Earlier this week, Kevin Yee wrote an extensive piece about the challenges facing Walt Disney World. Most responses agree with what Kevin has written. I think Kevin is articulate and a better writer than I will ever be. I also wish I could come up with some of the clever statements he does, like the Rizzo Factor.
Two things right off the bat:
1. I think it’s great that people are vocal about a brand they really love. I believe the more you love something, the more you speak out about it–even when it’s negative.
2. When its performance is less than stellar, Walt Disney World doesn’t need anyone–much less myself–defending itself.
That said, I think there’s another view to the one Kevin expressed. And with all due respect, I’d like to share that one.
Walt Disney World is a business–a very solid business. Even through the years of Good Eisner/Bad Eisner/Post Eisner, there is one thing that has remained consistent–the Disney parks remain under the umbrella of the Walt Disney Company. There’s a reason why Universal and Sea World have had so many owners over the years–their business model hasn’t worked. Walt Disney World’s has. Even the other Disney resorts wish they could have the space and potential that is a part of Walt Disney World. Is it perfect? No. But it works and is frankly in a better place today than it probably ever has been. And why? The same reason any company succeeds–it provides extraordinary value, thus creating strong customer loyalty. And I’m not sure if there are any customers–or guests–more loyal than Disney’s.
Part of what builds customer loyalty are those “memories that last a lifetime.” Nostalgia is great. For instance, I miss Horizons–an ironic thing since it’s really about the future–not the past. But most people only remember how they felt about the first time or two on that experience. They have long forgotten how poorly kept up that attraction was in its last several years. Spit was all over the black-light portions–dust everywhere else. There was always some piece of the attraction not working. The “choose your destination” video was awful in terms of quality. Keeping attractions fresh each and every single day is a challenge at Walt Disney World. It was so 20 years ago. It is today.
There’s no way to justify rock coming down from Splash Mountain, nor a limb from the Tree of Life at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. These are massive engineering feats–difficult to design and built–and difficult to fix when they fall apart. Much more difficult than fixing a roof, but still fixable. Ironically, Horizon wasn’t fixable. It’s no longer with us because the building was engineered with a roof that wouldn’t last. Even if they had refurbished Horizons, they couldn’t have kept the building the way it was designed. So an attraction created in “the good old days” isn’t here because the building was essentially shoddy. This problem continues to grow the older the infrastructure becomes. But that’s not a new thing. And I’m impressed when attractions like Splash Mountain that deal with massive volumes of nature’s worse aging source–water and gravity–can manage to take on being as sturdy as it has been.
In two weeks Splash Mountain will undergo a major rehab, just like Big Thunder did last year. There has been lots of talk about the new Fantasyland, but look at the very long list of attractions that have experienced major–and expensive–refurbishment over the last several years–particularly at the Magic Kingdom. Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, Hall of Presidents, The Enchanted Tiki Room, The Haunted Mansion, and Big Thunder Mountain have all been rehabbed in a major way. I may not like Gomer’s hair, or the attraction’s new length, but even the Country Bear Jamboree has had a major rehab. Plus, it’s still here!
Does anyone remember the stupid big spider that hung in the corner at The Haunted Mansion? I far prefer the staircase maze–and the dozens of other additions that have gone into that venerable attraction in recent years. There’s the additional interactive queue. There’s the newer attic scene. There’s the new technology with the hitchhiking ghosts. There’s greater accommodation made for guests in wheelchairs. Lots of investment has been made to that attraction. I may not get Nightmare Before Christmas with my Haunted Mansion, but I still get a very strong experience.
What did 20K, Dumbo, Mr. Toad, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, and Peter Pan’s Flight all have in common? Long, slow, and non-themed switch-back queues. They were boring and painful to wait in line. It’s easy to be nostalgic for 20K–what a great movie! But the reality was the attraction had a terribly long wait for the ride you ended up with. You may say that Under The Sea with The Little Mermaid is not the greatest attraction ever built. But it’s far more entertaining than the fish on wires ever were in 20K. The line certainly moves much quicker. And it’s a better queueing experience than just about any around. I love dark rides. I’d rather see something like Tangled go in the place of Snow White’s Scary Adventures. But I’ll take what’s coming up with the mine ride over the old plywood, spit-upon sets of that dark ride any day. Meanwhile, major investment has also gone into adding to the queueing experience at Dumbo, Winnie-the-Pooh, and soon, Peter Pan’s Flight.
Nostalgia is great–but would you really want to go back to a 1971 Fantasyland? Since it opened, Fantasyland has continued to improve.
While attraction improvements are happening, new restrooms are going up next to Peter Pan to replace the space now being dedicated toward a more interactive queue. New restrooms were also created in Storybook Circus and in Tomorrowland just a couple of years ago. And major restroom rehabs have gone into Frontierland/Adventureland as well as other park locations.
Food and beverage? Walt Disney World’s counter service has never measured up to Disneyland’s. But Disneyland’s table service restaurants don’t hold a fork to Walt Disney World’s. Which would you favor: Ariel’s at DCA or The Coral Reef? And you have to applaud Disney for trying new things like the interactive queuing for Be Our Guest restaurant.
Then there are the new interactive games going in: Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom and the new Pirates Adventure game, plus a new interactive Next Gen project called Disney Story Maker that is supposed to be bigger than all of them. With all of the Next Gen projects going on, you can’t say that Disney isn’t trying to put its parks in the 21st century. Not all of it will work, but most of it will be imitated by other non-Disney parks in the future. Disney is still the leader.
In short, how can you say that Walt Disney World is just focused on new rides? Nothing could be further from the truth. This is no masking of what’s at the core. Disney is working very hard and spending a great deal of money to deal with many issues at many levels. And I think that it perhaps is even doing more of that today than ever before.
I remember visiting the Magic Kingdom for the first time in the late 80s just after Mickey’s Birthdayland opened. The park was sooo disappointing compared to Disneyland. Thank goodness it has evolved. Think about how exciting Epcot was before Test Track, Soarin’, and Mission SPACE are compared to the mid 90s. Do I think the Studios need a major addition? Definitely! But I trust that something will come. And while I’m not a big fan of Avatar, I sense something fairly significant will come of that as well.
Water parks? I don’t see any water park in the world to compare to the two at Walt Disney World. Hotel choices? There is no better collection/assortment of hotel choices in one location. From casual bayou of Port Orlean’s Riverside to staying at Radiator Springs in Disney’s new Art of Animation; from New England charm at Disney’s Yacht & Beach to savannah views of wildlife at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. I have stayed in a very upscale African resort next to a major wildlife preserve. And it had a major water park next to it. But the total experience was nothing compared to staying at Walt Disney World. And it was all 18 hours away by plane.
What about shopping at Downtown Disney at Walt Disney World? I was just at Mall of America this last Tuesday one week before Christmas. Downtown Disney on any night of the year is more crowded than what I saw in Minneapolis. I’d like to see some things fixed, but they are still doing something pretty amazing if they are getting the number of people they are getting each night.
Finally, there’s the cruise line. Do you really want to go back to the mid 80s when you could spend your time in one of two theme parks and then go see Disney characters on Premiere’s Big Red Boat? Let’s get some context for “the good old days.” The offering Disney provides today far surpasses what we have known in the past.
Of course, all of this costs money–more than I like to shell out. I don’t like the rate hikes going up at Disney. My premiere pass went way up between last year and this. But the other non-Disney parks were far more audacious in matching those prices. And while a day at Disney is expensive, I can at least justify paying full value of the experience. Could I do that at another non-Disney theme park in Orlando? Maybe if I had never been. But as a returning guest, it would be a stretch. And with a multiple-day discount, I’m a little hard-pressed as well to find enough to do going back to Sea World for a second day.
Speaking of SeaWorld, Kevin was right in many ways about their Christmas celebration. You really should see it. The trees on the water, the shows, the festivities–it really got my wife and I in the mood for the holidays. But know three things before you go:
- Only half the park is even focused on the holidays
- The half that is decorated only really does its magic at night
- You better check ahead of time, because it doesn’t run every day–just certain days and weekends.
I don’t like the extra-price parties at the MK either. But I love the Osborne lights at the Studios and Candlelight and Holiday Illuminations every night from Thanksgiving through Christmas. Not just on weekends and major attendance days. If you have only one night to enjoy Christmas–go to Sea World–and make sure it’s the right night. If you want a holiday vacation–go to Walt Disney World.
The arguments in favor of the Disney experience go on and on. Don’t misunderstand me. There are matters that need attention. I can’t stand the one-tram system that usually is the norm in Epcot’s parking lot. Nor do I get this early monorail closure that goes on when the Magic Kingdom is still opened. No one can justify much of what is labeled Dinoland. And I’m not sure who would ever buy into a multi-million dollar home nestled between a campground and a warehouse district. But the breadth and quality of the Walt Disney World Resort is more amazing than ever. And millions of people are attracted to that.
On Christmas Day, people at home will watch the parades on TV, and every Walt Disney World Reservation Cast Member will be on the phones talking to guests planning their next vacation. There is a reason why Walt Disney World is the most popular destination on earth. People are loyal to the Disney brand. And I think Disney is working hard to keep that.