiences, and many of our guests select multi-day tickets or annual passes, which provide great value and additional savings,” Wahler said. “A day at a Disney park is unlike any other in the world.” But some see Disney’s magically ascending price tag as a reflection of the country’s economy, where stagnant wages and growing inequality have transformed even the way Americans take time off. “When Walt created Disneyland, this was a middle-class country. But Disney now . . . as far as pricing out the middle class, they think: What middle class?” said Robert Niles, the editor of Theme Park Insider, an industry blog. “Disney’s made a strategic decision that they’re not going to discount to hold onto people at the middle part of the economy,” he said. “They’re going to set their prices at the top 10 percent of family incomes and make their money where the money is.” Prices rise, but business booms American theme parks were built on deep roots in middle-class family entertainment, having expanded as outgrowths of low-cost getaways such as New York’s Coney Island, dubbed the “Nickel Empire” for its thrift. When Walt Disney, the cartoon and business mogul, opened Disneyland in Southern California in the mid-’50s for $1 a ticket, many expected it would fail. Most amusement parks then were raucous affairs, with free admission. “I could never convince the financiers that Disneyland was feasible,” Disney famously said, “because dreams offer too little collateral.” Card Walker, right, president and chief operating officer for Walt Disney Inc., kicks off Disney World’s tenth birthday celebration by welcoming the William Windsor family in Orlando, Oct. 1, 1981. The Windsors were the first to see the Magic Kingdom, when it first opened ten years before. (AP Photo) But over the years, as Disney’s movie and toy deals helped it explode into a $184 billion behemoth, its theme parks became one of Mickey’s most unstoppable moneymakers. Disney’s parks and resorts’ profits have nearly doubled over the past five years, to $2.6 billion in fiscal 2014. Advertised for years as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Disney’s parks have continually set new visitor records: During the winter holidays, its Orlando parks hosted 250,000 guests at a time, chief executive Bob Iger told analysts this year. Attendance rose 17 percent last year at Universal Studios Florida, America’s biggest non-Disney park, because of the success of its Harry Potter-themed mini-towns. Disney park admissions revenue has grown about 10 percent every year for the past decade, to total more than $5 billion in 2014, financial filings show. (That’s not including park food, drinks or merchandise, which brought in another $5 billion.) The parks have faced little resistance, even as prices have climbed. Tickets for the Magic Kingdom were increased 6 percent this year, to $105 plus tax, while entrance to other Orlando parks — Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Universal Studios — can’t be bought for less than $90.