May 12, 2005 -- Disney's fastest roller coasters hurtle riders at speeds faster than 60 mph, but that's nothing compared to the speed that money can be sucked out of parents' pockets when their little tykes see all the neat attractions, shiny souvenirs and cotton candy at any amusement park.
Disney (the parent company of ABC News) is celebrating its 50th anniversary in the theme park business at a critical time. It's been 3 ½ years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and only now is attendance at amusement parks nationwide returning to 2001 figures. Perhaps that's why when the House of Mouse kicked off its 18-month "Happiest Celebration on Earth" festivities last week, executives were just as eager to talk about new value services for weeklong vacationers as they were to show off new rides.
"Now, the more you play, the less per day you pay," said Walt Disney World President Al Weiss while introducing the new "Magic Your Way" customized pricing, the most radical price change since the advent pay-one-price admissions two decades ago.
Under the plan, a weeklong Disney World pass averages out to $28 a day for adults, $23 for kids under 9, less than 50 percent off single-day prices. And one- to 10-day options are now available, making full-day park admissions for children as low as $16.70 -- less than the cost of a parent and child attending a movie in many cities.
Disney's strategy is twofold. Encouraging weeklong stays is clearly critical to boost attendance. The company is also challenged to keep Disney World's guests on park grounds during their stay, rather than venturing out to Universal Studios Orlando and other local attractions.
Disney does not report attendance figures. But ticket sales at the company's flagship resort, Disney World, grew 8 percent in 2004 to 15.2 million, according to Amusement Business, a trade magazine that compiles figures based on annual reports and other data. The growth spurt comes after several years of widespread industry decline.
Theme parks in general rebounded last year. Attendance at the world's top 50 parks increased 2.2 percent to 252.4 million, marking the first overall increase since the 2001 terrorist attacks slammed the tourism industry.
"The theme park business enjoyed rapid growth in the 1970s and 1980s. Many parks opened, and now the industry has reached a point of maturity. It's not going to grow as fast," said Dennis Spiegel of International Theme Park Services, which works with parks in 40 countries.
"It's not going to be what it once was, but the business is now poised for respectable growth. Competition between the parks is going to be tight as families have many options and not as much free time," he said. "Disney is especially challenged to stay ahead because it's already No. 1."
Disney now accounts for eight of the world's Top 10 parks, and it's hoping that price controls will encourage families of modest income to consider longer trips. With the "Magic Your Way" ticketing and other programs, executives say that a family of four can visit Disney World for a week, stay in one of its moderately priced rooms, and the price will be about $1,500.
Families on a tight budget can lock in a price for meals under the "Package Plus Dining" program which provides for two meals a day plus snack vouchers at many of Disney World's restaurants and food stands. The dining plan is $35 a day for adults and $10 a day for kids (ages 3 to 9).
To further keep weeklong guests from straying from the 47-square-mile resort, each day one of Disney World's four parks (Magic Kingdom, Disney's Animal Kingdom, EPCOT and Disney-MGM Studios) will open either one hour early or stay open up to three hours later on a rotating basis.
If you come for a week and decide not to use all of your seven-day pass, you can freeze the remaining portion with a "No Expiration" option. The additional fee boosts an adult per-day fee to $36, still 40 percent below the base price of a single-day ticket.
"Whether ordering a computer, a car or a cup of coffee, people want things customized to fit their individual needs," Weiss said.
This is "the biggest change in Walt Disney World tickets in decades, and it will bring amazing new benefits to all our guests, whether they stay on or off our property."
Another new perk to lure guests -- especially dads and moms who loathe lugging baggage and long airport lines -- is "Disney's Magical Express." Now any U.S. traveler staying at one of Disney World's 22 hotels can bypass baggage claim at Orlando International Airport. Once you check your bags at your hometown airport, your luggage will be specially marked and brought straight to your hotel room.
Magical Express services are complimentary, and they include bus transportation to and from your hotel. When you leave, your bags are taken straight from your room to the airport and you don't have to think about them again until you step off the plane. Guests can even receive their boarding pass in the lobby of their hotel, rather than at the airport.
But the main draw to Disney's 10 theme parks (the next, Disney Hong Kong, opens in September) will always remain the rides and attractions, and the Happiest Celebration on Earth kicked off last week with a satellite broadcast that unveiled several new attractions and makeovers to Space Mountain, and several other old favorites.
Here's a rundown of what's new at Disney World:
Cinderallabration: A musical meeting of Disney royalty held at the foot of Cinderella's Castle. Snow White, Belle of "Beauty and the Beast," Aurora from "Sleeping Beauty" and Jasmine from "Aladdin" are on hand as Cinderella, with Prince Charming at her side, is crowned the ultimate princess of princesses.
Stitch's Great Escape: Little boys who love gross-out humor will be wowed by Disney's first audio-animatronics figure that spits. (It's just water, but still pretty gross.) Guests enter the halls of the Galactic Federation Prisoner Transport Center, where the lovable beast from "Lilo & Stitch" escapes and breathes on them with his icky chili-dog breath.
Soarin': A virtual-reality glider ride over California's breathtaking mountains and landmarks. Your feet dangle 40 feet off the floor, and blasts of salty sea air gush over you as you fly down the Pacific Coast.
Turtle Talk With Crush: That laid-back, 152-year-old surfer turtle from "Finding Nemo" jokes with kids and engages guests in conversation direct from the movie screen. This interactive show involves real-time digital animation. Don't expect canned answers at each show. A Disney cast member who plays the fast-quipping reptile is backstage, programming unique responses to each question, with thousands of turtle-ish expressions to punctuate his body language.
Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show: A high-octane display of how chase scenes are filmed, this attraction details the secrets of Hollywood action movies. Specially designed motorcycles, jet skis and sports cars fly through gasoline fires, soar over trucks, and you get to see how trick photography makes it all the more real.
The Magic of Disney Animation: All the big stars are lending their voices to animated features, and now you can, too. A computer matches your personality with a Disney character, and then you follow the progression of motion picture cartooning, from storyboard to silver screen, with you as the star.
Disney's Animal Kingdom
Lucky the Dinosaur: A 9-foot-tall, 450-pound robot dinosaur now wanders the grounds, interacting with guests. He purrs when you pet his scaly skin. Ask him for directions and he'll point his snout in the right direction. He sneezes, pulls a flower cart, and is very careful not to step on little kids, who don't seem to be the least bit afraid of the behemoth. Lucky for us, he's an herbivore and not a T. rex.
Expedition Everest: Expedition Everest, a 20-story mountain roller coaster set to open in 2006, will dwarf Space Mountain, which is nearly half the size. Riders zigzag through rocky switchbacks to imitation snow-capped peaks. The concrete-and-plastic skin of this mountain covers five acres, and it's modeled after the real Himalayas. There are even rumors of a yeti lurking within.