Disney World prices keep going up, but is it worth it? Here's why die-hard fans keep going back.

A new crest honoring the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World Resort adorns Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom Park.
Eve Chen
USA TODAY
  • On Magic Kingdom's opening day, Oct. 1, 1971, admission cost $3.50 – about $23.64 nowadays accounting for inflation.
  • "Both of my parents have since passed away, but especially my dad, I remember ... doing all these specific very special things with them that I then got to do with my kids," Melanie Green Merrill said.
  • Stephen Abrams knows many families never have that opportunity. While he commended Disney World for its accessibility for guests with disabilities, he said more needs to be done to make the parks more affordable for all families.

Melanie Green Merrill still remembers skipping down Main Street U.S.A. as a child with her dad at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

"I was fortunate enough – incredibly, incredibly fortunate enough – to start going to Disney in the late '70s with my parents, and immediately we were completely hooked," Merrill, 47, said from Buffalo, New York.

Back then, ticket prices were a lot less than they are now. On Magic Kingdom's opening day, Oct. 1, 1971, admission cost $3.50 – about $23.64 nowadays accounting for inflation. Rides cost extra, but not much more. By Disney World's 25th anniversary in 1996, daily admission was $38.50, according to ALLEars, which has tracked price changes. These days, a one-day park ticket starts at $109 and goes up depending on the time of year.

When annual passes prices were announced in August with a top tier of $1,299, some fans said they'd had enough, but for Merrill and many others who keep going back, Disney World "absolutely is worth it."

►Disney World's 'very merriest':Christmas party will be one of its most expensive yet

►More than a mortgage:How much a Disney Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser hotel stay will cost

Reliving the past

Melanie Green Merrill has been riding the same carousel horse for years at Magic Kingdom, which she affectionately named Cindy.

"Both of my parents have since passed away, but especially my dad, I remember ... doing all these specific very special things with them that I then got to do with my kids," Merrill said.

When she was 4 years old, Merrill rode a horse on Magic Kingdom's carousel that she named Cindy, after "The Brady Bunch" character. Year after year, she came back to the same horse. If someone ahead of her got to Cindy first, Merrill and her dad would step aside and wait another turn.

When she became a mom, she took her daughter back to Cindy.

"Now when we are there, it's going to sound so cheesy, but I feel like they're with us," Merrill said of her late parents.

Liz Dykes, 63, knows just what Merrill means. Her parents, especially her mom, loved Disney World.

"I think a lot of it went back to her childhood stories," Dykes said. "'Snow White' was the first movie she went to ... growing up in the 'Mickey Mouse Club' era, it was something she could share with multiple generations of her family."

Mike and Liz Dykes enjoy the holidays at Epcot. Liz said she and her husband moved to Florida when they retired, partially to be closer to Disney World.

Dykes didn't share that love of the parks initially, visiting for the first time as a teen and again, years later as a young mom. Her daughter wasn't into it either back then.

"So it just seemed like a kind of pricey thing to do when my then-husband was not into it, either," she said. 

She gave it one more try in 2003, when her mom was taking her brother and nephews to the parks.

"My nephew said to me, 'Oh, Aunt Liz, if you came with us, the trip would be perfect.'" and she said she couldn't say no to that. "My mother and I did some things on our own without the little kids and the family, and we actually had a great time."

Going to the parks with her mom became a tradition.

"She always went pretty much first class, so we always ate at nice places," she said. "We really do enjoy the restaurants at Disney World."

They had one more trip together, before her mom passed away. It was the first trip for Dykes' grandson.    

"(Mom) loved watching him see everything for the first time," Dykes recalled. "And he loved showing it to her. We'd be in a parade, and he'd be tapping on her in the wheelchair and pointing to everything."

Making new memories

Stephen Abrams, 51, recalls seeing that same wonder in his eldest son's eyes when he was little.

"He had known every Disney character there was to know," Abrams said. "He's watching Snow White walk by, Cinderella walk by. He's waving to them and calling out their name, and they're waving at him and blowing kisses. I'm in tears watching this because he's so into everything and believes that they are all here, specifically just to see him."

Stephen Abrams hammed it up, trying to remove the Sword in the Stone at Magic Kingdom, which his eldest son did with ease when he was younger.

Abrams said it brought back memories from his own childhood.

"The 5-year-old inside me just remembers the feeling of being at Disney for the first time," he said. "It felt magical. It was just shocking to believe that a place like that actually existed. … I remember seeing the train going through the Contemporary (Resort) and being completely blown away that the monorail was going actually through a building like that and that someone could stay inside."

While Abrams' family continued visiting the parks every handful of years through his childhood, he took a hiatus as an adult until he introduced the park to his son.

He and his husband now have two sons and go back each year. They are even Disney Vacation Club timeshare members.

"Our youngest is autistic," he said. "Disney just became our go-to when we needed to be together as a family and have something to do together that we would all enjoy at the exact same time. You know, going to sit on a beach was not an enjoyable trip for us, but at Disney, we can ride every ride together. We can be in the pool together. We can do everything together."

He said his youngest son lights up at Disney World.

Abrams knows many families never have that opportunity. While he commended Disney World for its accessibility for guests with disabilities, he said more needs to be done to make the parks more affordable for all families.

"Disney belongs to every American, and every American should have the opportunity to go," he said.

Being a kid again

Dino Lourdi proposed in front of Cinderella Castle. She said yes!

Dino Lourdi, 37, of Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, didn't grow up going to Disney World, but he's quickly catching up on a lifetime of memories. 

"I just fell in love with Disney," he said of his first trip, just before the pandemic. "I get to be a kid again."

The newlywed is a big fan of shows like "A Celebration of Festival of the Lion King" and the nightly fireworks, saying "I get goosebumps every time."

He has already been back multiple times with his wife, a fellow Disney fan, who he proposed to in front of Cinderella Castle and married this past March.

Lourdi said her parents told him, "If you propose to her in front of the castle, there's no way she can say no." He also went to Disney World for his bachelor party and honeymoon.

He estimates they spent $3,000 for a recent weekend trip that included tickets with the Park Hopper option and a stay at Disney's Coronado Springs Resort.

For him, an annual pass would actually mean savings. "You can go at any time, no blackout dates with the top tier," he said. "On top of that, you get a lot of discounts on your stays, your souvenirs, on your food."

Paying the price

Liz Dykes of Lake City is eyeing a lower-priced annual pass available only to Florida residents. The cheapest option is $399 and is payable in monthly installments.

"We're retired; we can go on weekdays," she said. She and her husband actually moved from Georgia to Florida after retiring, partly to be closer to Disney World.  

One thing she won't pay for this year is after-hours holiday events at Magic Kingdom. 

"It would have been $900 for five of us for the Halloween party," she said "And it's shorter and there are fewer things. And that's the first thing I've said, 'not worth it.'"

Melanie Green Merrill's parents loved Disney World.

Melanie Green Merrill carefully budgets for her annual trips from Buffalo, but her parents gave her a head start.

"In 1991, they bought into Disney Vacation Club, right when it first started, one of the best financial decisions that they had ever made," she said. "It was so economic, and they basically prepaid for the next 50 years worth of vacations."

Merrill and her husband extended the DVC contract for her kids.

"We knew this is definitely going to be the way that we can keep going because if we were paying resort prices, we would drastically have to cut back," she said. 

►No park ticket? No problem:10 things to do at Walt Disney World outside the parks

Merrill also buys discounted Disney gift cards to use at the parks, when she can find them at warehouse stores like BJ's and Costco.

"Sure it seems like nothing; it's 5% or whatever," she said. "But if you're buying $4,000 worth of gift cards, that's two meals right there that you've just saved. So it's trying to be as savvy as you can."

Dino Lourdi  said everyone does their best to be able to enjoy the parks, which he called "the happiest place on Earth." 

Technically, that's Disneyland’s nickname. Disney World is billed as the "most magical," but for fans who keep going back, the Florida resort is both.

Share your story