|By Jason Garcia, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 25, 2012 -Walt Disney World plans to reduce the amount of extra time it gives hotel guests in its theme parks, scaling back a popular perk designed to entice travelers into choosing resort-owned hotels over cheaper, off-property competitors.
Disney on Tuesday would not say why it is cutting back on the extended hours, which the resort markets to travelers as "Extra Magic Hours." A spokeswoman would say only that "we regularly evaluate and adjust our offerings based on a variety of factors."
The decision, revealed when Disney published early 2013 operational calendars online late last week, has inflamed some of the company's ardent fans, who have labeled it a crass cost-cutting maneuver.
Investors have been pressuring Walt Disney Co.managers to boost profit margins in their theme parks. Closing parks an hour earlier some nights would help shave operating costs.
"This cut is part of a larger trend at Walt Disney World where guests are paying more and receiving less," said Tom Bricker, a lawyer who runs a website called DisneyTouristBlog.com. "These little things do add up, especially given the reputation of Walt Disney World is predicated upon delivering an overall theme-park experience superior to that of its competitors."
Under the Extra Magic Hours program, one of Disney World's four theme parks either opens early or closes late each day solely for guests in Disney-owned hotels. The goal is to give hotel guests a chance to experience the parks with lighter crowds and shorter lines, which are a chronic source of guest complaints.
It's one of the chief incentives Disney markets to potential hotel guests, along with the Disney's Magical Express airport shuttle-and-luggage service.
When Disney opens a park early for hotel guests, it does so one hour before the park's regular opening. And when it keeps a park open late, it had been doing so for three hours after the park was closed to others.
Beginning in January, however, evening Extra Magic Hours will include only an extra two hours after closing. The reduced hours will continue in February.
Disney said Tuesday it has not decided whether the change will be permanent, though the resort this week updated the portion of its website that explains Extra Magic Hours to potential travelers, to reflect the reduced hours.
It's not Disney's first extended-hours cutback. The resort last summer stopped running its famed monorail -- which serves both the Magic Kingdom and Epcot theme parks -- during Extra Magic Hours, a move resort officials said was designed to ensure more maintenance time for the trains but which some others suspect was primarily designed to cut costs.
Disney doesn't keep a theme park open late every night. Evening Extra Magic Hours range from a minimum of three nights a week to as many as six nights during peak periods.
The third hour of Extra Magic Hours -- which can sometimes run as late as 3 in the morning -- is the least crowded, making it the least cost-effective hour for Disney to operate. But that also makes it the most valuable hour for the guests who do take advantage of it.
Disney notes that it routinely adjusts theme-park hours on the fly, extending them if crowds warrant it.
Some Disney watchers said the move might not be about saving money. R.A. Pedersen, author of "The Epcot Explorer's Encyclopedia," said Disney may want to reduce hotel-only hours to increase regular hours and boost capacity for all guests.
Disney this fall will open much of its $425 million Fantasyland expansion in the Magic Kingdom, which should draw increased crowds to that already-packed park. And sometime in the fall or early 2013, it might roll out a new ride-reservation system -- a key piece of its $1 billion "Next Generation Experience" project -- in which hotel guests may be able to reserve ride times far in advance of their trips, potentially driving up standby wait times for other guests.
"They need the operational hours for non-resort day guests," Pedersen said.
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