In 1987, The Walt Disney Company began to, literally, print its own currency. For nearly twenty years, various designs and denominations of Disney Dollars have been available for patrons on an "even exchange" basis. In May 2016, Disney announced that they would cease production on Disney Dollars, although they would continue to accept them at their theme parks, hotels and select Disney Stores (meaning not the one you go to). With the convenience of gift cards, the idea of Disney Dollars had run its course.
However, I maintain, that Disney has been printing their own money for years. Maybe not physically, but figuratively. Their combination of shrewd marketing, exploitation and branding coupled with the captive audience and tourist mentality, has made Disney a veritable money-generating machine.
They are the kings of selling you things you do not need. They excel in convincing you that the prices they place on merchandise and food is reasonable. Granted, most people on vacation (especially the people that Walt Disney World draws) pay very little attention to how much they are spending on a meal, so they will happily for fork over $12 for a hot dog topped with chili. (A chili dog at Sonic costs $1.99, just for comparison). One of my favorite restaurants in a Disney theme park is Redd Rocket's Pizza Port, tucked in a back corner of Tomorrowland in Disneyland. A slice of typical, no-frills, fast-food, no-toppings pizza costs $6.99. I can get an entire pie at a Little Caesar's five minutes from my house for five bucks. A whole pizza at Redd Rocket's is — brace yourself — thirty-three dollars. Go to any of these Disney eateries at dinner time, though. You'll see the lines are long and the place is packed.
Souvenirs is another area where Disney knows just how wide they can open a
customer's guest's wallet. My first visit to Walt Disney World was in 1980. I was 19. I purchased a few mementos of my trip — a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, a few pinback buttons. Knowing my limited funds back then, I'm sure I was very careful not to overspend on souvenirs. Of course, in later years, when I was supporting the Disneyana monkey on my back (this one, I mean), I spent money in the gift shops like a drunken pirate on Caribbean shore leave. However, my selections were measured and I was very particular about what was added to my collection. But, Disney was counting on other tourists to spend blindly and without restraint. The fact that no one bats an eye at a $24.99 price tag on a giant faux-velvet Sorcerer Mickey hat shows the effectiveness of Disney's marketing power. After all, there's only one place and one place only you can wear a tall, blue, pointed hat adorned with two enormous mouse ears and not get strange looks. And you're never gonna wear it anywhere else. Ever. When you get home to your normal life and one day it's raining, you're not saying to yourself: "I better grab a hat." and then reach for the two-foot tall, fuzzy, star-spangled head covering to shield you from the downpour. And Disney knows it.
On a summer trip my wife made with her family to Walt Disney World, she bought two water-filled spray bottles, each topped with a small battery-powered fan and embellished with Disney characters, for her nieces, to keep them hydrated during the blistering Florida heat. Those things, available in a non-Disney version for a few dollars, cost $18.00 each. My brother-in-law, fully aware of their price tag (because he wouldn't spring for them for his kids), would not allow his daughters to bring the bottles into the park, for fear they would get lost or damaged. The bottles remained safely in a bag in their hotel room and never saw the light of day since the time of their purchase. As a matter of fact, they haven't been seen since 2012. But, Disney! Disney had a gain of thirty-six dollars for an item that, based on volume, probably cost mere pennies to manufacture.
Look, this is certainly not a knock against Disney. I am a huge fan of the media giant. I admire their creativity, their cleverness and especially their marketing prowess. I marvel at the people who whine and complain about how expensive it is to swing a vacation to Walt Disney World, and then, once they get there, hand over their hard-earned cash with nary a thought. Disney is doing their job and that's answering to their stockholders. It is possible to have fun on a Disney vacation and not come home ready for the poor house. You just have to put a little thought into your planning, stick to a budget, consider purchases with: "Do I really need this?" If you're still moaning about the high prices of admission, food, lodging, and souvenirs... nobody is forcing you to go. Not even Disney. You may think they are, but that's called "marketing."