Last month we talked about how the Citrus Swirl, a cult-classic Magic Kingdom snack, had made a fortuitous return to the Sunshine Tree Terrace in Adventureland. Over the years so much of the quirky texture of the Magic Kingdom has been stripped away, so it’s good to see something which would otherwise seem insignificant return. It also didn’t hurt that this was one of my favorite in-park treats and I’d been grousing about its loss for years.
So – Disney goes to the effort to restore a small detail to the park’s offerings, giving fans something they’ve asked for and all without forcing any other groups to lose one of their favorite things. After all, in recent years the Terrace had been only serving plain soft-serve and Cokes – who could possibly object to that riveting lineup getting a kick in the pants?
Funny thing about Disney fans…
Much to my surprise, the return of a simple orange juice slush set off a rather pointed debate in the online fan community about how Disney operates and how they relate to fans. I guess one could say this shows how ornery fandom has become in general recently; it’s certainly been a noticeable phenomenon. But even an inveterate crank and nit-picker like me has to express a certain bafflement when people get angry over something improving.
In most cases, this could all be simply written off and ignored as an unheard-of instance of People Being Mad On The Internet™. But I think this discussion in particular underlines a fundamental misunderstanding – even by people who should know better – about how the Disney company operates and is structured. And, for that reason, it’s worth discussing.
The criticism seems to break down like this. First there are the cranks who can’t stand to see “fanbois” obsessing over something they personally deem unworthy. Is something silly like the Orange Bird worth centering your life on? Well, no. But he’s… fun. He’s charming and amusing and kitschy and sort of a reminder of Walt Disney World’s funky first decade, when it was finding its own unique identity in the weird wilds of central Florida. Back when Disneyland and Walt Disney World truly had different personalities; back when the concept of homogenization was shunned.
It seems odd for anyone to take on airs and sneer down their noses at something they think is “geeky” when we are all adults who talk about theme parks run by a talking mouse and a pantsless duck. But yes, I do apologize to all you cool cats for not worrying about important things, like if on my 84th trip on Star Tours I got Kashyyyk and got to be the rebel spy. You know, things that aren’t nerdy.
The other branch of criticism has come from those who would otherwise like to see things restored to the parks, or nods to its past, but see these things as a sop to fans to buy them off from caring about important things like broken down monorails. It seems that those of us who are happy to have some ice cream have taken our pieces of silver and, like easily misled children, aren’t doing enough to stick it to the man because Journey into Imagination still sucks.
I have some sympathy for this argument, because yes, Journey into Imagination does still suck. Most of Future World at Epcot still does. The Hollywood Studios park needs a few billion poured into it for a massive and sweeping re-conception. Those hideous Flying Carpets still loom over the aforementioned Citrus Swirl stand. There are monsters and burping aliens in Tomorrowland, and practically no one wants the Avatarland project to actually happen (not even at WDI). It’s all true.
But what’s the threshold for us to be happy? Will we not be happy with anything unless it’s a billion-dollar expansion? Because the truth is that a lot of the lost magic of the Disney parks come from small-dollar items that were stripped away over the last twenty or so years. That stuff isn’t going to come back all at once; it has to be fought for item by item, and crossing your arms and holding your breath because each “win” isn’t big enough will cut off our collective noses to spite the communal face. And to understand why, you have to understand the Disney company of 2012.
The Sunshine Tree Terrace seems to be the epicenter of this phenomenon because not only is it home to the Citrus Swirl, but it was once the home of the Orange Bird character, who has seen a minor resurgence in fan-targeted merchandise in recent years. Now this has been nowhere near as big an onslaught as the Stitch tsunami of ten years ago, or even of the full-court-press that Disney undertook to try and force America to care about Duffy the bear. We’re talking a few t-shirts, some pins, and a small assortment of other bric-a-brac featured at fan events.
The Orange Bird was featured in Adventureland for the first decade of the park’s existence, used to promote the Florida Citrus Growers’ sponsorship of the Sunshine Pavilion and Tropical Serenade (now the Enchanted Tiki Room). Once that promotional agreement ended, the Orange Bird slowly faded away and became something that only Walt Disney World history buffs remembered. He was part of the texture of the “lost” Magic Kingdom, which kind of conveyed the feel of that entire era – almost like Disneyland’s lost characters like “Aunt Jemima” and her Main Street pancake races.
So the Orange Bird became a sort of cult figure when, about a decade ago, merchandise bearing his likeness began to emerge in Japan. That nation’s insatiable need for an endless stream of cuteness had inexplicably revived this forgotten American character and WDW nerds like me were both baffled and impressed. It was cool to see something that retro featured in new merchandise, and in an era where the Disney historical community was almost entirely unserved it seemed unthinkable that such a thing would ever be seen here.
Well it took about ten years, but with the advent of D23 and more online sources focusing on Walt Disney World’s history we finally started to see some new merchandise featuring the character. Disney was finally, if haltingly, recognizing an untapped market and trying to figure out how to fulfill this demand.
This is what the critics seem to object to. “Aha!” they say. “Of course Disney is putting stuff out now! They’re just trying to get money from the fanbois!”
Well, yes. Yes they are.
Disney is a business. That’s kind of what they do. Disney has never, ever been a nonprofit organization. Now, over the years a lot of things have changed. Walt famously said the reason he made money was to make more pictures. And the “old wave” style of doing things was by making things people wanted, instead of trying to cut corners and quality to increase margins. They also used to have a better sense of what people wanted, instead of trying to invent something from market surveys and cram it down everyone’s throats (Duffy). But they’ve always tried to make money.
Selling merchandise that people want, or reviving old characters they love, is not the same as building a park on the cheap because they think people are too dumb to know the difference. It’s not the same as running a ride until it fails, or not updating a show that references laserdiscs, or cutting staffing and hours and offerings.
In fact, it’s the opposite. I’m amazed that people could possible be upset about Disney offering specific new lines of fan-friendly merchandise or area-unique food items when the greater part of the last decade has been spent complaining about the homogenization of merchandise and the slashing of menu offerings. Well, now they’re offering new stuff and you can either roll your eyes or vote with your wallet and prove that your years of griping weren’t a bluff. People always say, “Ah, Disney will never change unless people stop spending money.” Well, maybe people did. Maybe selling stuff like this is a recognition that we want more than the same lame pins and “fab five” sweatshirts.
But the real crux of the issue, and the point of this entire diatribe, is that people who complain about “Disney deciding to use Orange Bird to exploit fanbois” or “Disney refocusing on its history” or anything attributing intent to “Disney” are missing one incredibly important fact: There is no “Disney”. There is no single will, nor single intent, nor single drive of the Walt Disney Company aside from making money. There is no agenda, no plan, no strategy.
Over the last few years I’ve had a closer glimpse at the inner workings of the company and if you’ve made it this far in my rant it’s crucial you internalize this one fact: It. Is. A. Disaster. It is a total disaster of barely-constrained chaos and with every day that passes I am more and more amazed that anything ever happens. I’m not talking about good things or bad things – I’m amazed anything happens.
The Disney company is comprised of roughly ten billion separate agendas, most of them pulling in diametrically opposite directions. “The boss says he wants some impressive new idea? Well that idea looks pretty good – I’d better kill it so my co-worker doesn’t get any credit.” “Delores in accounting says fans wouldn’t be interested in hearing about Epcot history so she’s killed the entire project.” “There’s a huge demand for this kind of attraction but we can’t make it interactive so forget it.” “The monorails are falling apart and smell like feet but we can’t have them taking the repair money out of our departmental budget!”
These are all made up, but are indicative of about a billionth of the chaos that takes place on a daily basis within Disney. I understand why fans want to attribute a singular motive to all of the company’s actions; I certainly always did and still do at times. It’s comforting. It makes sense. And you can place the blame on one person – typically, the CEO. If the company is doing something you don’t like, you can pin it on Phil Holmes or Tom Staggs or Bob Iger. And you can assume if we only get rid of them, the ship of state can be righted and a hero can rise to the top and set everything straight right away.
But that’s not how it is. The system is broken. The institutions are corrupted, and are structured in a way almost literally designed to prevent anything we would like from happening. This is why Pleasure Island is still a big, empty sucking wound at Downtown Disney. This is why the last thing added to World Showcase was twenty-four (!!!) years ago. This is why Hollywood Studios is such a mess. And why the true successes are few and far between. It’s because there is a phalanx of executives, managers, lawyers and accountants that are terrified of making decisions or going out on a limb, and find it much easier to say “no” than to expose themselves in any way.
Bob Iger does not care if we can get a Citrus Swirl or not. I’d wager heavily that he’s never heard of a Citrus Swirl, or the Sunshine Tree Terrace, or maybe even the Orange Bird. The guys at the top just look at the receipts that come up from below and care if the numbers are going in the right direction. Disney is going to make money – it’s up to us whether they make that money by selling things we want (Orange Bird! EPCOT music collections! Art books! Handwiches!) or by selling yet another wave of sweatshirts with Mickey that say “2012”.
You say that they’re only shilling us t-shirts and nothing more meaningful? The reason for that is obvious. First, if you’re an enterprising soul on the inside who wishes to see the parks provide a more diverse and fan-friendly slate of offerings it’s far simpler and quicker to persuade that phalanx of managers to bite for something simple like t-shirts. It’s a heck of a lot easier to justify the investment in a line of shirts as a test balloon to see if anyone cares about these things. The revolution isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to be slow and painful. And if we sneer at the little things, and no one buys those shirts, the managers will assume there’s no market and stick entirely to the Wal-Mart type offerings they love so dearly. And we’ll never see the “next step.” Management isn’t going to bite on a dark ride as a first salvo. It’ll begin with something quick and cheap, like merchandise.
This is a long-term campaign. With all the individual agendas at work within Disney, it does create one overall agenda: inertia. The status quo. What we must do is empower those individuals within the company who do have the right priorities – this is the only way to affect real change.
For every little improvement we see in the parks, no matter how insignificant, someone somewhere had to take it to the mattresses to make it happen. Once you realize how screwed up the system is, you realize how precious and miraculous any victory is. This is why I’ve flogged the Citrus Swirl so hard online; somewhere, someone had to put their neck on the line to make that happen, and if the resulting sales shore up their argument they might not have to fight so hard next time.
This is about momentum. The little, silly things are important because their success gives someone on the inside ammunition to bring to the next round of negotiations. The system does not reward people who care, or who are informed, or are aware of the company’s history and tradition. So, it’s up to us to reward them if they get it right. Because if their efforts fall flat, they’ll get laughed out of the room by the legions of middle management who don’t enjoy theme parks but think, somehow, that they’re suited to run them.
I realize this has been a long diatribe but it’s so crucial that everyone alter the way they think about the company and its motivations. Its left hand does not know what its right hand is doing; it certainly does not have some masterful plan for social media, as can been seen by its ineptness at social media. One action in one resort, park, or department has no relation to actions in any other part of the company. Heck, most parts of the company aren’t even aware of the other parts.
The good news is that there are people who care and who are working very, very hard and against absurd odds to make cool things happen. What I’m trying to get across, I suppose, is that if you like something, don’t be afraid to like it. Reward quality where you see it, and don’t try to attribute motive. If you notice something good, say so, and try and make Disney hear it too. Write letters, for pete’s sake. Those people behind the scenes need as much ammunition as possible in their endless quest to force the company, against all odds, to make things worthy of its legacy.