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What’s An E Ticket Ride, And Are They Coming Back to Disney Parks?

The phrase “E Ticket ride” has become ubiquitous amongst fans of the Disney Parks, and indeed of theme parks in general. When we call something an “E Ticket,” people know we’re talking about the newest, biggest, most exciting, most thrilling, and most popular attractions. These are the rides that people run to at rope drop, and for which they’ll stand in a two-hour line.

Credit: Disney

But why do we call them by this name? Wouldn’t the top rides be A Ticket instead of E?

The history of this term, though, has nothing to do with a grade-like rating system, but instead is related to the history of theme park pricing and admissions, beginning with Disneyland‘s opening in 1955. By looking into this history, we may just be able to foresee a return to this long-lost admissions model based on the business decisions being made by today’s operators of the Disney Parks.

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Credit: Disney

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The History of Ticket Books

Today, when we go to a Disney Park, we pay one admission price and that lets us go on any ride we like, however many times we’d like to do so. There are add-ons – like special events, packages that give priority seating for shows, and so forth – but if you wanted to just buy one ticket and ride Space Mountain for an entire day, you can do so.

Space Mountain

Credit: Disney

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When Disneyland first opened in 1955, though, this wasn’t the case (and not just because Space Mountain didn’t exist yet!). Instead of a one-day admission, you would purchase a ticket book with a limited number of lettered tickets that could be used on various attractions, labeled A through E. The last on that list, the “E Ticket attractions,” were the biggest rides, and thus the books came with the fewest number of those tickets.

According to Sam Gennawey, in The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney‘s Dream, this was not just an economic approach but one that impacted Guest psychology and the Park’s overall crowd management:

At the time the ticket book was introduced in October 1955, it was a way to minimize the perception that a visit to Disneyland meant reaching into your pocket all day. However, the unintended consequence was a system that helped guests to organize their day while maximizing the capacity of the park’s assets. By grouping the attractions into value groups, guests had to ration their experiences. They were subtly forced to slow down.

So what happened to move Disney from the individual ticket method to universal admission?

Two words: Six Flags.

Universal Admission Arrives

Though Disneyland may have invented (or at innovated) most things about theme parks, when it comes to the pay-one-price ticketing model, it was Six Flags that led the way. According to David Younger in Theme Park Design & The Art of Themed Entertainment,

Six Flags Over Texas was the first major theme park to utilize POP ticketing, which had the economic advantages of reducing staff costs by making ticket sellers throughout the park and ticket takers at each attraction obsolete, and had the psychological benefit on guests of being of greater perceived value. . . . The system was dramatically successful, with almost all major theme parks switching over to POP over the following decades

Seeing the evolution in the industry, Disney did not resist this changing admissions model. As Sam Gennawey explains,

Starting on June 20, 1981, Disneyland management began to experiment with an “Unlimited Passport” for the general public. . . . The Passport, which cost $10.25, eliminated the need to buy individual attraction tickets. Guests also had the option to purchase a book of eleven tickets for $9.25. The reaction was immediate and positive.

Disney Park Tickets

Credit: Disney

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However, Gennawey continues, the changes this new model wrought weren’t just limited to economic impact:

The test was a winner for Disneyland financially, but its implementation would have a significant and possibly unfortunate impact on the way guests would experience the park in the upcoming years. Disney history Jason Schultz suggested that “a new era was unintentionally born.” He opined, “once all rides became included with the cost of admission, people tended to prioritize the bigger, and more thrilling rides-the ones which until recently had cost more.” While guests spent more time on the marquee attractions, they tended to ignore the smaller attractions that gave the park so much of its character. On June 16, 1982, the last ticket book was sold, leaving only the Unlimited Passport available to guests.

And that’s how things still stand today as far as Disney Parks ticketing goes.

Or is it?

Are E Tickets Returning?

Though by and large the Disney Parks still follow a universal admissions model, the recent addition of Disney Genie, Genie+, and Lightning Lanes – essentially allowing Guests to pay extra to get to the front of the line on some of the most popular attractions – may be moving Disney, at least in part, back to a pay-as-you-go model akin to the original ticket booths.

For egalitarian-minded Guests, and for those who don’t want to shell out extra money on top of an already pricey admissions ticket, this feels like a questionable tactic to gain more revenue. Is this a new ticket book system, except that the E Tickets are now being sold separately?

What’s more, these changes come at the expense of Guests’ experience, ruining the overall cohesive feel of the Parks.

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Credit: DisneyTips

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However, according to Walt Disney Imagineering legend Eddie Sotto, quoted in Younger’s Theme Park Design, this last part might not be true, as the old ticket book system did have its advantages:

Ticket Books gave each attraction a tangible value both to the park management because they could be measured monetarily, and to the guest because they would have to choose their rides carefully. As a kid, going on an E twice was a big deal because that meant it beat out something else. It was all special and a la carte. No burnout. With private party tickets came the notion of the “All You Can Eat” ticket. Wow! “Unlimited use of all rides and attractions.” Very popular with guests and of course the position of ticket taker eventually was eliminated so it appeared that the attraction was unmanned. You own the park! By the time “Passports” were introduced, the shows became less repeatable as you’d ride them several times in a visit. Like too much chocolate, it loses its zest. Edit right to the thrill rides six times. Less special, but now it’s a free buffet, and like buffets, who cares what it tastes like when you get this much! Less motivation for the park to promote uptime and capacity as the rides no longer have a ticket revenue attached as they once did.

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Credit: Disney

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Whether Genie/Genie+/Lightning Lanes are the opening moves in a change to a new kind of ticket book system at the Disney Parks is something that only time will tell (especially given Bob Chapek‘s replacement by Bog Iger), but no matter what happens we can only hope that the decisions come from this kind of design- and experience-focused position rather than from purely economic motivations.

About Andrew Friedenthal