Visit Disney park for free on your birthday in 2009
Next year, everyone will be able to visit a Walt Disney World theme park on his or her birthday and get in free.
That's the cornerstone of the 2009 national promotional campaign — "What will you celebrate?" — announced Thursday by Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. Anyone showing up with a valid ID including proof of birth date will get a free ticket on that date in 2009 for one of the theme parks at Disney World or at Disneyland in California.
Disney officials said the promotion is designed to cash in on what they describe as a growing trend called "celebration vacations" — trips organized by families and others to mark milestone birthdays and anniversaries, honeymoons and other momentous personal occasions. The campaign succeeds Disney's two-year "Year of a Million Dreams" promotion, which ends Dec. 31.
Disney World already attracts a lot of celebration vacations, according to a marketing survey that Disney cited Thursday. But until now, the company has never put together a unified marketing campaign to attract such celebrations on a large scale.
A free birthday ticket amounts to a $75 discount, which might seem insignificant in a family vacation budget that might run several thousand dollars or more. But Disney said the goal is to get more people thinking about their celebrations as much as it is about the free tickets, in hopes of enticing more vacationers to bring their big birthday parties to Disney World.
This personal-celebration theme will be omnipresent at Disney World next year, reflected in everything from buttons to banners to the parks' entertainment. Disney is expanding its offerings of celebration-oriented packages, which involve the resorts' hotels, bars, restaurants and merchandise shops.
"From the moment you arrive in the resort, we will use the buzz line 'celebrate today' in all our theming," said Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. The promotion also gives Disney something to help keep the turnstiles spinning even if the teetering national economy starts dragging down the theme-park business.
Easy lure for locals
While Disney's announcement in New York on Thursday talked of attracting "celebration vacations" from all over the world, local residents may be most easily lured by the offer of a free Disney World admission. Potentially, millions of Floridians usually not eager to spend $75 to visit a Disney theme park might consider a day trip for a free birthday treat. The same could be true for Southern Californians and Disneyland.
"We hope they'll take the opportunity," Rasulo said, adding, "The flip side of that is, nobody celebrates their birthday by themselves."
Other theme-park companies have offered a variety of ticket giveaways in recent years. Universal Orlando, for example, has offered free tickets to limited numbers of local residents through direct-mail promotions, and it once ran a promotion offering free tickets to young children. SeaWorld Orlando and some other Busch Entertainment Corp. parks have offered free tickets for several years to teachers and members of the military. Disney, however, has not been known for widespread ticket giveaways; Rasulo said he could not recall any similar previous campaigns.
Disney wants an even larger share of the celebration-vacation business for a good reason: Such vacations typically are more lucrative than ordinary ones, said Peter C. Yesawich, chairman of Ypartnership, an Orlando-based marketing company that specializes in travel and tourism.
People on vacations tied to a special occasion — a 40th birthday, a 25th wedding anniversary, a honeymoon, a bar mitzvah — tend to splurge more than ordinary visitors, according to the Ypartnership survey. It showed such vacationers often spend more, have more people in their party, stay longer, shell out for more shows and special dinners, and buy more souvenirs than people on routine vacations.
"People sensed that, but this is the first time it has really been quantified," Yesawich said.
Success in eateries, hotels
Birthday promotions are an old and usually successful deal for restaurants and other eateries, from Baskin-Robbins to Macaroni Grill, as well as for some hotel chains, and research shows that the total bill can make up for the giveaway, said Ady Milman, a professor in the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
For Disney, such a promotion can also help build stronger ties with the Central Florida market, giving locals some Disney cheer during hard times, Milman said. It also allows Disney to collect marketing information that could prove valuable later. Finally, Disney's non-park assets, especially its hotels, should also benefit, he said.
Consultant Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, called the idea "brilliant."
"Why hasn't anybody done this before?" he said. "I don't know of anyone that has done celebration vacations like this."