"They keep taking away our perks. Disney doesn't care about DVC members!"
It's a familiar refrain among members whenever adjustments to the Disney Vacation Club owner perks are brought to light. But are the perks really getting worse or merely evolving over time?
To compare, let's examine the list of member perks from four specific points in time. Materials listing the perks were previously updated on a quarterly and semi-annual basis. These four periods, spread over the last decade, will serve as our basis for comparison:
- January through March 2007 (henceforth referred to as 2007)
- July through December 2009 (2009)
- July through December 2012 (2012)
- January through December 2016 (2016)
For simplicity sake, we will limit our analysis to perks offered at Walt Disney World shops, restaurants and theme parks. Disneyland benefits have remained largely unchanged over the years with member saving 10% at nearly every gift shop and restaurant, along with a modest $20 savings on Annual Pass purchases. Additionally, perks at Disney's Hilton Head Island Resort and Disney's Vero Beach Resort have not evolved dramatically over the years.
Walt Disney World dining can be easily divided into three categories: theme park locations, resort locations and Disney Springs (Downtown Disney) locations. Discount amounts are typically in the 10-20% range, with some locations offering a reduction for only specific meals (i.e. savings at lunch but not breakfast or dinner.)
|THEME PARK DINING|
The list of discounted theme park restaurants has never been extensive, but today the numbers are as high as they have ever been. Some of the locations have been staples dating back to at least 2007--Les Chefs de France, Restaurant Marrakesh, San Angel Inn Restaurante and Hollywood & Vine have offered member savings for at least a decade. Other locations like Tony's Town Square and the Rose & Crown Dining Room have come and gone. Overall the list is steadily increasing, with recent additions being The Hollywood Brown Derby, Via Napoli and Biergarden Restaurant.
The resort restaurant discount list has remained relatively stable over the years. Generally speaking, all mid-priced Table Service restaurants at DVC resorts offer discounts, along with a handful of signature locations. ESPN Club, Olivia's Cafe and The Turf Club Bar and Grill have long been discounted. Back in 2007, members could save 20% on the late showing at Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue and 10% on dinner at Cape May Cafe. By 2009 those discounts were gone. Locations added over the years include Artist Point, Boma, Jiko and Flying Fish Cafe.
|DISNEY SPRINGS DINING|
The explosive development at Disney Springs has not quite hit the DVC discount list yet. Recent additions include The Boathouse and Morimoto Asia. Planet Hollywood and Fulton's Crab House dropped off the 2016 list, likely due to their refurbishment closures. Meanwhile many crowd pleasers like T-Rex Cafe, Rainforest Cafe and Earl of Sandwich offer savings to owners.
Overall, the dining discounts offered to DVC members have clearly grown over the years. Specific subtractions like Tony's Town Square or Cape May Cafe may disappoint individual owners, but equally high-profile locations have been added while the list has steadily expanded.
Also of note is the fact that Disney Vacation Club owners gained access to the Tables in Wonderland dining discount card starting in 2012. This program gives participants a 20% discount at a much more extensive list of restaurants for a yearly fee of $150. The high price renders Tables in Wonderland as questionable value for many owners; owners must spend a minimum of $750 on eligible meals before they will reap and savings. Still, the TIW card must be deemed a member perk since it is not available to the general public.
The list of vendors offering discounts to DVC owners has never been particularly impressive. Most are third-party vendors in Epcot and Disney Springs. Places like Rainforest Cafe and T-Rex offer 15% savings on some shop items (with exclusions.) Basin, Curl by Sammy Duvall and Arribas Brothers offer modest reductions.
The real game-changer came in October 2012 when Disney Vacation Club introduced an across-the-board 10% merchandise discount at all Disney-owned shops at Walt Disney World. Every location from MouseGear to World of Disney to resort gift shops would discount merchandise by 10% with no minimum purchase.
Members can also save 10% on DisneyStore.com purchases, but the discount only applies to DVC member merchandise. There was a time when owners received a 10% discount on all online and in-store purchases at The Disney Store. However that perk was eliminated sometime in the early '00s. This shopping perk was reintroduced many years later in its present form.
Recreation is another area where little has changed--with two exceptions.
Largely unchanged are the discounts on most theme park tours, watersports and children's activity center fees. Theme park tour discounts have been fixed at 15% for as long as we can recall. Other incentives have seen modest increases over the years. As of 2012, the discount at the children's activity centers rose from 10% to 15%. The watersports discount at most Disney marinas (not including Sammy Duvall's) went up from 10% to 15% around 2016. Bicycle rental savings have also risen from 10% to the current 15%.
Discounts on spa services have lingered in the 10-20% range over the years, sometimes applying to all services and other times just a limited selection. For many years, DVC owners have been able to save 15% on mini-golf at Walt Disney World and $3-4 off the price of single-day admission to the Disney waterparks.
The major areas of change involve two things: golf and pool hopping.
Back in 2007, Disney Vacation Club offered a yearly "golf membership." Similar to the Tables in Wonderland concept, for a one-time fee of $50, members could enjoy a full year of savings on unlimited rounds of golf. During value season, fees dropped as low as $35 for rounds played after 10:00am at any of the Disney golf courses. The annual membership also entitled DVC owners to free club storage, cleaning & transfer service.
Fast forward to 2016. Disney's golf courses are now managed by Arnold Palmer Golf Management and the DVC discount card is a thing of the past. According to the latest Portable Perks, members are entitled to save "up to 35% off" the resort guest rate. We do not have any golf experts on the staff here at DVCNews, but feedback we have received from owners over the years indicates that this discount is not nearly as attractive as the annual golf membership once was.
Polynesian Oasis Pool
Another area of decline is the pool hopping perk. As of 2007, the only destinations excluded were the pools at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge and Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts; only guests staying at those resorts could make use of the swimming facilities. By 2016, four additional resorts have been added to the exclusion list. In fairness, two of those destinations did not exist back in 2007: Bay Cove Pool at Bay Lake Tower and Disney's Art of Animation Resort. The pools at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort were excluded following the extensive 2014/15 renovation projects. More recently, pool hopping to Disney's Wilderness Lodge has been restricted. It remains to be seen if the Wilderness Lodge move lasts only during its current renovations or if the ban is made permanent.
Presently DVC owners are still eligible to pool hop to no less than thirteen Walt Disney World resorts.
For many years, one of the more high profile member perks was complimentary valet parking. Rather than trudging to-and-from the self parking lots at Disney Vacation Club resorts, owners could hand their keys to a parking attendant and let them handle the rest. A gratuity was expected, of course, but with valet fees of $12 per day back in 2009, it was a nice luxury afforded to members.
Around 2008, Disney outsourced valet parking services at its resorts. No longer were the parking attendants Disney Cast Members, rather the service was provided by a separate company.
For about a year, the new vendor kept the free parking services in place. But on October 11, 2009 the popular member benefit was abruptly discontinued.
Months later, former DVC President Jim Lewis was surprisingly transparent about the move, stating that they had conversations with the vendor about coming to some sort of new arrangement. Among the options considered was subsidizing valet parking services in owner dues; DVC would agree to pay some stipend to the valet parking agency in return for "free" services rendered to owners. This plan would have effectively resulted in all owners sharing the cost of valet services via their annual dues. Given the rise in popularity of the Disney's Magical Express transportation service, DVC ultimately decided against any subsidization of parking services, shifting the costs to only those owners who wish to pay for valet parking.
Let's go back a little further to discuss DVC theme park ticket discounts.
In the early 90s when Disney Vacation Club was still an unproven concept, DVC offered free theme park passes as a purchase incentive. Early buyers at Disney's Old Key West Resort were guaranteed complimentary admission to the (at the time) three theme parks for 1/2 the total occupancy of their reserved villa--members booking a Studio or One Bedroom would get 2 free passes, Two Bedroom occupants 4 tickets and Grand Villa guests 6 tickets.
This was not a "member perk" in the traditional sense, rather it was a sales incentive contractually guaranteed at the time of purchase. The free tickets also had a stated end date of December 31, 1999. The incentive ended around 1994 or 1995. Buyers who purchased during the incentive offering received their passes through 1999 while those who purchased after it ended received no complimentary tickets.
In the early '00s, the only theme park ticket discount offered was 10% off Disney's Length of Stay passes. This discount offered very little value to members because of the way it was implemented. At the time, Disney offered advance purchase discounts on its park tickets, meaning guests would pay less if they bought their tickets before arriving at the resort. However, the modest 10% DVC discount was ONLY available when buying tickets at the resort. Effectively members were blocked from the pre-arrival discounts if they wished to use their 10% reduction.
In 2005, DVC members finally gained access to what they truly sought: Annual Pass discounts.
At its most basic level, members could save $100 off the price of an adult Annual Pass and $125 off the Premium Annual Pass which included waterparks and DisneyQuest. In 2007, these discounts saved members nearly 25% off the regular pass prices. The member rate for a standard Annual Pass was only $335 while the Premium pass went for $434.
For many years, the $100/$125 discounts stayed relatively unchanged. However, the rapidly increasing base prices of those passes meant that members were no longer saving 25% on the admission media. By 2012, Annual Pass prices had risen to $519 including tax. The member rate of $424 was only 18% off the non-member price.
In 2015, Disney revamped its Annual Pass program, again raising fees and introducing a new option for members. Owners can still save $100 off the regular price of the AP and Premium AP--now called the Platinum Pass and Platinum Plus Pass. However a new Gold Pass was introduced. Similar to the standard Annual Pass / Platinum Pass, the Gold pass offers unlimited admission to the four Walt Disney World theme parks, with the addition of approximately four weeks of blockout dates around Christmas and Easter.
The Gold Pass is only available to DVC members and Florida Residents. Its DVC price of $549 is a full $200 less than non-discounted Platinum Pass which does not have the blockout dates.
All three of the passes--Gold, Platinum and Platinum Plus--offer free unlimited downloads from Disney's PhotoPass service, a perk which is separately price at up to $169.
Walt Disney World ticket prices have risen dramatically over the years, but the commitment to offering discounts to DVC owners is undeniable. A member who is able to work around the Christmas and Easter blockout dates of the Gold Pass will save $200--about 27%--off the non-member rate of the Platinum Pass. Bottom line: non-members WILL pay a lot more for Annual Passes to Walt Disney World than DVC members.
DVC has also established a trend of limited-time admission discounts. In 2012 / 2013, members could buy a Premium Annual Pass for just $399, a savings of $300 off the full price. In 2014 members were offered a $199 4-day park pass and a 2016 offer featured a free extra day in the parks plus complimentary waterpark access.
Finally, let's look at special events hosted by Disney Vacation Club for its owners.
The Member Merry Mixers have been a staple for more than a decade now. For 4-5 weeks in November and December, members are invited to a holiday gathering which features complimentary refreshments, entertainment, character greet opportunities and a free Chrismas tree ornament. Originally held outside Epcot's International Gateway--and more recently inside Epcot itself--the Mixers are a popular event around which many owners plan their December vacations.
Member Merry Mixer
Weekly member meetings were popular for many years, but DVC began phasing them out in 2015 with the retirement of "Welcome Home Wednesdays." Most recently held at the BoardWalk's Atlantic Dance Hall, Welcome Home Wednesdays was an 1-2 hour gathering which provided members with free refreshments and an opportunity to win door prizes like beach towels and backpacks. The events often used a game show format to get owners involved. Guest speakers would provide an overview of select member perks (spa services, recreation), or update members on the lastest resort construction projects.
In 2015, DVC began to move away from these modest weekly gatherings and toward more elaborate, less freqent events. Summer 2015 brought the first "Neighborhood Beach Bash" at Disney's Typhoon Lagoon waterpark. Members received complimentary admission to Typhoon Lagoon on four nights, with nearly all attractions running and free refreshments.
Epcot Member Lounge
The Beach Bash returned in 2016, along with new exclusive events at the Magic Kingdom and Disney's Animal Kingdom theme parks.
No events have been announced for 2017 and there is some uncertainty as to Disney's plans beyond the current year. Most of the events taking place in 2016 have been directly tied to the 25th anniversary of Disney Vacation Club.
However, it was recently announced that the weekly Disneyland member gathering is also being discontinued with DVC planning to focus on more "signature events" like the Beach Bash and theme park evenings. A free member-exclusive night at Disney California Adventure park is planned for this November.
DVC has begun hosting regular meals and parties at locations around Walt Disney World, typically themed to holidays like Independence Day and Thanksgiving. While billed as exclusive for owners, these "Membership Magic" events are pay-for-play with no discernable discounts offered to members. As such, they are not worth considering as true member perks. Technically attendance may be limited to just DVC owners, but $70 for an adult meal on Thanksgiving doesn't really strike me as a "perk."
Other exclusive events / locations available to only DVC owners include access to the Bay Lake Tower's Top of the World Lounge and the Epcot member lounge located at the Imagination Pavilion.
So where does that leave us?
Objectively it's difficult to argue that member perks have dimished--at least not to any dramatic degree. Over the last 10 years, the number of locations offering dining discounts has increased, along with owners gaining access to the Tables in Wonderland program. The 10% merchandise discount is superior to anything of its kind prior to 2012. Recreation discounts have increased in some areas (marina rentals, child care) while decreasing in others (golf, pool hopping.) As for tickets, the $100 Annual Pass savings has been relatively constant, with the Gold Pass option and numerous limited time offers being relatively new products.
Subjectively, it probably depends on how you weigh several factors.
My family became DVC owners in 2003. Back then we had no Annual Pass discount, no merchandise discount, no Member Mixers. I'm not a golfer so that perk was of little value. We have pool hopped 2 or 3 times over the years--to destinations which are still on the eligible list. We did attend the weekly member gatherings periodically, while acknowledging their mediocrity. The Beach Bash is a far more worthwhile event, even if only a fraction of members are able to attend each signature gathering.
In my opinion, the perks are better than when we first joined. Not to any spectacular degree, but still a noticeable improvement.
On the other hand, a member who frequently uses valet parking, loves to golf and pool hop may have a very different perspective. An owner who joined in 2012 on the cusp of the $399 Premium Annual Pass may think that ticket discounts are "not as good as they once were."
Personal tastes aside, it seems patently unfair to claim that DVC owners are being neglected. The removal of a cherished restaurant discount is not intended to be a personal affront--it's a reflection of the fact that these perks programs are always evolving. Even if the Cape May Cafe dinner buffet is your favorite meal at Walt Disney World, we can't ignore that its discount was effectively replaced by the likes of Flying Fish and Artist Point.
A limited time ticket discount is designed to be just that: offered for a limited time only. It is unrealistic to expect that 45% annual pass discounts would become the norm.
Typhoon Lagoon Beach Bash
The exclusive nights at theme parks and waterparks are a tremendous value to owners. In the spring of 2016, Disney experiemented with exclusive evenings at the Magic Kingdom at a rate of $149 per person. On that basis, the DVC theme park evenings represent a value of nearly $600 for a family of four. Even owners who have Annual Passes or multi-day tickets should appreciate the capped attendance and free refreshments at these events. It's unfortunate that not all owners can equally enjoy the events given how they are scattered around the calendar, but hopefully DVC will continue to rotate them among numerous dates and seasons so that most can eventually participate.
As owners, we should continue to challenge Disney Vacation Club to develop appealing perks and benefits for its members. But we also should acknowledge the many positive steps that have been taken, particularly in the last 3-4 years.
What is your take on the current state of DVC member perks? Tell us in the comments section!