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BARNHART

How To Enjoy The Best Of Disney+ Without Getting Fleeced

Disney is preparing to hike the price of the streamer’s ad-free tier. Here's one way you can fight back.
  • Photos; Disney+
    Photos; Disney+
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Subscribe to get all his Primetimer reviews.

    Today is Disney+ Day. This may be news to you even if you're a Disney+ subscriber. It certainly crept up on me. The words "Disney+ Day" don't exactly roll off the tongue like "Labor Day" or even "Amazon Prime Day." Compared to Prime Day, Disney+ Day is a low-key affair. A few premieres are scheduled for Disney+ Day, like the live-action Pinocchio with Tom Hanks and new Frozen sing-along editions for the Frozen completist in your family. We have the full rundown here.

    For the millions of families that subscribe to Disney+, however, any potential excitement over Disney+ Day is likely being overshadowed by the news that Disney+ is about to raise its rates — significantly. Two weeks ago, Disney+ rolled out a new pricing schedule that raises the price of Disney+ without ads to $10.99 per month, starting in December. You can keep paying the current rate of $7.99 per month ... but you'll have to watch several minutes' worth of ads every hour.

    On one hand, this is not such a difficult ask to make of anyone who remembers the not too distant past, when we watched TV live with unskippable commercials. We can't bring back the dial tone, but we can introduce our grandchildren to the joys of the TV bathroom break.

    And in fairness, Disney+ and Netflix were the last holdouts among the major streaming platforms in not offering an ad-supported budget tier. Since the end of the lockdown, many households have been looking to cut their streaming bills, shifting their viewing over to free, ad-supported streamers like Tubi, PlutoTV and Amazon's Freevee (formerly IMDb TV). Netflix's announcement that it was going to offer an ad-supported version gave Disney+ the cover to quietly roll out theirs.

    On the other hand, millions of customers bought into Disney+ three years ago, and made it the biggest launch in streaming history, in part because they were promised a huge library of family-friendly titles without commercials. That will now cost an additional $36 a year, at a time when most other streamers are also raising their rates.

    And the other glass slipper hasn't even dropped. Though there's been no announcement yet, I know how this movie ends and spoiler alert, it ends with Disney+ turning into Hulu — and vice versa.

    I know this because of my VPN. I use a VPN on my computer mostly for privacy, but it also offers an app for my smart TV, which I occasionally use when I want to watch shows that aren't available to U.S. viewers. One day by accident, I launched Disney+ with the VPN connected to a server in the UK. I got the UK version of Disney+ and boy, was that a revelation.

    Everywhere else in the world, Disney+ is a combination of Hulu and Disney+. Hulu is called Star in other lands, but there was no mistaking the content: The Dropout and The Great and Only Murders in the Building were all on my home screen, along with all the other R-rated Hulu hits (with Star branding), sitting cheek-to-jowl next to such family fare as Frozen and I Am Groot.

    It's a poorly-kept secret inside the Walt Disney Company, which owns nearly all of Hulu, that sometime, perhaps very soon, Hulu and Disney+ will be combined in the U.S. market as well. The company is already moving that direction. In addition to the new higher-priced ad-free version, Disney announced that customers will be able to buy a Hulu-Disney+-only bundle, with ads and without ESPN+, for just $9.99 per month.

    But the idea of "bundling" Hulu and Disney+ is literally window dressing. It's a pretense Disney doesn't even bother with outside the U.S. Once the backdoor merger is complete in December, Disney will be free to announce that, tra-la, henceforth and forevermore the two services are now one. That'll be ten bucks, please.

    So on this Disney+ Day, the question of the day is: What's a cost-conscious but commercial-addled TV viewer to do? Just pay up and shut up?

    First, give Disney+ its due. It's a great concept well executed, and it's gaining on Netflix for good reason. I'm especially impressed by the quality of the Disney+ nonfiction catalog, which doesn't get as much play in Disney's promotion. The National Geographic features, docuseries like Life Below Zero, ESPN's award-winning catalog of 30 for 30 films, even that goofy Jeff Goldblum show about nothing — all are high-quality, on-brand and hugely entertaining.

    But what if you really, really hate watching ads while streaming? Well, I have a little money-saving tip for you: Keep subscribing to the ad-free tiers — but just subscribe to one of them at a time. Work your way through that streamers' catalog. When you're ready to move on, drop it and subscribe to another one, also at the ad-free level. After all, the streaming hits you've heard about aren't going anywhere. You don't have to fret that She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is going to vanish from Disney+ in the next few months. And you don't have to worry about one of the streamers cracking down on password sharing. You're paying full price! Just not for very long ...

    This tip may not be suited for families with small children, but for anyone who appreciates the rewards of delayed gratification, you can survey all the best of what streaming has to offer, one streamer at a time, for a modest monthly hit to your budget. With Disney+ running an introductory $1.99 first-month offer through Sept. 19, you could get in now for less than a Jefferson note.

    My money-saving tip should work for a long time, because the streamers are nervous. Netflix has seen a drop in subscribers two quarters in a row — that's never happened before. Other streamers are underperforming. As for Disney, its executives spent less time talking about streaming in their recent earnings call than they did bragging about the rebound of their theme parks. In fact, they're introducing a new rewards card to, as one report put it, "extract more revenue" from frequent customers to their parks.

    Disney+ is a great streaming service, possibly the best currently on offer. If you've never subscribed to it before — or if it's been a while — by all means, take up the $1.99 offer and try it out. And then move on. Don't worry. Like Disneyland, it's not going anywhere.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Disney+