On February 17th, 2011, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Tom Staggs spoke at the Disney Investors Conference and a few of his comments have caused quite a stir within the Internet community. In his talk, Mr. Staggs revealed a number of concepts that are currently under development for Walt Disney World. These comments, augmented with some freewheeling imaginations, seem to have generated significant angst in the Disney online world. Indeed, there are a few forums (not MousePlanet’s, thank goodness) where many are outraged over the perceived changes inspired by these comments. I’ve seen comments such as “Have they lost their minds?” and “This will never work.” I would ask that those folks, before blasting Disney, read Mr. Staggs’comments in their complete form, and not the out-of-context quotes being bandied about in the forums. I did.
To read Tom Staggs' complete remarks to the Disney Investors Conference, visit the Disney corporate website.
First, it’s very important to recognize the audience for these remarks: the Disney Investor Conference. As you can well imagine, this is a group whose chief concerns are profitability and return on their investment. Hopefully, we can all understand the need for Mr. Staggs to deliver a message there that may be slightly different than one delivered to a group of Disney fans like us. While both groups may be ecstatic over Fantasyland’s doubling in size, for you and I, the excitement is in the new rides, restaurants and attractions. For an investor, the interest is how these enhancements will translate to higher guest satisfaction leading to increased revenue. See the difference?
Before I jump into the comments that inspired this firestorm, I think it’s important to review some of Mr. Staggs’ other remarks. He spoke at length of the four core strengths that Disney offers, beginning with number one: the “Disney brand." He observed that the Disney name is “synonymous with quality” and helps to generate a relationship with the consumer. He stated, “…we understand that we must be relentlessly consumer-focused to sustain and grow those relationships.” There’s nothing there any of us could disagree or argue with, right? I want them to be focused on me.
Mr. Staggs went on: “Our second major differentiator is the incredible wealth of fantastic intellectual property and creative talents available to us.” He recognizes the value in Disney’s film arsenal and their ability to use it effectively within the theme parks, new resorts, attractions, parades, etc. He also references the immense talent they have within Walt Disney Imagineering. Again, nothing there to take issue with.
The third competitive strength he spoke of was “… our long-standing focus on leveraging technology and innovation throughout our business. While it may be chic to talk about innovation these days, it’s been a key focus at Disney since Walt famously said, ‘It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.’” That’s a great Walt quote and, again, no quibble here. I’ve always been impressed with how Disney has leveraged technology in their theme park attractions and beyond.
The fourth and last strength Mr. Staggs highlighted was “our incomparable cast." He offered that, while it might be surprising, Disney’s research found that “people cite interactions they have with our cast as the single biggest factor in their satisfaction and intent to return.” He spoke of the sizable labor commitment Disney has, approximately, a third of the segment’s cost base, but explains, “when so many of our guests single out interaction with our cast as the most important part of their visit, we know this continued investment is worth it.” In essence, he explains why a significant investment in cast members is essential to guests’ satisfaction, and then explains why it’s a valuable investment. We can probably argue all day about whether cast members are compensated fairly and whether or not the level of training they receive today is adequate, but I doubt any of us could argue with this sentiment. To many of us, the cast members are the Walt Disney Company.
Specifically addressing Walt Disney World, Mr. Staggs spoke of the significant changes coming with the Art of Animation Resort and the myriad additions to the new Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom:
“We also have an opportunity to better utilize some of our most beloved stories and characters in new attractions, dining experiences and immersive environments to create a differentiated experience that no one else can match, like Under the Sea: Journey of The Little Mermaid, which will take guests into the world of Ariel, Sebastian, Flounder and all their friends. Not far from Ariel’s new home, guests will be able to relive their favorite moments from Beauty and the Beast in Belle’s Village and Beast’s Castle. One of the most popular attractions of the Magic Kingdom, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, will double in guest capacity, and will also feature a circus-themed interactive queue that will delight guests of all ages as they enter the Big Top. Finally, we’re adding an innovative new mine coaster based on one of our most iconic and enduring films, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This attraction will feature a new ride vehicle that we patented, which twists and turns on its track… adding atmosphere, kinetics and adventure to Fantasyland.”
Good stuff, right? So… what exactly did Tom Staggs say that kicked off this particular firestorm?
He addressed some planned changes that are part of a somewhat mysterious initiative called the Next Generation Experience (NextGen) that, reportedly, has been around for over one year and represents a project budget of around $1 billion—as reported by the Orlando Sentinel.
According to Staggs:
"We are currently developing an innovative system that will, in essence, create a version of FASTPASS for their entire Disney vacation. Now we define the guest experience as beginning from the time a potential guest sits down at a computer or picks up a phone to make a reservation. Our new tools will help them better understand all that we have to offer and better plan their time with us. They'll be able to create a personalized itinerary that gives them the exact Disney vacation they want. Guests will be able to reserve times for their favorite attractions and character interactions… secure seats at our shows and spectaculars… make dining reservations… and pre-book many other favorite guest experiences — all before even leaving their house. We also plan to simplify the check-in process so that guests will arrive at the resort with room key in hand. They will be able to go straight to their room or a theme park — again, allowing them to get to the fun faster."
Somehow, someway, this has been construed to mean you will now need to plan your entire vacation six months in advance—including the specific times that you will be allowed to visit attractions, ride rides, and meet and greet the characters. Some believe Standby queues will cease to exist. Some have asked, “What’s wrong with these Disney executives? Do they even visit their own parks? How can they expect us to print our room keys at home?”
Let’s all take a deep breath and try to make some sense of this. First, it’s clear that Disney is attempting, through innovation and technology, to improve the guest experience. I believe them. As Mr. Staggs stated to the investors, happy guests will return to Walt Disney World. They will also relate their positive experiences to others. Even Disney’s much-maligned “bean counters” recognize the logic there.
Secondly, and I know I’ll get some debate here, I trust them. Unlike some others, I don’t consider Disney the “evil empire” bent on extracting every last dollar from my purse. Certainly, they will do what they can to ensure I spend as much as possible there but the bottom line is that I, not them, control my purse strings. If they don’t show me a “better than really, really good” guest experience, I’ll take my dollars elsewhere. They’re not dumb; they know this. In fact, they may indeed be the best in the world at understanding their guests and structuring the experience to appeal to them again and again.
We can all cite instances where Disney has stepped on their own foot with something, but let’s not lose complete sight of the many, many innovations they have brought to us—their most loyal and, at the same time, most critical fan base. Sure, they’ve screwed up, but for every Journey Into Your Imagination or Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration, there have been many Mickey’s Philharmagic, Soarin’, Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, World of Color, Toy Story Midway Mania, Mission: Space… I could go on. I expected very little from the newest castle show, “The Magic, the Memories and You”—but as they typically do, the Imagineers pulled off another one and impressed the heck out of me.
What I’m saying is that I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I believe them when they say I can have my Key to the World Card a week before I arrive, so when I step off the Magical Express bus, I can go directly to my room (or a theme park.) I know they won’t expect me to print plastic card stock at home but they will get the cards to me some way. I trust them when they intimate I can have a vacation’s worth of Fastpasses before I leave home, and that does NOT mean that I will have to plan every minute of my vacation and I will need to ride Spaceship Earth at precisely 11:42 am on Thursday.
I believe they understand that not everyone who visits Walt Disney World will stay at an on-property resort; and those that stay off-property are equally important to them. As are the many local (and semi-local) guests that visit the parks regularly or on a whim. These groups cannot be slighted when it comes to the concept of equitable ride queues; and that does not preclude some type of Fastpass system that may reward those staying on site.
“How on earth”, you might ask, “would that work?” I really don’t know but… I can offer one scenario that might fly. Right now, you can use online check-in to your Disney resort seven days before arrival. Suppose for a moment, at that same seven-day window, you could secure Fastpasses for your stay. For the sake of argument (and there will be some), let’s say you could secure four Fastpasses for your one-week stay (possibly fewer for shorter stays, more for longer ones?). If my trip spans a Sunday to Saturday, I could, in theory, get a Fastpass for Soarin’ for Sunday, one for Toy Story Mania on Monday, Splash Mountain for Wednesday and Kilimanjaro Safaris for Friday. Maybe those Fastpasses are good for the entire day or maybe just a three or four hour window that I would choose.
The beauty here is that Disney could then adjust the number of Fastpasses available in the parks on those days to minimize any impact to the Standby queues. Think it could work? Imagine being at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at rope drop. Instead of racing with the throngs all the way back to Toy Story Mania, you take a right and ride Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster and Tower of Terror in the first 30 minutes. Then you stop at Starring Rolls for a coffee and muffin and, at 10:00 am, you stroll leisurely back to ride Toy Story Mania with the Fastpass you secured last week at home. Nice, huh?
I’d go a step farther, and even though I’ve been outspoken against a “caste system” based on resort, Disney could offer four Fastpasses for a stay at a Value resort, six for a Moderate and eight for a Deluxe or Deluxe Villa. We can play with those numbers, but you get the idea.
But what of the locals and people coming over for a single day? We could develop a system where Florida Resident Passholders could secure Fastpasses to a maximum number per week or per month. Sure there are a few glitches and shortcomings, but nothing that couldn’t be tweaked to produce an equitable system for all.
Let’s continue… I’m betting that, through the use of radio frequency identification (RFID), a young girl will walk into a room to meet a princess and be greeted with “Good morning, Emily,” and be amazed that Cinderella remembered her. And I’m also aware that the same RFID instrument (room card or wristband), might relay information to them about my touring habits. I’m OK with that as long as my identity or financial information is not at risk.
I’m also betting the entertaining interactive queues at Soarin’, Space Mountain, Winnie the Pooh and (soon to open) Haunted Mansion will be more commonplace so waiting in a line won’t be quite as painful as it once was. I’m betting that more technology will allow Disney to better control crowd flow and be able to disperse guests more uniformly throughout a park to keep queuing to a minimum.
I’m not completely blind to Disney’s shortcomings; they’re certainly not infallible. I will also never lose sight of the fact that their ultimate goal is to separate me from my money. I know and understand that and I’m OK with it as long as I receive value for my vacation dollar. Overall, they’ve done right by me since I started vacationing in Walt Disney World in 1984. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt until they prove otherwise.