For decades, Disney superfans have taken advantage of the company’s Disneyland Annual Pass, which allowed pass holders to visit California’s Disneyland theme park as often as they wanted. The company ended that Thursday. When the park eventually reopens—it’s been closed since last March—the annual passes will be replaced by some other loyalty program yet to be determined, according to the park’s president, Ken Potrock. How are the estimated 1 million annual pass holders responding? Why would Disney eliminate such a lucrative program? And do park staff really call annual pass holders “passholes”? I talked to Scott Renshaw, the author of Happy Place: Living the Disney Parks Life. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Slate: So why did Disney shut down the annual pass program?
Scott Renshaw: This is a process that a lot of people think has been a long time coming. The annual pass holders system in Southern California had gotten really untenable, in terms of the crowding of the park. In 2019 they introduced a different tier, a cheaper one, basically trying to get people to make reservations rather than just show up. And now there was no way, once the park in California eventually reopened, that they were going to be able to handle all of the pass holders trying to rush back in. Disney never has actually officially said how many Southern California pass holders there are—it’s estimated to be over a million. In Florida, at Walt Disney World, they still are at about 35 percent of their pre-pandemic capacity. And the California park is so much smaller than the Magic Kingdom in Florida. So really canceling these passes is the only way to deal with the realities of reduced capacity and this reality that there are a million pass holders out there thinking, When do I get to go back?
How are pass holders responding to this development? Do they understand, or are they enraged?
Obviously there’s a huge level of disappointment. There are plenty of people who have made this part of their identity in some social sense. Some of them have made it their livelihood, running YouTube channels and things like that. And so, yeah, there’s going be a big culture shock. But I’ve seen a lot of recognition that this kind of had to happen and, really that it should have happened before this. It was growing unmanageable already. And it had been such a lucrative system for so long. These passes range from $600 to around $1,400 a year for, again, around a million people. So, that’s a nice chunk of change there, and so you realize that there had to be some extraordinary circumstance for them to finally have to pull the trigger on this.
You mentioned that for some people, the parks really define their identity. I’ve seen a lot of posts on Twitter basically saying like, “Oh boy, now what will annual pass holders do to have a personality?” What is the profile of a person who buys an annual pass, who makes Disney the centerpiece of their existence?
Like any subculture, it would be reductive to try to say, “This one thing defines them.” I know and interact with people who approach their fandom in a very healthy way. You know, this is just something that they enjoy and it’s a way to decompress at the end of their day. But yes, there are also those who, like with any fandom, really get way too into it and start policing it. That is the fringe, but as you see online in any kind of fandom, the fringe tends to suck up a lot of the oxygen in the room.
A friend of mine who works at Disney mentioned that she has heard pass holders referred to as “passholes” by people who work at the park. Do some pass holders display a sense of entitlement that that turns people off?
Absolutely. When you’re in the elevator of the Haunted Mansion and you have the people who, because they know all the words, decide that they’re going to recite along, it’s just like, “Yeah, we get it, we know that you are here all the time.” But I’ve connected with more people who are a little more balanced and sensible about this.
What has been the benefit to Disney over the years—other than obviously the millions and millions of dollars—of having this annual pass program?
It was launched in 1984 and at that time, other than the peak seasons—the summer and holiday weeks—it was dead a lot of the year. And so this was a way to recognize that, with the people who lived in the vicinity, you could get attendance in the park in times of the year when you ordinarily wouldn’t have it. And so that was a huge benefit to get people buying the food and buying the merchandise and coming into the parks on a Wednesday in September. You have your locals, and then as their identity began to revolve around this community and this culture, they kept raising the prices and raising the prices. When it was launched in 1984, an annual pass cost $65. So, that’s a tidy increase in the profitability. There was no level they could raise the price to [where] people wouldn’t keep buying it.
Tell me about a person you’ve met in your reporting who’s a real annual pass superfan who is really going to miss this as part of their life.
The person that comes most immediately to mind is Jeff Reitz. When I started writing the book, he had gone to the park a thousand days in a row. And at the time that the park closed, he was nearing 3,000. This is someone that went literally every day. After work, or on the weekend, for just a little bit of time to get his fix. So that’s clearly somebody who is like, that’s a radical change. Now, when I spoke to him in April, he said, “Well, probably I wasn’t going to ever stop this on my own, so it was probably good to stop. Even when the park reopens, I might not now go every day.” So maybe, by the time the park reopens without annual passes, he’ll have had a chance to decompress a little.
Update, Jan. 18, 2021: This piece was updated to clarify the interviewee’s reference to the entirety of Disney’s California park complex.