The "Give a Day, Get a Disney Day" program will provide certified volunteers with a one-day ticket to any park at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., or Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., in 2010.
Disney is partnering with HandsOn Network, a clearinghouse for volunteer opportunities, to connect people with projects and to certify that the work was done.
"We are trying to inspire 1 million people to volunteer in their communities and we're inspiring them to do that by giving them a free day at a Disney park," Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.
Rasulo called the promotion "very timely," citing the increased needs of nonprofits in the weak economy, as well as President Obama's national volunteering initiative.
"The spirit of our country is very much behind that, whether it's the first family or whether it's the average family," Rasulo said.
Duncan Dickson, who teaches theme park management at the University of Central Florida's Rosen School of Hospitality Management in Orlando, said the volunteer initiative is "a smart marketing move."
Dickson said Disney will get good buzz for encouraging volunteerism plus free publicity from the nonprofits that benefit. And even when theme parks let people in for free, they make their money back in other ways, Dickson said.
"You make a lot of money in popcorn and T-shirts and other things," Dickson said.
Some guests who come in for free would have bought tickets anyway, but the free offer will also bring in visitors who wouldn't otherwise have made the trip, and they'll bring paying guests with them, Dickson added. "Anything that pushes the turnstiles is good for business," Dickson said.
HandsOn Network has 70,000 affiliated agencies, from Habitat for Humanity to local food banks, churches, health care centers, and educational programs. Once their service is verified by HandsOn, volunteers print out an online certificate that can be redeemed at a Disney park.
The free admission offer is part of a larger trend in the tourism industry, using everything from free hotel nights to two-for-one discounts to attract visitors in the weak economy. Disneyland this year offered two free nights with the purchase of three nights at a Disney resort, and all the U.S. Disney parks have allowed guests in free on their birthdays this year.
Rasulo said that 3.5 million people registered for the birthday promotion and about 30 percent of them have taken advantage of it so far.
Disney kicked the volunteer promotion off Tuesday by sending 1,000 volunteers, including employees from Disney and Southwest Airlines, to work on projects around the country, from a Habitat for Humanity site in Los Angeles to the Bethune School of Excellence in Chicago.
Would-be volunteers must register online with Disney and must be residents of the U.S., Canada or Puerto Rico to be eligible for the free admission. The work must be performed in 2010, and the park visit must take place by Dec. 15, 2010. Participants must be 18 or older to sign up for the program, but volunteer work done by children ages 6-17 qualifies for a free ticket as long as kids are accompanied by an adult when volunteering. Unused admission certificates can be donated to a charity designated by Disney.
Examples of volunteer opportunities currently listed on HandsOn's Web site range from drivers and bingo callers to a book drive organizer at a senior center in Scranton, Pa., to a docent at the Oregon Maritime Museum in Portland.
Volunteers who have multiday tickets or annual passes can get a special FASTPASS for up to six people in lieu of the voucher.
Financial analysts who follow Disney said there was no downside to the promotion. "It's a nice thing, it's a very socially responsible thing," said Michael Nathanson of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York.
"I don't look at this as a tremendous cost for Disney," said Alan Gould of Natixis Bleichroeder Inc. in New York. "It could stimulate some incremental demand as well. It certainly is good publicity and economically it could make sense."