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Oranges Are Good For You

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.

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24 comments to Oranges Are Good For You

  • V

    I love this post and wonder how the way Disney is run and it’s apparent disorganization compares with other large corporations. That is, I wonder if it’s symptomatic of a company of this size and level of diversity or whether this is an unusual case (and if so why – I would imagine it is somehow related to Disney’s unique history and interests).

  • Joe

    Well done post. You’ve tied two concepts together – fandom and profit motive. What any “Disney” fan must realize is that nothing is done without a profit motive (and nor should it be as a public, for-profit multinational corporation), but that doesn’t mean that something as simple as bringing back a relic of the past, which doesn’t have an obvious sales component, can’t succeed. Just the opposite, by buying said relic, you are voting with your wallet. And going further to your point, by communicating with the voice as well as the cash, you tell the decision makers – “I like this. When I am in the park, I will buy it. And I hope you offer more of this, so I can buy some more.”

    I hope we also realize that the parks are just s small piece of the corporate empire, and certainly not generating the dollars that other divisions do. That just makes it more critical to let your voice be heard in many ways – with purchases, with emails, with tweets, with blogs, with actual conversations with CMs while in the park.

    All this matters, and this is how you effect change.

  • Awesome article, and you’re completely correct. It is a disaster in terms of direction, and you’re correct in pointing out that those of us who want to see the big dollar improvements need to embrace the small dollar improvements. Short of having hard-core fans infiltrate the management to penetrate the bureaucracy, it’s one of the few ways we can get the ship moving in the direction we want it to sail.

  • Well put.

    I think by this point, most fans (even the less-sophisticated ones) understand the “it’s a business” argument as far as basic profit-motives go. I think what you really touched upon here is the complexity of the business organization, and how inefficiency causes chaos. TWDC really is a prime example of the diseconomies of scale in action.

    Based upon what I’ve read on various fan forums, it seems that most fans want simple explanations for why things do or do not happen, and why changes are made. The number of “I wish they spent $1 billion on new rides instead of NextGen” threads on message boards are proof-positive of this (although I would like the same, it’s not a simple either/or proposition). As mentioned, Disney is a complex organization, so motivations and rationale for decisions never are single-dimensional. There is no great company-wide social media conspiracy, nor are these positive changes being made by Disney employees with nefarious motives to placate voices of dissent. To the contrary, positive “small victories” are being made by people who care, and want to see even more done.

    Your article really hammers on this point well, and hopefully people begin to understand this, and see why little victories like the Citrus Swirl and Orange Board are ammunition that assist with larger similar victories down the road. Bitching and moaning about everything may be fun internet-sport, but it’s a good idea to give kudos to even the small victories, because they represent a harbinger of greater eventual change.

  • Interesting…. Jim Hill was saying something very similar to me a few days ago. He essentially said that there is no massive, overarching “Disney Company”. It’s a bunch of small divisions/companies, each with their own separate agendas. Often those agendas are at odds with each other, and more often than not one division has no clue what is going on in the other division. The fact that anything at all gets done is pretty amazing, actually.

    But I can say that over the past year I’ve heard from a lot of “fanbois” working in various positions in various departments. Like, hardcore, super DisNerd fans who know their sh*t and seem to speak with a singular voice regarding what they’d like to see improved at the parks. If they’re encouraged to speak up, and if their managers are encouraged to listen to, consider, and enact those employees’ ideas, we’ll be seeing a lot of cool stuff in the parks in the coming years….

  • I love this article. It covers so many crucial topics yet doesn’t take a one-sided approach to the argument. I really like the idea that even a small change for the better is pretty much a miracle. It’s still hard to believe that Disney actually brought back the original Enchanted Tiki Room and didn’t try to tie it to a recent movie. It may not draw huge crowds, but the people who visit definitely like it more than the Under New Management show. It was my three-year-old daughter’s favorite thing at all of Disney World.

    The point about visitors speaking with our wallets is also key. If we buy the generic merchandise and don’t go for the unique food offerings, we’re just compounding the problem. However, if we do the opposite, it’s not going to change overnight, but it will have at least a minor effect on Disney long-term. They’re a business and will listen to their customers, even if it takes some serious persuading.

    Great post!

  • Aaron

    Dude, Art Books, f yeah.

  • weepstah

    Although seeing all the scrims throughout the Magic Kingdom must have been annoying to many visitors, many of the results look to have been worth it. Not that I have seen them first hand, but the refurbed Sunshine Tree Terrace looks fantastic. Pecos Bill’s looks fantastic. The early returns out in Storybook Circus look fantastic.

    In short, despite the chaos in running the company (I think you can see this in almost any very large organization – my own company charges itself for the overtime I work, despite the fact I never get paid for working overtime) there are people in position at TWDC to make things like this happen. People within the corporation are doing a good job in selling the need for things like bringing back the Citrus Swirl and putting money into the MK to make it look great again. There isn’t much of an ROI you can sell on the Sunshine Tree Terrace, but you can sell on the fact that it’s the details that make the difference. Keep praising the efforts, however small they may be.

  • Reesie

    Thank you for this well written article! I do not take little changes for the fans for granted, and I love how Adventureland has been changing for the better. It irks me to no end when people online complain about positive changes made for them! Thank you so much for addressing this ongoing issue. Glad someone finally did.

  • well among the fan base there will be an element of psychological projection – don’t we all live vicariously through our hobby in some way?
    I do like your call to action – if I can’t be there I can still write a congratulations letter.
    I enjoy all my holidays in any of the parks – and I do enjoy seeing changes – either big or small.
    YAY for free wifi!! now if only I could get a shower cap in the resort rooms.

  • philkid3

    “inveterate crank and nit-picker”

    I don’t think you are, and that’s why I read you. You are not negative for the sake of being negative like many of your peers. I don’t even think of you as negative. I think of you as honest, and person of good taste. Much like Foxxfur, you have the ability and willingness to be be excited and critical in degrees that seem completely warranted.

  • philkid3

    To your last paragraph, thank the Cast Members who do good. Who seem like they want to do good. Who are fitting the ideal of what makes Disney theme parks great, and embrace making them as great as they can be from all you can tell.

    Don’t just thank them, take a moment now and then and stop by Guest Relations. Write letters. Don’t just let them know they’ve improved your stay and your interest in coming back, LET THEIR SUPERIORS KNOW HOW GREAT THE BEST CAST MEMBERS ARE.

    You know why? Because guest commendations go a long way when it comes time to stuff like promotions. You — yes you fair guest — can have a hand in making sure the front line Cast Members of today that you love become the important decision makers of tomorrow that you also love.

    I am completely and totally serious.

  • philkid3

    Oh, and stop and talk to CMs about this stuff.

    One, because a lot of us don’t just like when guests stop and talk to us for a minute, it absolutely makes our entire day. Again, not kidding.

    Two, it can give you an even better idea of whether or not that CM is the kind of person you want moving up so badly that you will tell his higher ups how great he is.

  • What you describe is very common amongst corporations over a certain size. The company I work for is one such corporation, and even though we are a not for profit, it does all come down to money in the end. The infinite layers of bureaucracy, tempered with the countless personal agendas, create an atmosphere in which most people are indeed afraid to speak up…not because they are afraid that their ideas will be looked down upon, but because they are afraid to reveal the fact that they honestly have no idea what is going on. The thing they don’t realize is, no one ever really knows what is going on, across the board, in organizations like the one I work for, or TWDC. Business units are subdivided into groups, groups divided into departments, deparments divided into teams, teams into commitees, etc. etc. etc. until eventually, you learn to interact within your sphere of influence, and only interact with those outside of it when there is free lunch, and a speech that no one really listens to by some grand poobah :)

    It shocks me that Disney World functions as smoothly as it does honestly.

  • […] up in the Citrus Swirl controversy? Michael Crawford at Progress City USA thinks you should shut up and enjoy your frosty treat.  (We […]

  • Thank you for writing this. I couldn’t agree more.

    This is pretty much what I’ve thought about the Walt Disney Company for a long while now. That’s why I get so excited when I see the small things, like the retro EPCOT shirts, the Citrus Swirl, etc. It shows that somebody, somewhere in the company does know what people want.

    And it’s not all about just wanting the old attractions and stuff back. It’s fine if it’s new and different. Just make it knock-your-socks-off good that only “Disney” can do (or at least, used to do). They are making good strides with the attention to detail in some of the refurbs and plussing of existing attractions (HM, Storybook Circus), but more is needed.

  • Oleg Chaikovsky

    Great rant – with excellent weight given to your positions. Nicely done.

  • J Eddis- Koch

    Very nicely communicated. I really wonder if an organization, like the one that Disney has morphed into, really would have the ability operate in a unified direction. Perhaps the different organizational directions and priorities will never be able to compliment each other. Are the parts worth more than the sum or are they cannibalizing each other in an effort to survive? At some point in time concerning the Disney company, the object of business has become an all out effort to pump up the bottom line at the expense of the product. This is not a recipe for success. Time will tell. It happened to Kodak and it can happen to Disney….

  • philphoggs

    For sure, an appreciated editorial which has helped to round out some musings. Nerdy or not my support is there, it has always been there.

  • […] has already been written about the return of the Citrus Swirl, and why it is or is not a big deal. Michael Crawford summed up my thoughts on the matter nicely here (READ THIS!). He saved me a lot of keystrokes and wrote something more articulate than I could ever muster, but […]

  • […] a while back, it’s points are still valid today. In fact, Progress City, USA published an article (published after this one was written) that brought up many of the same […]

  • There’s another reason people may object to bringing back classics – the Phantom Menace argument. They don’t want Disney to ruin something they love. Really, everything Disney touches for the last 20 years turns to crap.

    For example, a while ago I heard Spaceship Earth was getting updated, and I had about 5 seconds of foolish excitement. Then I remembered, oh yeah, they are going to screw it up. And they did. TV screens with a flash animation in every ride vehicle? Brilliant! The execs are so mind-numbingly uncreative, they destroy the amazing to create the mundane and call it progress. The one of a kind World of Motion? Let’s tear down all that creativity and let people experience what it’s like to Ride in a Car! Over bumps!

  • Mike B.

    Funny you should mention the Spaceship Earth animation, Beavis.. This ride is my 7 year old son’s favorite because of the mind numbingly uncreative tv screens with flash animation. And, Test Track? The unquestioned #2 attraction in Epcot. What will those awful people come up with next? New Fantasyland? Cars Land? BAH!

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