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Disneyland Cancels Annual Pass Program, Destroys Post-Pandemic Hope For Hardcore Fans

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Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland, California. (Chava Sanchez/ LAist)
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Disneyland may still be "the Happiest Place on Earth," but the park created some sad fans Thursday when they announced the end of their annual pass program.

The park has been shut down since March thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. This announcment means the most hardcore Disney fans -- those with passes letting them go all-year long (outside of blackout dates) -- no longer have a post-COVID treat to look forward to. That hope now joins Captain EO and the Country Bear Jamboree in Theme Park Heaven.

Why end the passes? Park officials blame the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic, as well as limitations around the reopening of their California theme parks, according to a statement from Disneyland Resort President Ken Potrock. Disneyland has pushed hard to reopen, putting pressure on Gov. Gavin Newsom in a dispute that led to former Disney CEO Bob Iger quitting the governor's COVID-19 economic recovery task force. The state has refused to allow Disneyland to reopen until COVID-19 spread is significantly reduced.

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If you hold a pass that has been on hold since the beginning of the pandemic, Disney says you will be sent a refund. Details on the plans for current passholders are available here.

The announcement left fans on social media -- particularly annual passholders -- distraught. If they were in a Disney cartoon, either steam would be coming out of their ears or water would be squirting out as distinct teardrops in every direction, possibly creating a puddle around them. It seems like Disney may have anticipated the reaction, given that they've turned off replies to the tweet including the announcement.

It's also potentially a countermeasure for the reality that a lot of people are going to want to go to Disneyland when it reopens. So until that appetite is satisfied, accommodating annual passholders -- especially locals who come to the park on a regular basis and are less likely to buy as much Disney merch as possible than visitors from farther away -- may not be Disney's top priority. Disney World, with the greater capacity of its East Coast parks, has not announced a similar move.

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DISNEY ANNUAL PASSES' FUTURE RETURN?

However, there is a hint of the future: the park is developing some sort of new membership offerings, which Disney says "will utilize consumer insights to deliver choice, flexibility and value for our biggest fans." It sounds an awful lot like the Flex Passport the company launched in 2019, which let passholders reserve specific days. Of course, that's not the same as the ability to just go at a whim, if an annual passholder just felt like spending an evening or random unexpected free day at the parks.

In recent years, Disney has been looking at ways to bring in more dollars from parkgoers, with different prices for tickets on different days, based on demand. Pushing their biggest fans to schedule time at the parks could be another way for them to continue to dynamically adjust to crowds, something the California parks have struggled to do. They don't want to have to turn people away at the gate, as they've had to do on occasion in the past.

Whatever the new version of their membership program holds, it won't be the same as the traditional annual pass program, which the company described as "sunsetting." And the new passes aren't expected to be available until Disneyland is back to operating at full capacity, so don't expect answers on that even when the park is able to reopen during the pandemic with limited capacity.

"I know that sunsetting the Annual Passport program will be disappointing to many of our Passholders who are just as anxious as we are to reopen our gates and welcome Guests back when the time is right," Disneyland Resort's president said in a letter to passholders.

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It might be cold comfort, but Disney passholders who were members as of March 14 will still get something. Well, if they buy something. They'll still be able to receive discounts on food, beverages, and merch until the new membership offerings are announced.

While Disneyland seems unlikely to be reopening to the public anytime soon, the park isn't empty -- it's been turned into the first mass vaccination site in Orange County, with eligible residents already lining up to get their shots. With all those lines, it's almost like Disneyland really is open again.