He could tweak a cartoon or a ride in just the right way to make it sell among the throngs of middle-class families who propelled Disney into a superstar brand.
If history is any guide, we're only about three years away from Central Florida theme-park tickets hitting that magical century mark.
On Friday, Disney raised its single-day ticket price from $85 to $89 — $1 more than Universal's increase last week from $85 to $88.
During the past decade, Disney raised prices each year by an average of 6 percent, or about $3.90. If increases continue at that rate, the $100 ticket will arrive as early as 2014.
Yikes. That's about $400 for a family of four (kids younger than 9 get a slight discount and are free younger than 3) just to get through the turnstiles. Add parking, food and a couple of hats with big ears, and you're pushing $500.
Gatorland, here we come.
A hundred bucks is a lot of money. Like $4-per-gallon gas, it's a psychological milestone.
"The moment you get to three digits, it has an emotional impact," says Eli Portnoy, CEO of CultureRanch, which studies consumer behavior. "It's a barrier no one wants to cross, and Disney is going to have to be careful about crossing it."
Walt may never have contemplated asking people to fork over a Benjamin to enter his parks. But today's execs appear plenty comfortable with the rising single-day price, which has swelled by 70 percent during the past 10 years.
The single-day ticket prices for Disney and Universal are strategically increased to make the parks' multiday passes seem like a deal. By offering a discounted per-day admission, Universal and Disney packages keep people on their properties longer so they can spend more on turkey legs and princess makeovers or wizard wands.
What the parks have to worry about is whether it could hit a price that finally causes people to change how often they go, or whether they go at all.
Theme parks would certainly want to avoid the perception that they're becoming out of reach for average families, such as tickets to professional sporting events.
Joe Couceiro, a former chief marketing officer for SeaWorld, says there is always consternation among the executive ranks when prices are about to reach a significant threshold.
"I remember when we were breaking the $30 barrier, I was concerned about that," he said.
But $100 is a whole new Frontierland.
The triple digits are virgin territory.
What would Walt have done?
Considering Disney once said he believed in the "worthwhileness of the pursuits in entertainment for the masses," he might have been sensitive to the symbolism of a $100 single-day ticket.
But he was also a businessman. And Disney has successfully edged prices from 1971's general admission of $3.50 — not adjusted for inflation — and has only seen attendance explode.
Perhaps Walt would aim to roll out a big new splash — think Avatar or, hopefully, for Disney's sake, something with a stronger brand — to coincide with slipping past $100. He would likely want to emphasize the added value a family is getting along with the price increase.
And, maybe, he would try to stay at $99.99 for as long as possible.
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