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Last week, I accompanied my wife, Julie, a pediatric oncologist, to the Make-A-Wish annual conference at Disney World. Julie is a medical adviser to the organization that grants wishes to kids with critical illnesses. Disney has been a longtime partner and supporter of Make-A-Wish, and family trips to Disney parks are among the most popular wishes.

During the week that Julie attended the conference, I kept up my regular academic work routine (lots of Zooming and emailing) from the hotel room. We stayed in Orlando through the weekend to go to the parks. This was the first time we’d done Disney without our kids.

What did I learn, and what might be applied to higher ed from this Disney World experience?

The big thing that is new and different about going to Disney parks is how the pricing works. When we took the kids to Disney World a few years ago, Disney was using something called FastPass. That FastPass system allowed park goers to prebook select rides, allowing visitors to skip the big lines for a few high-demand rides per day. FastPass required some planning and could only be used to avoid queues for two or three rides, but it was included in the ticket price.

Nobody ever said that a day at a Disney theme park was inexpensive. But at least in the past, almost all visitors paid the same entry price and had a similar experience at the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios.

Today, Disney World pricing is different. Starting in October 2021, Disney introduced two new paid services for all their parks, Genie+ and Lightning Lane. Both are additional charges on top of the cost of getting into the parks. Paying $15 to $20 (price varies by ride and day) for each enhancement allows Disney visitors to skip the standby line to ride popular attractions.

How the system works is highly complicated, requiring careful planning and early morning wake-ups to secure coveted spots and adeptness with the Disney app. The upshot of all this is if you pay roughly $40 per day per person, on top of your $150-ish-per-person park ticket, you can do a few popular Disney rides without waiting in long lines. How long do the lines get for rides such as Avatar Flight of Passage (Animal Kingdom), Guardians of the Galaxy (EPCOT), and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance (EPCOT)? We saw people waiting in lines ranging from one to three hours. (Disney helpfully posts the standby lane wait time.)

The only way to understand what Disney World has become is to think about economic inequality. Disney World is designed to optimize the experience of those that can afford the additional per-person payments.

America’s growing stratification, wealth concentration and the hollowing out of the middle class are almost perfectly replicated and mirrored at Disney World. Families with disposable income enjoy a qualitatively superior experience during a day at Disney World than families stretching to afford all the other costs (travel, lodging, food and park tickets) that come with a day at the Magic Kingdom.

Has higher education traveled a similar stratified road as Disney?

Are test prep courses, paid admissions counselors, legacy preferences and luxury private campus residence halls the Genie+ and Lightning Lane of higher education?

Are there analogous observations to waiting in long lines versus paying the extra money and skipping the queue that we can draw between today’s Disney World and the modern university?

At some point in the past, Disney World positioned itself as the model of the American family vacation. This branding may have been more aspirational than real, as most families likely could never easily afford the vacation experience promised by Disney. Nowadays, I’m not sure that Disney even bothers to market itself to middle-class families.

Disney theme parks are evolving to be playgrounds of the privileged. Universities should be clear in their commitment to design their institutions as anti–Disney Worlds. As places where the experiences of everyone who walks through the gates (physical and digital) are commensurate, equitable and inclusive. And where nobody gets to skip the line.

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