More than for creativity, more than for "magic" and "dreams," the modern Disney Parks brand has built a reputation for cash grabs.
The way Disney regularly hikes prices far past the rate of inflation, despite well-documented maintenance and investment woes, is by now commonly accepted by vacationers. For many, soaring prices have become what Disney of the 2020s is most famous for, and that's probably why the straight-talking Frommer's guidebook on Disney sells so well.
Increasingly, social media complaints are accusing the company of scamming customers with a line reservations system that worsens the very problem it purports to solve.
For background—and if you know Disney well, you can skip this paragraph—the most popular Disney Parks attractions offer two lines. One is the "Standby Line," and it's what you'd think of as the "normal" line. You join, you wait for approximately the length of the posted time, and then you ride. A second line, Lightning Lane, is advertised by Disney as faster than the other. The speedier line used to be complimentary and called FastPass; now the only way to use it is to pay Disney another $18–$35 per person per day.
More and more, posts on social media present evidence that Disney's Lightning Lane program has become so oversubscribed and/or poorly managed that the Lightning Lane queues are often many times longer than the free Standby queues.
On one social media site, user @TheNobleWays documented just how many Lightning Lane guests were being admitted to one ride, Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway, compared to guests who decided not to slip Disney the extra cash.
The video shows continuous footage of a Disney crew member at what's called a merge point—the spot where an attraction's two line types, paid Lightning Lane and free Standby, come together and staff decides how many people in each queue to admit to the final leg of the line.
The video's owner counts as no fewer than 100 Lightning Lane guests are allowed to speed through the merge point while nonpaying guests have to wait. A hundred!
Then the clip counts off how many Standby guests are allowed in before that line is cut off to admit more Lightning Lane guests. Only 15 Standby customers are allowed through at a time.
The video suggests that Disney's line system is now so heavily weighted toward the up-charged option that 100 fee-paying guests are moved through the merge point for every 15 non-fee-paying guests.
That's terrible math for consumers. If you don't pay Disney more for Lightning Lane at this attraction, you could be passed over 85% of the time.
But there's a bigger problem. If Disney is overselling Lightning Lane to such a degree that a majority of visitors are now paying for the service, then, numerically speaking, Disney has turned Lightning Lane into the busiest, de facto main queue.
If that's true, then Disney has tricked customers into paying another $30 a day just to wait in the main lines—something guests could once do for free.
That's pretty scammy.
Disney doesn't release how many people are allowed to purchase Lightning Lane access each day. The company also doesn't release the formulas used to determine how many paid Lightning Lane guests are admitted at a time compared to free Standby guests. (Materials provided to the media for reference don't even explain the details of how Lightning Lane works—journalists like me have been forced to figure it out by trial and error instead.)
Still, we do know that on some days the parks have announced that Genie+ has sold out. Since Genie+ grants Lightning Lane availability, when Genie+ sells out, the parks abruptly end the day's Lightning Lane sales—a sure sign that the system is over capacity.
Because so many Disney guests are paying for "faster" lines, those purchases actually ensure that the "fast" line is as busy as the old-fashioned free line used to be. The longest line could be the paid one.
If most of those Lightning Lane customers agreed not to give Disney the extra $35 per person every day, then the Standby Line would actually be the much swifter choice.
While there are occasions when Lightning Lane truly does save guests time, it's not hard to find scathing documentation of unflattering horror stories online.
Plenty of posts from eyewitnesses back up the claims of colossal mathematical issues with oversubscription to the Lightning Lane program at both Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland Resort in California.
If an attraction has to close down for any length of time during operating hours—something that can happen multiple times a day on the biggest rides—then the customers who had planned to use Lightning Lane during that period invariably come swarming back as soon as the ride has reopened.
But when the Lightning Lane swells, Disney staffers are forced to limit the number of Standby customers at the merge point even more strictly in order to clear the crowds. And that makes the regular wait time inflate even higher.
Disney doesn't promise customers that Lightning Lane lines are shorter, but the parks do tell guests that buying Lightning Lane access helps "save time in line." That's technically true, but waiting for free is now slower because of Lightning Lane.
When Standby wait times stretch to those lengths, more guests cave and pay for Lightning Lane, deepening the spiral.
Disney has created a situation in which ride breakdowns can actually make the parks more money. The more rides shut down, the more Standby wait times go up, and the more people purchase Lightning Lane, thinking it will solve their need for speed.
Will Disney do the honorable thing and halt or dramatically curtail sales of Lightning Lane? That's highly unlikely. The company needs money, and the parks division is one of the only parts of the company that's rolling in cash, thanks to unquestioning vacationers.
Per-guest spending has shot up by more than 20% in the past two years, and Genie+ (which visitors must purchase to access most Lightning Lanes) is a huge part of that revenue.
There's no question: The Disney of the 2020s is a much more venal entity than the customer-first boutique empire that Walt grew.
It's pretty obvious that Disney's Lightning Lane cash grab idea is broken. It hustles families into paying hundreds extra to do something that used to cost nothing.
And every time a customer decides to pay into the system, the problem only gets worse.
If everyone abandoned Lightning Lane, then the Standby line would move faster than anything else.
Until then, Disney guests are pouring funds into the company's pockets for something they should—and could—have for free.