LOS ANGELES — After raising some ticket prices for its theme parks by more than 20% over the past five years, Walt Disney Co. will set a new benchmark this week when it offers die-hard fans the chance to attend a six-hour preview of a new attraction at Disneyland — for $299.
Even for fans used to high prices, the $50-an-hour sneak peek at Pixar Pier on Friday, a day before the attraction officially opens, breaks new ground.
“Being able to go into the stores [at the pier] a day early is a main draw,” said Chandler Churchill, an 18-year-old recent high-school graduate from nearby Irvine, Calif., who plans to attend the preview.
The steep price stems in part from a perennial tension Disney faces at its theme parks, where public demand is so strong that its two domestic locations, in particular, can fill to capacity during certain times of year.
In response, Disney is considering new approaches to pricing amid upgrades at Disneyland in Southern California and Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., that are expected to attract even more people.
Raising prices—currently around $100 on average days and more than $120 at peak times around holidays—could mitigate the overflow crowds and boost Disney's profit. The company, however, is wary of appearing to gouge customers, according to theme-park executives and analysts, and going against founder Walt Disney's vision of affordable family entertainment.
For a family of four, going to any major U.S. theme park for a day can quickly become a $500 expense. Universal Studios charges $115 for adult tickets in Orlando and between $109 and $129 in Los Angeles. SeaWorld tickets in Orlando hover around $100.
Internal projections at Disney show that even after raising prices at roughly double the rate of inflation over the past five years, it could charge much more than it currently does without driving away too many customers, a person familiar with the company's parks operations said.
Disney parks executives are working on adopting a dynamic pricing model similar to airlines, in which prices fluctuate depending on when a ticket is purchased, this person said.
Disney already has introduced a limited version of dynamic pricing to its parks, charging a range of prices based on three categories of dates: “value,” “regular” and “peak.” Prices range from $97 to $135 for Disneyland and between $102 and $122 for Walt Disney World.
Under the changes being considered in recent months, a ticket to Disneyland for Christmas Day, for example, may cost less if purchased on July 1 than on Dec. 24, this person said. Such a system would encourage visitors to commit to a day to visit the park farther in advance than they currently do, this person added, which allows parks to plan better.
Through one-off events like the Pixar Pier preview, Disney is branching out beyond “one-size-fits-all experiences” offered at “a variety of price points” at its parks, said Catherine Powell, president of Disney Parks Western Region.
“We're pursuing a number of strategies, including pricing and increased capacity, to better spread demand throughout the year so that we can fulfill our mission of exceeding guest expectations every day,” Ms. Powell said.
Disney doesn't release annual attendance figures for its parks, but more than 38.8 million people visited its domestic locations in 2017, an annual increase of about 1.3%, according to the Themed Entertainment Association trade group.
Rising prices and attendance at the parks have contributed to strong growth in the company's parks and resorts division in recent years. Annual income for the segment has grown more than 70% since 2013, hitting $3.8 billion in 2017.
Theme parks have become an important source of growth for Disney, especially as sagging subscriber numbers at the company's ESPN division worry Wall Street. In 2016, Disney opened Shanghai Disney Resort, a $5.5 billion theme park, hotel and shopping complex, helping bring the family vacation ritual to China.
Fan websites report that Disney parks often reach their capacity during the summer tourism season and over Christmas break, when they sometimes turn away would be customers for several hours starting as early in the day as noon.
New attractions at the parks help Disney to handle crowds, but they also draw more visitors. Disney World's “Avatar”-themed experience, which opened last year, has been so popular that wait times for some of its rides average between one and two hours—and in some rare cases, stretch to four hours.
Later this month, Disney will open “Toy Story Land” at Disney World, while it has “Star Wars” lands under construction at Disney World and Disneyland. The company has invested more than $15 billion in its parks world-wide in the past five years, including at overseas locations in Shanghai and Paris.
One-off offers like the sneak preview to Pixar Pier, which is based on movies including “The Incredibles” and “Finding Nemo,” capitalize on the surging demand for new attractions at the parks. The tickets include access to Disneyland's California Adventure area, featuring a “Cars”-themed racing ride and a live “Frozen” show, as well as food vouchers and the chance to roam the new Pixar attraction with much smaller crowds than on a typical day after it opens to the public.
Some park loyalists expressed outrage in online forums over the price. But for Ms. Churchill, the preview will be the third special-ticketed event she has attended at Disney in the past several months.
She also paid $100 to be among the last visitors to ride the retiring Tower of Terror attraction and about $190 for an evening dedicated to recent high-school graduates at the park.
“People are like, 'Why pay $300 when I can experience it later?' ” she said. “But the price includes so much more.”
Price of daily admission to Walt Disney World
BY ERICH SCHWARTZEL