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Cracking The Code, And A Year In Review

There’s been a lot of thought lately directed towards the problems facing the Disney theme parks, and how – if possible – they can be resolved. One rather shocking discovery I’ve made, and which I plan on addressing more in the future, is that a tide seems to have turned against Disney on the fan message boards and social media. Fan boards have typically been on the sunny side in the past, happy to accept whatever Disney hands down, but this seems to have changed. Sometimes it seems that folks like myself, who have tended to view the company with a critical eye and were often branded cranks in the past, have become among the least despondent members of fandom.

This has taken me by surprise, and I’ve been at a loss to really explain it. As I’ve said, it’s an odd time to be a critic, with the company willing to spend once more but making dubious choices in the theming of these multi-million dollar expansions. Even more baffling is Walt Disney World, my personal area of greatest interest, which seems to rise and fall on a daily basis; depending on which subject you’re addressing – attractions, entertainment, foods, transportation – you can waver between optimistic and despondent on an hourly basis.

Big new Fantasyland plans? Yay! Decaying Tomorrowland? Boo! Tasty new burgers at Pecos Bill? Yay! Shortened hours and generic chicken nuggets at Columbia Harbour House? Boo! Classy new Town Square Theater? Yay! The hideous Stitch stage blaring Cotton Eye Joe in Tomorrowland? Boo!

It’s hard to keep track. And it’s hard to really chart the progress of the resort when you have snazzy new rockwork going up in Fantasyland but monorails falling apart outside the gates. What is most baffling is that many of us feel that the absolute nadir of the Magic Kingdom is behind us, and the park has seen an overall rise in quality and maintenance over the last few years. While it is far, far from its historical peak, of course, it’s at least better – better than when Under New Management festered in Adventureland, or the Exposition Hall remained empty, or the 20,000 Leagues lagoon sat stagnant and filled with floating garbage. The Magic Kingdom is better off, and the other parks are certainly no worse off than they were five years ago, so why are so many people worried? And why does the future quality of the resort feel like such a dicey proposition?

At last we have a cogent reasoning for exactly why this happens courtesy of Foxx at Passport to Dreams Old and New, who provides a compelling dissection of just how broken the system is at Walt Disney World in the prologue to her annual “report card” for the Magic Kingdom. The reason Walt Disney World’s efforts seem so scattered and fragmented is – surprise! – the resort’s executive and departmental structure is scattered and fragmented. The system is broken, and it will take a wholesale rethinking of the way things are done in Disney’s largest and most prosperous resort to return it to its former level of service and quality.

It is important for fans to realize just how Walt Disney World is structured so they know who is responsible when things go pear-shaped. In many ways it doesn’t matter who is calling the shots at the top; no matter the agenda of Iger, Staggs, or Rasulo, Walt Disney World will continue to botch the important details because of systemic failures.

Basically, Walt Disney World is set up like a feudal kingdom. Every vice president has their own fiefdom, and heaven forfend they all collaborate to create a better, high-quality experience for the guest. Instead they in-fight, stymie each other, seek to secure and consolidate their own power, and generally try to make themselves look better at the expense of everyone else. The company treasury is parceled out amongst these departments, with some better funded than others, which is why Entertainment can blow tens of millions of dollars on a hideous stage in Tomorrowland that is used for less than six months while other departments can’t perform basic maintenance for critical on-stage show elements. It’s why those goofy games that no one ever plays in the Space Mountain queue cost more than the actual show improvements to the ride itself during its 2009 rehab.

It’s because there’s no one in control. There’s no one with the power or the authorial vision to whip these squabbling principalities into line and make them all function as one for the betterment of the entire resort. There’s no one with the brass to spend money on non-revenue elements like the monorail, which don’t bring in cash but make the resort worth visiting. And there’s no one to stick out their neck and make a decision on where the entire ship of state needs to go next. Instead it’s hit-and-miss advances and declines, with victories eked out where some enterprising soul can trick the system into working and stagnation elsewhere as the inertia of mediocrity grinds everything to a halt. The system is rigged to prevent things from happening. It’s rigged to keep those folks who work hard for little pay and no recognition from making real and lasting change; the folks at the top have no idea what’s happening on the ground, and there are a million levels of bureaucracy set up to stifle innovation and improvement.

I compared Walt Disney World to a feudal kingdom, and we have a name for the era during which Europe was ruled by a similar setup – the dark ages. With all the infighting amongst the petty lords, not a whole lot got done at the time, and this might give you a clue as to why management in Orlando can’t figure out a replacement for Pleasure Island, or why simple positive changes can’t be made in the parks on a regular basis.

It does seem slightly insane to proclaim a broken system when I’m the first to argue that the Magic Kingdom has improved in recent years, but as I said while some things have progressed others have regressed, and it’s important for people to know why we’re subjected to hula-hooping on Main Street and Cotton Eye Joe in Tomorrowland. Why the same company who is spending millions on a new Tomorrowland allows a rotting transportation system and a Future World at Epcot that looks like… well, it looks bad.

There are a million different chefs in the kitchen, and some of them are great chefs, some of them are lousy hacks, and some of them are just there to stir the pot until they get a better gig. What Walt Disney World needs is a clear vision, and it would help if the corporate folks in California took a little interest in sorting out these structural problems before they leave the resort to its own devices.

But read Foxx’s post – it makes a lot more sense than this heap of metaphors. I’ve told Foxx we need more of this type of analysis; while Disneyland has had Al Lutz monitoring its every internal move for the last fifteen years, Walt Disney World has no such watchdog with a working knowledge of its own internal dynamics and goings-on. This has been much to our collective detriment, as the Florida resort’s politics and operations differ so greatly from the setup in Anaheim, and unless you’ve seen the system at work it’s hard to understand how it really works. Academically, I knew all the things that Foxx mentions in her article, but I don’t have the working knowledge to be able to find all the connections and to “see the Matrix” – to be able to trace the thread of how some arcane departmental setup leads to specific instances of shabby show.

Knowing how the system works is critical if we’re going to fix it, or even if we simply want to assess who to blame or praise when things go wrong or right. Foxx’s piece is a great place to start. The great news is that talented and enterprising people still exist at Walt Disney World who “get it”, and who share the values that made the resort great. The trick is how to set up a system that empowers them, and that is the message we must get across at both the fan and corporate levels.

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21 comments to Cracking The Code, And A Year In Review

  • Tim

    Very good points indeed. But if the guests keep coming, what’s the incentive for anything to change other than that we the fans want Walt Disney World to succeed artistically and thematically? Haven’t we been talking about how the cost-cutting will start impacting the bottom line for years? Has that happened? It’s hard to tell. You would think the audience, not just the enthusiasts, would have made their displeasure heard through the spending and visitation patterns by now. If they don’t seem to mind there likely isn’t much incentive for management to do things any differently.

    • Well, that’s the rub. I don’t think we can really say we’ve seen major effects on Disney, but they’re certainly viewed much differently today than they used to be. Look at the way they’re seen in fan circles compared to Universal due to the major Potter plans – Disney hyped up a big New Year’s announcement and it was just a silly PR stunt, and Uni trumps them with leaked plans of Potter expansion.

      What really matters, of course, is that they have lost guests to Universal because of Potter. While of course Uni still lags behind WDW, Disney *has* lost market share. It might not be enough to spur sweeping change, but it’s enough that I hope something might click in the minds of the higher-ups and they’ll decide change is in order.

      Your points are sound, though. We can only hope Uni keeps bringing the heat and that lights a fire under Disney to get their ship in order. Without Harry Potter, I fear we’d be stuck with an ever-cheapening Disney experience. But I do have hope that change is possible!

      • Tim

        I hope change is possible as well, but I think we need to examine how much is Disney being thrifty and feudal against how the audience might be changing and/or adjusting what they believe a Disney park to be. Maybe they don’t have to be tonally consistent and original, they just need to be “Disney” enough in terms of familiar characters and movie-based environments to satisfy the majority of guests.

        Do the parks *need* to be successful artistically (the optimal expression of the Imagineers’ abilities to tell stories, create environments, etc. or however you want to definite such a thing) to be successful financially in terms of bringing in crowds and generating revenue? Are theme parks, perhaps more than any other popular medium, just too anchored to the business side of things to be a “pure” art form anymore, at least to our eyes as enthusiasts?

        As much as I might wish for a new wholly original (i.e. not character based) attraction like Pirates of the Caribbean I’m not sure Disney will be able to justify the “gamble” of spending millions on an untested idea. Much like how nearly tent-pole movie coming out of major studios is a sequel, retread, or based on an existing property a new attraction needs to makes its money back, so to speak, with some degree of assurance. I’m not saying I like or endorse this direction, it just seems to be the way of things nowadays. It’s just too risky to try and do another Haunted Mansion without some guarantee of success.

        • I feel if they do things the right way, they’ll be rewarded. It was kind of the thesis upon the company was built. If they shift the parks to become merely kiddie-friendly franchises, they’ll slowly lose the widespread appeal the parks currently have and they’ll evolve into something solely for children. Basically, they’ll become what people THOUGHT they would be in the first place, before Walt proved that the amusement park model could be transcended.

  • Ernest Heinz

    What would Walt Disney do?

  • Be careful of hoping for change…because change is not always improvement (see Stitch vs. Alien Encounter, Grand Fiesta Tour vs. El Rio del Tiempo, the Hat, new Spaceship Earth vs. old Spaceship Earth).

    The idea should not be about changing things, but rather improving them. It is easy to get caught up in rhetoric (hope and change), but the reality is, it is better to expect than to hope, and better to improve than to merely change.

    So with that said, I believe that all of us Disney fans, especially those of us with a voice as visible as yours Michael, need to shift our stance, and instead of saying, ‘I hope they change’…we need to say ‘I expect them to do better’.

    • That’s a VERY GOOD point. Change isn’t always improvement. A lot of time people like me take a hit from the crowd that says “DISNEY ISN’T A MUSEUM CHANGE IS GOOD!” And my response would be yeah, in theory, but not if you’re changing for the WORSE (like changing Wonders of Life into an empty room, changing 20K into a vacant lot, changing Imagination into Imagination 2…).

      So yeah, that’s a very good point. I think, though, that the *system* has to change – the way Disney is set up, and the chain of command – that needs to change. And hopefully it will result in improved outcomes.

  • Thank you, Michael, for your thoughtful analysis. Hopefully, between you and Foxx, the message will get to the right people within the WDW ranks to make meaningful change for the better.

  • RO93461

    It seems like the age old story of urban renewal. The Downtown decays while the suburbs grow with new things. Eventually you go back, but it’s an uphill climb because it’s too far gone. Man would rather figure out how to move to the Moon than fix the Earth. The difficult thing about WDW is that it has sprawled to a size that WDC probably cannot afford to maintain it all. You can only justify spending so much each year (against the other parks and properties). You are now playing catch-up on everything that was deferred while the economy was in the pits and that will be expensive and challenging. WWHP has put them on notice no doubt as it is now impacting the business, so they will do things. Tom Staggs is a smart man and I think you will see some smart moves. Repairing things do not draw crowds, so the money goes first into what can be on a billboard on Interstate 4. To your point, what they do will be the key.

    They need the “Wow”… it covers a multitude of sins.

    • It’s true, but I think you’re right that it’s one of those situations where things laid fallow for so long that it’s an uphill climb to get things to an acceptable baseline. I think that plays out in a lot of ways – everyone is glad about the Fantasyland remodel, for instance, but not many are really *excited* about it. I think that’s a result of the fact that it’s something that needed to be done long, long ago and was just deferred.

      I’ve been saying a lot lately that Disney is in this weird place where they need to focus equally on two completely separate tracks – doing the “meat and potatoes” things like deferred maintenance, repairs, infrastructure, and lower-ticket rides, and also add the WOW-level new things to do battle with Potter.

      They expanded so quickly in the 90s and then let things go to seed for so long that they’re playing catch-up in a big way and, if they want the resort to provide an acceptable level of service, they’re going to have to spend a ton on non-profit-driving areas. Transportation is a big one, but there are a ton of maintenance and infrastructure issues that are post-due for attention.

      And, building something to combat Potter. And, filling in the gaping hole at Downtown Disney.

      They’ve got a lot of work to do, and it’s going to be expensive if they want to do it well. Ignoring it won’t make it go away…

  • I actually do think that Disney is starting to realize that they need to add new attractions to keep up with Universal and other competitors. There was a stretch during the past decade where they seemed to rest on their laurels.

    My issues, which you bring up in this excellent post, are the general upkeep of attractions and facilities, including the monorails. There are classic attractions like Splash Mountain that need basic rehab work, but it’s done on the cheap. Disney needs to realize that making these changes does affect revenue. Visiting a spotless park where everything works, the food is better, and employees are top-notch will lead to future visits. It may not change the revenue of that visit, but it builds more devoted fans. Yes, they’re still getting the crowds, but how visits go today can affect what people plan for 2012, 2013 and beyond. Even the Fantasyland expansion can’t compete with a poor overall experience.

    • Well said! I’ve been talking to people a lot that there’s a general discontent with the fans lately that I’ve never seen before. I think it’s exactly for the reasons you state. I *do* think they’ve realized they need to add big things to compete with Potter, but they still aren’t addressing the big backlog of deferred things that hurt the overall experience.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  • What they really need is a non-Disney employed focus group made up of fans. They need to bring us down to Orlando, and run us through a 6 night stay at 2 different resorts. Take the group, say 60 people. Break them up into groups of 4. The different groups each stay at a deluxe resort for 3 nights, then a value for 3, or vice versa…or, 2 mods for all 6 nights. During the stay, we all make notes on what needs to be done from a fan perspective. A punch list if you will. The problem, at least in part, I feel is that Disney itself is out of touch with what a vacationer actually sees, hears, tastes, smells, feels, and notices when we are there.

    For me, I know that I barely notice things like what merchandise they have stocked the myriad of various plush shops with, but the next guest might have a good deal to say about that. I can say beyond any doubt that I do notice things like lights out on signs, and mildew in ride vehicles, and trash on the streets. I also notice things like cast members ignoring guests, or worse, being rude to guests. I also notice things like Wonders of Life being overtaken with weeds while they give Test Track an un-needed rehab. Or that they added games to lines, or giant photo-op Potato Head robots, that cause people to gawk slack-jawedly while holding up everyone in the line.

    They need a variety of perspectives, from a variety of fans…and then they need to put together a simple punch list, prioritize it, and get to work.

    • YES. Totally agreed. If the execs aren’t even in the park, and don’t experience it like the guest does, these things will never get fixed.

      I will gladly volunteer for the assignment :)

  • Aaron

    It’s boggles the mind to think that a business as vast and complicated as Walt Disney World operates without anyone to look at the big picture. For starters, WDW should have a vision and mission statement that you can repeat in one breath, and every single cast member should know it by heart.

  • Bob

    I think the problem is not necessarily that they’re not spending enough money, but they can’t control the money they are spending. Imagineering spends hundreds of millions of dollars more than their competitors (such as Universal Creative) yet delivers an inferior product. Each shop is ‘competing’ against each other, meaning every shop sells the same merchandise, individually making a profit more but overall losing money (hopefully they are watching the hogshead shops- which people queue to enter!). There is no vision of the resort. Imagineering and management need a top to bottom restructuring and rethinking. There is no easy way out, and poring money into the leaky ship only helps to an extent…
    Excellent blog by the way.

  • While I totally agree with you on a lot of points, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say the maintenance issues aren’t unique to the Disney property out there in Orlando. I’ve often wondered why *all* the parks in Florida look so bad. While it’s true that the Wizarding World still looked amazing on a recent trip, the rest of IOA was a mess. Same with Sea World. My thoughts lean towards the notion that since they make the parks so large, maintenance and general cleanliness sort of fall through the cracks, so to speak; if it isn’t broken, just bad show, why fix it? Most people don’t care.

    I have also been wondering, these last several years, when it was that Disney started following trends at its stateside park instead of leading them. IOA puts out Harry Potter, the Magic Kingdom gets… A new Fantasyland? Then gets trumped by a Harry Potter expansion and doubles down on… Avatar? Really? Beastly Kingdom sounded much more fun than a planet of tall blue people.

    Meanwhile, the innovative and fun attractions are being built by the other guys. I think the last truly innovative idea Disney had was the moving motion base from Indiana Jones and that was almost 17 years ago.

    It makes me sad. I want more rides like Pirates or Countdown to Extinction… Environmental experiences. Yeah.

    • Agreed, and yes you’re right – maintenance at all the Orlando parks has been rocky in the past. Universal is still suffering from, basically, just taking the last decade off. They’ve had a lot of problems at the corporate level and it showed in the parks’ decay. They’re rolling it back now but they really do need to step it up.

      Your point about following trends vs. making trends is spot on. Recently I polled people about what they thought was the last great Disney attraction. The vast majority said either Tower of Terror or Indy. Kids born the day those rides opened can drive today.

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