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Observations and Analysis of Disney in the News

News Commentary from June 11 - June 18

Oh, Shrek!

Sue Kruse

Shrek promotional art © DreamWorks LLC
Shrek promotional art DreamWorks LLC

Sccess is not always measured in box office returns. Sometimes success has to do with building a name. After all, brand-name recognition sells product. As an article in last weeks' L.A. Times pointed out, brand-name recognition is something Disney knows all about. No matter what the Mouse comes up with, if it has the Disney name attached, people buy it. Lately though, Mickey must be feeling a bit of a tug at his heels, and for good reason. There's a new brand in town, and it comes in the form of a crotchety green ogre.

Shrek, Dreamworks computer-animated tale of an ogre, his donkey sidekick, and the ubiquitous princess in distress, is still pulling them in at the box office. It seems the movie going public can't get enough of the film. Widely well reviewed, Shrek is what the title character aptly refers to as an onion, full of layers. It appeals on many levels, both to adults (including some pretty funny satirical jabs at Disney), and children as well. What Shrek is doing for Dreamworks, is building that oh so desirable brand-name recognition. For the first time, since Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen founded the studio, media and theater owners alike are now speaking in glowing terms of a Dreamworks production.

That must be a bit of a disappointment for Disney president, Michael Eisner, who, in a letter to stockholders last December, wrote about Pearl Harbor, "There are no sure things in the entertainment industry, but this comes close." While Pearl Harbor is not a box office bomb, with domestic sales of $153 million (as of June 15th) it sure isn't the "biggest movie of the summer," as Eisner predicted on CNBC that it would be. With tickets sales reaching $197.2 million after this past weekend, the title of box office champ is more likely to go to Dreamworks' brand-building Shrek.

Lately, I've been feeling that the Disney company is a little out of touch with its audience and I think CEO Michael Eisner's statements point up just how much. From the under-whelming public response to their new theme park, Disney's California Adventure, to the sinking box office of Pearl Harbor, it's clear to me that people are beginning to send a message to the Mouse where it hurts... the pocketbook. The Disney brand alone is no longer sufficient cause for the public to let loose with their hard-earned cash.


Selling California Adventure to Children

Al Lutz

MousePlanet, as well as the Orange County Register (among many other news outlets) has reported that Disney, along with a massive ad campaign geared to getting kids in, is now offering free kid's tickets (along with an adult discounted admission) to try and get the lackluster attendance up in the new park. As fellow MousePlaneteer Mouse Tales' David Koenig says in the article linked above: "It has to be the No. 1 complaint, that this whole theme park is marketed to children, with nothing for children to do."

Raft ride
Raft Ride

As editor here on the site, it is amazing to see the uniformly poor reader feedback that we get on a daily basis from recent visitors to California Adventure (DCA). One has to wonder after reading it all if the short term patch of giving the kids a free ticket (and the parents a minor discount) is really the correct solution. It looks like the goal appears to be to pull in more visitors, no matter what the resulting bad word of mouth will be — the classic shortsighted solution to what really is a long rage deeply rooted problem.

With a giveaway kid's admission and a discounted adult ticket (hastily enacted I might add during what is supposed to be the peak attendance time for a brand-spanking new Disney theme park) — it gives the impression that resort head Paul Pressler's "vision" pretty much missed the mark. These rather desperate looking actions, and the resulting already negative press spin as a result (plus the continuing poor word of mouth) only seem to make things look desperate to the public. The complete overhaul of the "edgy" adult entertainment into more character appearances and character shows clearly indicated they didn't give the public what it expected.

Isn't it time the customer should stop having to deal with Michael Eisner's tolerance and/or support of Paul Pressler's seemingly endless learning curve? (Examples: Pressler started his job trying to shut down the Indy attraction midway through construction, and then gave us the disastrous Light Magic. He has stopped all basic upkeep on park attractions deeming the public never notices, and fought for Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance as parade music.)

Pressler's latest Orlando brainstorm? Increasing gift shop snow globe sales by demanding the Walt's 100th Birthday parade floats in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom be designed as giant versions of said merchandise. (Don't believe me — see the following web page on the upcoming parade units.) Isn't the idea supposed to be that you make toys of the attractions — and not attractions out of the toys? It's especially sad for me to see the beloved Disney characters under glass — so remote from the audience they are supposed to be close to. Isn't it really the hug that they sell?

It's been said if the pupil has no musical aptitude - why pay (dearly I might add) for the piano lessons? Pressler's talents obviously lay elsewhere, wherever that may be. Befitting its legacy, the Walt Disney Company should have a showman, not a shopkeeper, running the parks.

A 1.4 billion dollar mistake should wake someone up to the problems, wouldn't you think?


Extreme: Another View? 

Brian Bennett

Magic Mountain's collection of coasters
Magic Mountain's collection of coasters

The Los Angeles Times has reported that, although the final cause of 28-year-old Pearl Santos' death on June 2 had not been finalized, further studies into the incident may reveal that Ms. Santos' had other pre-existing medical conditions that contributed to the rupture of a pre-existing aneurysm. Meanwhile, the Orange County Register cites a private meeting between state investigators and coroner's officials that claim that Ms. Santos' experience on Magic Mountain's Goliath "most likely" triggered her death.

This incident has set off a firestorm of controversy about the amusement park industry and it's most extreme attractions. By any normal measure, roller coasters such as Goliath are considered to be safe. Only in unforeseen and very unfortunate circumstances do such tragedies occur.

It is my strong opinion that amusement and theme park owners and operators should be held to the highest level of responsibility as far as the safe operation of their park. However, I don't think they can be held responsible for situations that are out of the norm, and completely unpredictable. Only time will tell if state regulators and legislatures agree.


Don't Celebrate Too Soon  

Kevin Yee

The Orlando Sentinel recently ran an article about the town of Celebration, a planned community mostly run by Disney. Celebration, not all that far off from Walt's original plan for EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) before it became just another theme park, currently has almost 5,000 residents, the vast majority of which are extremely happy with their revolutionary community.

Still, as the Sentinel points out, things are far from perfect: median home prices in the town are $300,000, well above the regional average. Residency is overwhelmingly white, with a mix about 50% higher in whites than the Orlando area at large. And Disney is seen by most residents as an autocratic, sometimes haughty ruler of the community less than interested in resident representation in the community's ruling bodies and newspapers.

Disney, famous for getting its way, is really only taking the Reedy Creek governmental body idea to its next logical step. The Reedy Creek Development District is a local government set up by Disney to administer the Walt Disney World (WDW) resort area, which in essence allows Disney to do its own zoning and run things they way they like. Celebration is the next logical step, and before one gets too critical of the heavy hand Disney uses in administering local politics, it's important to remember that Celebration has sparked over 200 copycat communities nation-wide.

Large corporations fostering communities that reflect their corporate culture may well be the wave of the future, but the inevitable nagging question must follow: if these communities cater to the corporate workers, as Celebration does, what happens in an economic downturn which downsizing forces the reduction of staff? Will Celebration feel ill-effects from the layoffs at the WDW resort? Time will tell, of course, and it bears mentioning that Celebration is open to all residents who meet the application criteria, not just Disney employees. Still, it will be interesting to see if this Cinderella's Castle of urban renewal turns out to be just another ivory tower.


Let the Sun Shine In  

Lani Teshima

In a recent article entitled, “Stonewalling: The Worst PR,” the LA Times brought back into focus the problem the public has with Disney and other amusement parks refusing to reveal safety data regarding customer injuries. This “stonewalling” by the theme park industry is so bad that according to the article, Superior Court Judge Madeleine Flier accused Disney of "bad faith," fining the company for the second time this year.

The impetus of the story comes after a woman died of a brain aneurism after riding Magic Mountain's Goliath roller coaster earlier this month, with doctors and safety advocates vocally requesting safety data to better analyze the risks of theme park rides The article goes on to agree that research is needed, since “having good records of accidents or injuries inevitably must be a key part of any organized attempt to better understand whether head injuries can result when amusement park rides ‘push the envelope.’”

I can understand why officials of Disney and other theme parks are reluctant to provide such statistics. If the public were to learn how dangerous some of the rides were, the companies risk losing gate revenue and an increase in lawsuits. In a sense, this situation reminds me of the tobacco industry, which for decades denied any responsibility or culpability for its products. Yet as long as park officials hide data or deny responsibility for such things as aneurisms, this leaves safety advocates with a wide field of accusations, true or not. Cry foul long enough, and the ride attractions will become the cause of all unrelated (but poorly timed) strokes and heart attacks.

After all, if I die in 10 years from a stroke, some anti-tobacco group will count me as a smoking-related death even though I haven’t been much of a smoker for many years. If I happen to have that stroke while riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, heck, the safety advocates can accuse Disney of causing it, too. Without full disclosure on statistics and extensive research, how can anyone refute it?



ABOUT THIS COLUMN

One of the lesser-known features of MousePlanet is our News headlines in our MousePad discussion forum, where we try to direct you to any important news stories about the entire Disney company.

One thing we can't provide in that resource is an idea as to how those stories, generally about very specific portions of the company, may fit into the larger Disney picture. Towards that end, the Reporter's Notebook provides brief comments on those recent stories that are of interest.

We welcome your questions and comments, but keep in mind that all submissions to the Reporter's Notebook become property of this Web site. They may be edited for length or style and in consideration of a family readership. Questions may also be quoted on other parts of the site.

Send your questions, comments, and news tips here.

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