2020 has resulted in a lot of major changes for theme parks, but while many of these changes will likely disappear once things are back to "normal" it seems more than likely that some of the changes are here to stay, and that could mean a restructuring of the way many theme parks, especially the likes of Walt Disney World and Disneyland, do business. Could we see the end of the Annual Pass program, and if it does continue on, how different will it look from the way Annual Passes are used today?
Tokyo Disney Resort has announced that, at least for now, the park is ending its annual pass program entirely. Previously, as was the case with the stateside parks, guests who had annual passes had the expiration of those passes extended to a future date equivalent to the amount of time the park was closed due to the pandemic. However, now that extension has been canceled and guests with annual passes need to simply apply for refunds. We could see the AP program return, but we could also, not.
Tokyo Disney Resort's Decision Could Be Mirrored Elsewhere
Now Tokyo Disney Resort isn't owned or operated by the Walt Disney Company, and so this change in policy is not a Disney policy. However, if a decision like this can be made in one park, it's certainly possible that other theme parks could make similar decisions, and under the circumstances, there are a lot of reasons why exactly that could, and maybe even should, happen. All theme parks that are open for business are functioning with limited capacity. Only so many people can be allowed into the park on any given day. This makes it that much more important that each guest be as financially lucrative to the park as possible.
The simple fact is that guests with annual passes don't spend as much money as guests that use standard tickets. While the income from the pass itself is certainly valuable, guests that go to Disneyland or Walt Disney World often don't spend as much per trip as vacationers who are making a special trip to the park. If you go to a theme park a lot, you don't need to buy the latest merch or eat at the best restaurants every time you go, you can always do that next time. Theme Park Insider suggests that TDR canceling its annual pass program is designed to allow more of those more financially viable guests into the park by keeping the annual pass holders out.
It also suggests that Disneyland Resort may be faced with a similar decision whenever it finally reopens, as both Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Resort get a large percentage of the guests from the local area rather than the out of market travelers that would normally be visiting Walt Disney World.
Could Disneyland Do The Same?
It seems quite possible that Disneyland could end up doing something similar, considering that at this point there's no indication when Disneyland Resort could reopen, the parks could end up closed for a full year before they reopen anyway. However, I would argue that the annual pass programs at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, even if they continue to exist, are more than likely going to go through a lot of changes, and probably will be unrecognizable by the time it's all sorted out.
Heads of Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products has already suggested that some pandemic policy changes, like the daily reservation system, are likely to remain even after other health and safety changes. Except the reservation system throws a pretty significant monkey wrench into the annual pass system. People bought their annual passes based on the particular schedule of dates it allowed them to visit the park. Some passes had no blackout dates, others had a few. Certainly, during the pandemic guests can understand if their pass that was supposed to have zero blackout dates doesn't currently offer the freedom it once did, but once other restrictions are lifted, those guests will expect their passes to return to normal operation.
If your annual pass was supposed to have no blackout dates, but the parks are especially full on some date and you can't get a reservation, that's going to cause problems. People will be unhappy, and Disney doesn't like unhappy people. At the very least, people are going to be unhappy if the price they paid was supposed to get them access they are then unable to actually get.
So What Comes Next?
And so, there are a couple of potential solutions. One is to simply kill the Annual Pass programs. This is very possibly going to be a short-term solution, especially at Disneyland, that will need to manage its attendance very carefully. More than likely, we will see the AP program replaced with something, but what exactly?
Once the theme parks are back at 100% capacity there will likely be a lot of available space for both ticket holders and pass holders, but there will still need to be some management of it all. And it will be difficult to manage any sort of pass without blackout dates, as, much like today, the parks will probably want to limit the number of annual pass holders on any given day, to be sure there is enough space for the guests who are likely to spend more money.
I'm sure that some sort of program that resembles the current Annual Pass program will continue into the future, Disney may not make as much money off those with APs, but the company certainly doesn't want to kiss that revenue goodbye either. However, it seems likely that once the dust has settled, in order to integrate with the reservations system, Annual Passes will need to be handled differently.
And we haven't even talked about the price. If Disney unveils a "new" program to replace the Annual Pass system, it could end up being priced lower than the current options, since things like "no blackout" passes won't really exist. Or, if the plan is to make these new pass options rarer, they could be much more expensive.
At some point, even if that point is months or years away, theme parks will return to something like what they were before all this. However, it seems more than likely that some of the repercussions of all this will be felt for years to come.