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.