Disney World's $89 Trick Is Brilliant but Scary

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The summer travel season is in full swing, and Disney World is giving holders of some of its more economical annual passes a new way to buy into the fun. Disney (NYSE: DIS) rolled out Summer Add-On earlier this week, giving owners of annual passes with blackout dates access to three of its four parks through Aug. 9 for a flat rate of $89.

Holders of Disney World's Silver, Weekday Select, and the new Theme Park Select annual passes don't have access to the Florida theme parks during the next few seasonally potent weeks, making this a compelling purchase for those longing to put up with the heat, afternoon thunderstorms, and peak crowds to satisfy a theme park fix. The Summer Add-On price is less than a single-day pass. However, one also has to start wondering why Disney is getting so promotional during the time of year when it's typically slammed with tourists. Is the historically meaty summer quarter -- Disney's fiscal fourth quarter -- coming in a bit lighter than management was expecting? Is all of the attention that Disney's Hollywood Studios is generating since the debut of Toy Story Land two weeks ago coming at the expense of the resort's other gated attractions? There's a story behind every promotion.

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Art of the deal

Disney treated Silver and Weekday Select pass holders by lifting the June restricted dates through June 29 at no cost. The logic was sound. Toy Story Land opening later in the summer season than the prior year's Pandora -- The World of Avatar expansion that debuted over Memorial Day weekend last year was likely going to push family vacations later into the summer in 2018. However, now that we're thigh deep into the telltale travel period, one should be surprised that Disney's trying to get more locals into its parks.

Disney's Hollywood Studios is not included in the new Summer Add-On promotion, and that does make sense. We saw how crowds gravitated to Disney's Animal Kingdom once its Avatar-themed expansion opened, siphoning off traffic to the three other theme parks. Disney doesn't publish individual theme park attendance figures, but industry watcher Themed Entertainment Association estimates that Disney's Animal Kingdom experienced a 15.3% surge in attendance last year -- a sharp contrast to the flattish turnstile clicks growth at Disney World's other offerings.

Disney has spent the past three years rolling out demand-based pricing for its parks just as it's been doing at its resort hotels for years. Most Disney World annual passes now have blackout dates, including the new Theme Park Select option that restricts usage to the Magic Kingdom on Saturdays, EPCOT during Food & Wine Festival weekends, and other holiday blocks. Disney has the best information to make these decisions. It's the one that knows how advance bookings are running across all of its hotels. However, social media is filling up with anecdotal stories of Disney parks surprisingly being less crowded than they have been in previous summers. The new Summer Add-On option suggests that anticipated crowd levels in the coming weeks may be something south of robust.

This doesn't have to end badly for Disney investors. Admission prices, in-park spending, and resort fees continue to inch higher, so Disney can still grow its theme park revenue and operating profit without an uptick in guest counts. However, every promotion at Disney tells a story, and offers a up a performance clue.

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Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.