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A “behind–the–ears” look at Disneyland
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David Koenig
Ways of the World

What Disneyland can learn from Walt Disney World

I firmly believe that Disney executives and managers can learn more about how to improve their particular theme park by rubbing elbows with the guests and cast members than by reading a stack of reports. Get out of the office once in a while, talk to the hourlies, wait in the queues, watch the guests.

An even better field trip might be to send the lot of Disneyland leaders to Walt Disney World (WDW). Here, they can look with fresh eyes on a similar yet magnified business, one confronting the same obstacles in trying to achieve the same financial and guest satisfaction goals.

Myself, I just returned from two weeks at WDW. Two weeks of pleasant surprises and unfortunate disappointments. In all, plenty of time to see areas that Disneyland can learn from its cross-country cousin.

Photo by Sheila Hagen

1. Guests see through half-hearted efforts and empty promotions.

Disney couldn't care less about anniversaries, but their fans do.

I purposely planned to be in Orlando October 1st, the 20th anniversary of Epcot. Alas, when I arrived that morning, I saw no banners to mark the occasion. There was no "20 Years of Epcot" exhibit. No special ceremony. No speeches. Not even a commemorative pin.

Most of the cast members I spoke with were unaware of the day's significance. The chipper host at the Guest Relations counter caught on -- with some prodding...

I asked: "I was wondering if you'll be doing anything special for today's anniversary?"

Host (smiling, though his eyes betrayed some confusion): "Anniversary?"

Me: "Yes, today is Epcot's 20th anniversary."

Host (smiling even more warmly): "Well, it's difficult to devote a celebration to just one of our parks. We're an entire resort. And, in fact, it's not just Epcot's anniversary today. It's all of Walt Disney World's!"

Me: "True, but I didn't expect a 31st birthday party for the Magic Kingdom."

Host (somehow still smiling): "Actually, we are celebrating the anniversary of the entire resort, in fact the entire company, with our 100 Years of Magic celebration. The promotion has been extended due to popular demand."

Popular demand? I restrained myself from laughing. Demand from whom? The accountants who don't want to budget for new signs and brochures? I cannot imagine ANYONE booking a return visit from out-of-state just to get one last chance to look at what pretended to be resort-wide festivities. Now, I adored the main exhibit at Disney-MGM Studios (a Cliff's Notes version appeared at DCA's Animation Building), but it seemed to be drawing Mr. Lincoln-sized audiences.

More visible were kiosks with bite-sized history lessons for toddlers. Forced "In Walt's own words..." recorded spiels before each parade and show. A couple of borrowed parades. None of which bodes well for Disneyland's 50th.

2. Anaheim is copying the right rides.

I spent quite a bit of time not only enjoying WDW attractions, but also watching others enjoy them. And, I'll tell you, few attractions generated smiles so huge -- at least for the youngsters -- as the Magic Kingdom's Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (on its way to Disneyland in the spring) and Disney-MGM Studios' Playhouse Disney Live show (coming to DCA about the same time).

Disneyland's Pooh ride sounds like an abbreviated version of WDW's, but will retain all the highlights, especially the vehicles bouncing with Tigger and floating in the flood, as well as the nifty rain effects.

Playhouse Disney Live is a show I thought should have been featured at DCA since Day One. The soundstage setting is sparse, the storybook backdrop modest, the effects (bubbles, streamers) minimal-- in short, it's affordable.

Every performance, despite low overall attendance in the rest of the park, was standing room only. The plot -- sharing stories about various Disney Channel characters to relieve mouse Tutter's shyness -- is flimsy. The few adults without children in the audience looked bewildered. But most of the kids (not counting those who shrieked in terror at the sight of an 8-foot-tall bear) were on their feet dancing, singing and cheering from start to finish.

Among WDW's other top crowd-pleasers, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is also on its way to DCA and Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin and Rock'n Roller Coaster have long been on the short list of possible additions.

3. Disneyland's Main Street doesn't know how lucky it is.

A few years ago, WDW's Main Street Cinema became a shop. Then the fire station became a store. Now, I see that within the last year the Emporium has been expanded straight across Center Street. The left side of Main Street is now one long mega-Disney Store from Town Square to the Hub. Inside, of course, were the same old T-shirts and plush, just in greater quantities.

ODV carts are also on the rise, making even the Magic Kingdom's ultra-wide streets difficult to navigate. The only time I couldn't spot a refreshment cart was in the sweltering hour before SpectroMagic -- with a captive audience of thousands staking out their spots along the parade route.

The most impressive new shopping experience was the Downtown Disney Marketplace's high-energy toy store, Once Upon a Toy. Here's a concept worth copying.

Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix

4. Guests pay more to visit Disney theme parks, stay at Disney hotels, and eat at Disney restaurants. In theory, Disney cast members should be a notch above employees at competing businesses.

WDW doesn't have a monopoly on friendly employees. Sure, I came across dozens of exceptional cast members during my trip. I also ran across an unusually large number of sourpusses, including a grumpy bus driver, a bitter ferryboat captain, and several clueless or lazy food servers.

What surprised me most, though, was the number of wonderful non-Disney employees I met along the periphery. The bubbly waitress at the TGI-Friday's at the Crossroads, the hard-working hostess at the neighboring Chevy's Mexican restaurant, the superb checker and manager at the nearby Winn Dixie, the hyper-helpful clerk at the Eckerd's drugstore.

In the early years, Disney seemed to suck all the talent out of the local labor pool. Nowadays, Orlando's best and brightest may be looking elsewhere.

The Grand Californian on opening day

5. Believe it or not, Anaheim could use another timeshare.

The most shocking part of my trip to WDW was leisurely cruising down Lake Buena Vista and turning to the banks of the now-shuttered Disney Institute, only to see a giant crane eating through the two-story villas as if they were paper. As the crane's jaws chomped into the roof, walls shook, windows shattered and doors popped out of their hinges.

Construction crews are leveling the structures to make room for quasi-timeshare facilities for the  Disney Vacation Club (DVC). Currently WDW's most successful program, DVC provides the company with a fistful of money up front, ongoing funds through annual dues, and guaranteed return visits for the next 40 years.

Ten years ago, Disney opened its first DVC resort on the WDW property and planned to build DVC resorts across the country, if not around the world. Unfortunately, while WDW's four on-site DVC resorts have sold at an increasingly faster pace, sales of the two resorts built away from WDW (Vero Beach, Florida, and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina) have been disappointing. Consequently, DVC lost interest in building away from WDW and a few years ago sold a large parcel of coastal land in Newport Beach, California, to Marriott's timeshare division.

DVC found it too difficult to sell the timeshare without the adjacent multi-day destination resort. Bringing DVC to Anaheim could, in fact, help turn the Disneyland Resort into the "multi-day destination" it aspires to be.

Local one-day visitors, with prepaid accommodations, would be encouraged to extend their stay. The ability to use their membership to stay at WDW resorts would tempt them to increase travel to Orlando. Similarly, existing DVC members would be encouraged to visit Anaheim.

Frankly, the decision seems a no-brainer, especially in light of the DVC trend to expand by adding on to existing hotels, such as WDW's Beach Club (above) and Wilderness Lodge This allows the DVC property to utilize existing staff and facilities, such as parking lots, reservation desks and swimming pools; to consume less acreage, and to capitalize on the hotel's established brand name.

The most logical choices at Disneyland would be as an expansion of the Grand Californian or as a sister property to a highly themed hotel attached to a proposed third gate.

DVC is one WDW success story Disneyland should make its own.

Send your comments to David here.

Ways of the World


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.

You can contact David here.


Click here to go to David's main page for a list of archived articles.

Visit MouseShoppe to purchase copies of David's books. (Clicking on the link opens a new window.)


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