It's been 12 months since Disneyland president Matt Ouimet and his team of Orlando transplants blew into town. But the turnaround at the once-exemplary, next-neglected Magic Kingdom has been startlinglike a breath of fresh paint.
For me, most refreshing have been New Management's efforts to reduce overcrowding. Congestion never seemed to bother the previous regimes. In fact, they seemed to take almost perverse pleasure in crowding, as if sardine-like conditions validated their decisions. We must be doing everything rightlook how packed the park is!
Embarrassed at the lackluster initial reaction to Disney's California Adventure park, Prior Management seemed bent on inflating attendance figures purely for statistical purposes, not for the health of the business. In fact, pushing cheap annual passes and constant discounts for locals worsened the average day guest's experience and conditioned them to never again pay full price again. They knew the next promotion was right around the corner.
New Management saw through the smoke screen. Ouimet realizes a less-packed park makes for a happier guest, who likely will stay longer, spend more, and return frequently. So, this summer, there were no deep discounts to get extra bodies through the gates. Cast members were more restricted on signing in friends and family. Then, to pull more bodies off the walkways, Team Ouimet scaled back the number of attractions offering Fastpass tickets. And now, annual pass prices have been hiked.
Waiting in lines also became less burdened due to his controversial crack-down on the abused Special Assistance Pass system. The gutsy move showed that he was willing to do what was right, even if it wasn't politically correct and hurt a few feelings.
Finallyin perhaps his most novel idea to decrease congestionhe's trying to increase ride capacity byget thisbuilding new attractions.
Just as obvious have been the cosmetic changes. Maintenance has again been allowed to dust off their dust rags and spackling tools. Everything's getting the once-over, from the Immense (that is, rebuilding the Nearly Condemned Tiki Room) to the Incidental Yet Significant (re-arming the Jungle Cruise skippers).
Certainly, the full effect won't be enjoyed until months to come, as facilities one by one resurface from lengthy rehabs. In the meantime, guests, on the whole, seem patient and forgiving. Most see the scaffolding as a temporary inconveniencelike waiting for Christmas until you can unwrap the presents under the tree.
However, at least one aspect of The Show is taking a little longer to turn around. That's understandable, since it's the one area that can't be fixed simply by throwing money at it. But it's the package that holds everything else togethera fact that guests and cast members alike have recognized since the beginning.
Let's look back at a guest letter that the park used for years as a training tool, to focus cast members on the most important aspect of Disneyland. The author, a Mr. Schuch, supervised American Airlines ticket agents and baggage handlers and wrote the letter to inspire his own employees.
Today, Disneyland is making great strides in restoring the fantasy and the splashes of vivid color. But, as Mr. Schuch pointed out, there's something more important: having employees who flat-out love to delight their customers. More than replacing burned-out light bulbs, the park must rekindle the light that used to burn inside every Disneylander.
Ouimet, personable and perceptive, seems to get it. He's increased worker training. He regularly meets with and listens to groups of employees. He walks the park. He prizes cast members who, as he told The Orange County Register, feel rewarded simply by helping somebody else.
If my e-mail inbox is any indication, cast member satisfaction is way up over prior years, when I used to receive a steady, daily stream of grousing from disgruntled hosts and hostesses. Complaints are fewer and more pointed, rather than hopeless despair that everything's wrong. If anything, after interviewing 500+ cast members since 1987, 2004 is the first year that I haven't heard someone say, Morale has never been lower.
Yet, despite seeing a few more smiling faces each time I visit the park, I still can't envision a modern-day Mr. Schuch writing that letter today, floored by outstanding courtesy being shown to every one of Walt Disney's guests.
Is it too much to hope for, that every cast member takes pride in his or her job and contributes positively to the Guest Experience? Perhaps. Maybe it's unrealistic as long as the Company is run by executives who transparently build their bonuses by how much they can cheapen the product.
Or maybe it's unrealistic because the Disneyland Resort now employs nearly ten times as many people as it did in 1957. Casting agents can't be quite as picky when they have to fill a thousand low-paying jobs from a pool of 2,000 applicants as they could when they were filling 100 prestigious positions from a pool of thousands.
Me? I'm still holding out hope for a resort-wide cast member revival. I think it's just going to take a while. Cast members are waiting; they want to be sure the improvement is sincere, that it's not just a marketing gimmick to appease finicky passholders for the 50th or to quiet angry shareholders for the next stockholder meeting.
I'm looking forward to that daywhen employees no longer say, I work at Disneyland. They say, I'm a Disneylander, because, once again, it's not simply where they work. It's who they are.
(Send an email to David Koenig)
David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.
After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).
He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.