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Kevin Yee

Burger Invasion - McDonald's and Disney

California Adventure's Burger Invasion
California Adventure's Burger Invasion

In many ways, it's a natural marriage. After all, for decades the two companies courted the same family demographic, and cultured the same corporate image as family-conscious. So it should come as little surprise that McDonald's and Disney first flirted with each other via movie marketing tie-ins at McDonald's locations, and then moved closer with actual McDonald's operations in Disney parks.

The first test came in the form of a small, unassuming French fry cart at Walt Disney World (WDW). Disney was both surprised and taken aback by the backlash that immediately ensued in the Disney fan world. What struck them as a natural union -- who could complain about McDonald's fries? -- was perceived by the vocal fan community as nothing less than an affront to the ideals laid out decades earlier by Walt himself.

The primary objection had to do with the dilution of the Disney illusion. Walt frequently commented that he wanted guests to forget the outside world while inside Disneyland, and this maxim has been carried over, by and large, to all Disney parks. Reminders of the outside world rarely intrude on the immersive Disney experience, and are usually confined to sponsorship deals, where the company's name is listed at the entrance to the attraction or restaurant.

McDonald's presented a unique situation, where a recognizable product was touted alongside the name. This was not unprecedented: Disney has done this before. I can recall Marie Callender's presenting the Café Orleans, with its signature pies offered as dessert. And if you think about it, brand names are all over Disney parks: Heinz, the Dole Enchanted Tiki Room, M&M's at Star Tours, even the corporate commercial that is Innoventions. The biggest one has to be Coca-Cola, which sponsors a restaurant or ride in all Disney parks worldwide, and is the parks' primary supplier of soft drinks.

Why doesn't the public complain as vociferously about these brand names? The answer probably requires several different takes. First, McDonald's is a much larger corporation than all the others, excepting Coke. And McDonald's has taken pains over the years to culture its own corporate symbols; most of us know what the Hamburgler looks like, or what color Ronald McDonald tends to wear in his clothing. The same cannot be said of Coke, which is a brand without much of a visual reference.

A good amount of resistance to McDonald's probably comes from the fact that there are those in the world who dislike the fast food chain, either for gastronomic or political reasons. Not everyone likes Big Macs, and Disney's association with that company may raise objections. Politically, McDonald's is often singled out as a destroyer of rainforests for using South American beef in its products, and for taking advantage of the cheaper labor costs of South American residents to raise cattle on former rainforest land.

All these factors combine to varying degrees in people's reactions to the recent presence of McDonald's in Disney parks. This is not to say that everyone hates McDonald's at the parks, and in fact there are many who prefer McFries to the fries offered by Disney.

The most interesting element to this story has to be the method by which Disney introduced McDonald's into the parks, in what can perhaps best be described as a series of baby steps. As noted, it started with the fry cart in the Magic Kingdom in 1998. By November of that year, Disneyland (DL) had a larger fry cart presence of its own, in the form of a more permanent Conestoga wagon created for this purpose. Amusingly, it would at first carry the name "Westward Ho" -- in reference to the 1956 Disney movie "Westward Ho the Wagons" -- even though a nearby candy shop had the same name already. Shortly thereafter, the new park Animal Kingdom in Florida opened Restaurantosaurus, a dinosaur- themed restaurant that would for the first time expand the McDonald's offerings to include a few sandwiches.

It is the new location in Disney's California Adventure (DCA), though, that is the most complete McDonald's to date. Called Burger Invasion, the pretense of a mild McPresence at a Disney eatery has largely been abandoned in favor of a true McDonald's outlet, in both form and function. In short, this location's only theme is to be themed as a McDonald's. There are several vocal critics, myself among them, who believe Disney missed a (pardon the pun) "golden" opportunity here to meld the California theme with a truly tasty fast food option: an outfit called In-N-Out Burger prides itself on its California roots and always-fresh ingredients (plus they make a much better burger).

The McDonald's connection at Burger Invasion was made more apparent in the months following the park's opening, as the golden arches were notably absent at first and then appeared atop the giant burger that forms the facade for the facility. Incidentally, someone in marketing was bored enough to calculate out the estimated calories for the giant burger for use in advertisements and promotions: 12,936,460. The signature golden arches were also added to the signage of the menus only in April 2001, after a few months had gone by.

In truth, as you might suspect, Burger Invasion is a McDonald's franchise rather than a chain run by Disney itself. Thus, profits from this location go to McDonald's rather than to Disney, which only collects a modest royalty for allowing the restaurant to operate here.

Did I just say profits? Yes, I did. In contrast to Mondavi's Vineyard Room and Avalon Cove by Wolfgang Puck, two expensive locations at DCA, Burger Invasion is very profitable. Amusement park customers seem to respond well to the concept of quick, cheap, and possibly even familiar meals (in contrast to what most of the rest of the restaurants in DCA offer). All is not lost for Disney, however, as the nearby Pizza Oom Mow Mow outgrosses Burger Invasion, probably as a result of the higher prices for the food, and possibly due to a reluctance on some people's part to eat familiar food. Isn't the point of vacation to try something new?

Still, it's enough of a success that Disney and McDonald's are both likely to view the result as positive. McDonald's wins because of the profits, of course, and Disney wins because of profit margins. How can Disney's margins be affected? Simple. At Disneyland, where they own all the restaurants, it's easy enough to calculate a daily profitability report, which can include profit margins.

For the sake of argument, let's say that restaurants are profitable by a 17% margin. That certainly sounds high -- and would be, for anyone but Disney -- but they look at the restaurants within the context of the entire resort. And if merchandise stores or Outdoor Vending (ODV) have high-profit margins, and they are by far, then Disney would rather "invest" the money in a higher-margined producer of income. While this results in a cleaner bottom line for Disney accounting wise, it has the unfortunate byproduct that Disney owns fewer of the restaurants and can exercise less control over their operation. A manager who believes that the patrons of his restaurants are just tourists and don't need to be treated particularly well since they might never come back anyway, is one such example of the result, and this actually occurred recently at Downtown Disney.

The McDonalds sponsored SS rustworthy playground near Burger Invasion
The McDonalds sponsored SS rustworthy playground near Burger Invasion

Despite bumps in the road such as these, Disney is likely to remain committed to this new model of vendor-run restaurants within its theme parks, for the sake of the bottom line. How much do you want to bet that we'll see a similar model in Hong Kong, when its Magic Kingdom opens?

Have I eaten at McDonald's locations in WDW, DL, and DCA? Sure. Will I do it again? Almost certainly. Do I hate myself for it, for having contributed to the dilution of Walt's immersion? You bet.

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Burger Invasion - McDonald's and Disneyland


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