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Old school: the magic of Disney’s E tickets

How does the unlimited model compare to the coupon books that visitors used to purchase on entry?


By Eddie Sotto

Sally Ride NASA

“That was definitely an E ticket!” Gushed astronaut Sally Ride in her describing her experience aboard the Space Shuttle back in 1983.

Back then, most people who had been to Disneyland knew what she was talking about. The park had a value system with its rides ranked A through E, and naturally, the most popular rides were rated E, the highest ticket tier, redeemed for Disney’s most premium experiences.

As a kid, we’d clear our Hot Wheel cars off the bed and make room for the park souvenir map. Then we’d argue over which rides we’d go on as we only had a few of those 85-cent coupons left over from the previous visit. Would it be Space Mountain, the Submarines, or Pirates? First world 1970s problems for sure. Maybe you did the same? We’d plot it all out and invariably forget it all once we got to Disneyland and beg Mom to buy us another E Ticket or two if we ran out.

Today the phrase has faded into obscurity as digital culture has replaced paper coupons (and those who tore them) long ago. “E” now means electronic tickets in devices, the currency of many parks. I have to admit, I miss those ticket books. When looking back, I especially miss them in the face of the way people experience parks today with tiered pricing and scheduling apps.

Just for fun, as a former Disney Imagineer, I reflected on some of the side effects of losing those old-school ticket books and thought you might enjoy it too.

Disney’s E Tickets

In the early days of amusement parks and Disneyland as well, you had ticket booths to take cash and keep it out of the hands of ride operators.

Disney E Tickets

This was a common thing and Disneyland saw the need early on not to just have ticket booths at the gate to the park to sell a day’s worth which gave birth to a book of tickets, but also inside each land and in case a guest ran out, even at the entrances to many rides.

You can imagine how labor intensive this was. And, of course, the inventory required to know how many tickets were sold, collected, and devoted to each attraction was extensive. Disney’s neighbor, Knott’s Berry Farm, later followed suit with books of tickets as did many parks in those days.

Eventually, technology advanced and guests wanted convenience. So, the notion of a passport or pay-one-price admission, including unlimited use of rides, would become an appealing new product. This came to Disneyland with much fanfare in 1982, replacing the beloved Disney E Tickets. All for a whopping $12. Parking back then was only $1 compared to $25 today.  As surprising as it may be, attendance was actually down the following year!

At that time I was a designer at Knott’s Berry Farm, the competitor down the street. Here, I was working with an ex-Disneyland operations director named Jim Haught. He had much to say, lamenting the change to “unlimited use” tickets which Knott’s had also adopted.

“Tickets please”

Jim made an interesting point about the psychological control of the park and the rides under the new passport arrangement. He thought that when the accountants eliminated the ticket taker position, you lost control of the ride itself until loading.

The guests felt empowered as you were no longer screening them for bad behaviours, food or drink. Each show or ride was hosted as they also smiled and welcomed you like an usher at a theater. To him, this was a big loss. They answered questions as to how intense the ride was, watched for height violations, etc.

Walt's original concept Disneyland map expected to fetch $1 million at auction

I imagine many potential complaints or even injuries were mitigated by that interaction at the turnstile, as they were not preoccupied with grouping or loading guests, just meeting them and seeing to their needs. To him, they allowed you to enter their domain and you paid that ticket which was an exchange of value. It put vandals on notice.

He recounted a story where he caught a teen at Knott’s vandalizing a bathroom. Jim asked him why he was doing it and the kid said “he was getting his money’s worth”. I guess that made an impression in that these unlimited use tickets create the impression you want to find a way to quantify the value of what you bought. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet that you gorge yourself on.

Jim also said that unlimited use allowed vandals to learn the rides. It meant they could get out of the vehicles as they got used to the repetitive timing of the shows and thought no one was watching. I found this revelatory and fascinating, coming from someone who was as tuned into the operations as Jim was. All from a ticket!

Redeeming factors

The second impact that tickets had was they gave each attraction a measurable value in the eyes of the operator. Putting a price on each guest carried motivated parks to staff and design for high capacity. It also kept the rides running at peak – each ride could be measured by the ticket revenue and guest utilization.

Any downtime was lost money back then, so don’t keep those guests waiting. Surveys about guest satisfaction proved that it was about how many rides they enjoyed in a day. And it still is today.

Disney E Ticket made into ashtray

Now, with passports, many parks know they can charge full price and give guests unlimited use of less, hoping they won’t complain. Of course, in some cases tickets are back, as guests buy their way onto a ride they have to see at the front of the line, putting the day guest who already paid for that ride into a lesser position. Many love this option but reactions are mixed at best. It begs the question, where is the line drawn?

Parks can design scarcity in or invest in higher capacity attractions. We have seen good examples as well with duplicate tracks, cabins etc. Then there are hidden cuts. For instance, fewer day shift repair crews, allowing the rides to go down more often, or running very few vehicles on slow days. After all, the guest experience has already been paid for.

Can we bring back the E ticket experience?

To me, the habit of closing food facilities early or late, not due to demand but due to shifts, and other cost-saving measures while charging full price for the passport has the biggest impact on the guest experience over issuing tickets. Not to say that during the time tickets ruled the world there was no downtime, cuts and or closures. But the motivation to serve the guest was different.

Walt Disney signed ticket

In any event, there are likely more issues to be discussed about the loss of those tickets. Here at the office, we’re looking at ways to bring them back digitally in a new and far more seamless way. In the meantime, these Disney E Tickets are now collector’s items (especially the ones Walt himself would autograph!) and ashtrays. They fetch far more than the 85 cents they were destined to be torn for.

“Life’s a ride, make yours an E ticket!”

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Eddie Sotto

Eddie Sotto

Eddie Sotto, former SVP of Concept Design at Disney Imagineering now runs SottoStudios, a turn-key entertainment design and experiential R&D firm. He also recently formed the group to address the need for COVID-19 variant screening.

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