Is Disney Listening?by Steve Russo, staff writer
Here's a truism for you: Disney fans are passionate. I'm sure that surprises no one. Whenever there's a news item that might affect a Disney park, we tend to weigh in quickly and emphatically. Whatever the change is, our tendency is to celebrate the good news or ask what those idiots in Imagineering were thinking—we don't usually take up space in the middle ground.
I was perusing social media the other day and caught a post from one of my Facebook friends, a fellow Disney fanatic. He had recently heard a rumor that the Voices of Liberty, the a cappella group that sings in the rotunda of the American Adventure, would be leaving Epcot.
While this rumor turned out to be false, it so incensed him that he posted a self-described rant about the perceived direction of Walt Disney World. As so often happens, scores of other posters jumped on this bandwagon and began chiming in with gripes of their own or simply reinforcing displeasure with what was already written—in many instances, completely missing the retraction of the original rumor. There were only a few posts, by my informal count, that questioned or debated some of the claims.
If there were a theme to the rant, it seemed to ask, "Is Disney listening to its guests?" I contacted the poster and received permission to reprint some of the rant here. In some cases, I agree; in others, not so much. In any case, I thought that delineating a point / counterpoint here would provide both sides of the issues and, as always, allow others to weigh in and discuss.
After detailing why the Voices of Liberty issue (remember that this was proven to be false) upset him, the poster wrote: "Shall we start with a small list of how much less Disney magic holds for its guests while upping their prices?" The list, and my comments, follow:
"Okay how about last year when the [annual passport] prices now are the same for a 3-year (old) as well as (for) a 63-year old. What?!"
Sadly, this is absolutely true. The annual pass appears to be the only ticket media that is priced this way. Magic Your Way tickets, water park passes, Disney Quest, and so on, all have at least slightly reduced prices for children (3 to 9 years old). I can only believe this is an example of Disney pricing an item to what the market will bear. I can think of no other justification.
"How about the complete failure of the Fastass Plus system? That's right. I'm saying it right here. Complete failure. Instead of giving guests more access, it has created the complete opposite. Have you been in a park lately and seen the long lines at the Fastpass+ kiosks, or even better, how some attractions have longer Fastpass lines than standby lines?"
This one is not so easy, evidenced by the "spirited" response to my recent column on Fastpass+ strategies. First, I take issue with terming it a "complete failure". I know many people, especially those who were prolific users of the old Fastpass system, have issues with new one. Most issues seem to focus on the "one park per day" and "three Fastpass tickets per day" restrictions. For some other touring styles, mine included, the new system works nicely allowing me to set up Fastpass attractions in advance and tour in a more leisurely style. Like many things, it works well for some and not so well for others.
However, please remember that the Fastpass+ system is technically still in a testing phase. The minds at Disney are watching and learning just as we are. I don't think these systems are anyway near complete, and truly believe there will be changes designed to address at least some of the perceived shortcomings. As evidence, I recently took a Disney survey, focused on Fastpass+, which asked my opinion of alternative systems. These alternatives were consistent in that they addressed multiple parks per day and more than three Fastpass tickets each day. The differences were in how and when the additional Fastpass tickets would become available.
My assessment is that I don't think Disney would be surveying guests if they hadn't already recognized some of the shortcomings and are planning changes. Let's not pass final judgment on Fastpass+ until it's fully operational.
"When it comes to runDisney, my fellow runners can give you a list a mile long. Race Retreat allows runners a tent with food and private porta-potties and all that stuff. Yeah… years ago when a nice hot breakfast was offered after your race… it was around $80… lately for $100+ you get eggs, maybe a bagel… some hash browns… water and soda… yeah soda… oh… forgot the real bad bacon. This is NONSNESE and my fellow runners are all telling the new runners… Don't waste your money.
"Shall we talk about race registrations that are ridiculously overpriced? Sure… we'll pay them but guess what… we won't be staying on the property, going into parks, or eating at sit-down restaurants anymore because we have to shift somehow… so bottom line is that the revenue stream is reduced… good move runDisney. Over the last eight years race registrations have doubled… has your salary doubled over the last eight years?…
"… Also, for those of you who are not runners runDisney just subtly put on their runDisney page that no longer will someone will be able to pick up your race packet if your flight is delayed or if you want to save a vacation day at work or keep your kids in school one more day. Is this policy change driven due to liability issues or revenue stream issues? Dunno… runDisney isn't saying."
My running days ended years ago with back surgery and (later) a bad knee. I no longer run unless something bigger and hungrier is chasing me. However, I can sympathize here but… only to a degree. There's no doubt that these events are expensive, and getting more expensive each year. There are also many, many more events each year. I also read that many of these events are selling out in days, hours or even minutes after registration is available. More runners, more events, and selling out fast—what does all that tell you?
This, to me, is truly a case of speaking with your wallet. As a business (and let's not kid ourselves—Disney is a business), if I offered something that attracted increasing numbers of people and sold out quickly, I would certainly consider raising its price—and continuing to raise the price until the demand began to erode. Why would I not?
If consumers are getting less for their money, it becomes incumbent on them to speak with their wallet and no longer purchase something viewed as overpriced and/or undervalued.
Regarding the new requirement that runners must pick up their own race packets at the expo, this does sound like an inconvenience without good cause. I can't see how it could be a revenue issue, and its involving liability seems a stretch.
"Speaking of dining… Tables In Wonderland… how many more restaurants will be (taken) off the list of this discount offer before it becomes useless?"
I do take issue with this complaint. I've had a Tables in Wonderland card for many years and, while I lament the price increase for the card (see supply/demand, above) I've seen no evidence of the number of restaurants being diminished. I use this card for 20 percent off food and drink at almost all the table service restaurants and bars/lounges within Walt Disney World. It's also accepted at a few counter service establishments as well. I haven't done a year by year comparison but today's list of establishments looks no smaller than one from several years ago.
"Oh but you know we are building AvatarLand in Disney's Animal Kingdom Park. Good luck with that."
Ouch. Yeah, I know where this is coming from. As a film, Avatar does not have the universal appeal of the Star Wars series, or the Harry Potter books and films used as the basis for the new attractions at Universal Studios' Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As a result, many (most?) Disney fans are skeptical of what may arise at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
Personally, I favor a wait-and-see approach. New attractions from the Imagineers rarely disappoint—yes, I once wrote about Stitch's Supersonic Celebration and I don't think I've ever been more disappointed in an attraction. At any rate, I've seen comments from Disney, such as: "…world of AVATAR guests will encounter awe-inspiring floating mountains and wander through a nighttime jungle of bioluminescent plants that are alive with light and sound. Guests will also discover what it feels like to soar into the sky riding a Banshee."
I can't help it—that all sounds really cool. At the least, I'm willing to give Imagineering the benefit of the doubt before condemning this venture.
"And if you haven't heard other rumors… like this year could be the last year for Osborne Lights and possibly Illuminations: Reflections of Earth… well… sorry to ruin your day."
I have heard these rumors but, honestly, until they're facts, I can't get overly excited. Worrying about what might happen is not something with which I'm comfortable. I've not heard anything specific about the Osborne Lights and I have no indication it's going away anytime soon. Obviously, that could change in a heartbeat.
I seriously doubt that Illuminations would be going anywhere without a suitable replacement. I have heard, from a source I consider very reliable, that testing for new fireworks shows has been going on for a while and just might involve parks that have previously not offered a fireworks show. I would suspect Wishes is safe for quite a while but… Illuminations: Reflections of Earth has been around for some time. I truly love this show but would an upgrade or replacement be that far-fetched?
"Oh but we have a big, beautiful parade in [the Magic Kingdom] and it looks great… long time coming… I don't want anyone to think I don't appreciate the cost and effort that went into putting this together… but it's been a long time, and whatever happened to having parades in the other parks?"
I'm on the bandwagon with the new Festival of Fantasy parade at the Magic Kingdom—it looks great. The other parks? Well, we do have Mickey's Jammin' Jungle Parade in the Animal Kingdom (and its Christmas season version). It's a well-done, fun parade even though it creates issues with park navigation. There have been parades at Disney's Hollywood Studios previously but none, at least in my opinion, with the staying power of those at the Magic Kingdom. The Stars and Motor Cars parade was OK, but I was never into the High School Musical versions. It seems like Disney fans want to see the classic Disney characters in their parades.
Epcot? I loved the Tapestry of Nations parade but I'm well aware of the problems it caused—problems for guests trying to navigate the World Showcase promenade and the physical stress the large puppets placed on the cast members. I'd like to think the Imagineers could figure out a way to bring it back in a fashion that would work for park guests and cast members alike, while still keeping that great soundtrack.
"It's funny how they are quick to cut budget by wiping out Voices of Liberty but dragging their feet to fix Bre'r Rabbit in Splash Mountain or the Yeti in Expedition Everest… yet they are quick to write a check to James Cameron as a result of a knee jerk reaction to Universal's presentation of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Where's Michael Eisner when you need him?"
I have to agree here. I know, from what I've heard, that the Yeti in Expedition Everest is not an easy fix and would require a lengthy ride refurbishment to accomplish—but it's now been a few years that it hasn't worked. Ditto with Br'er Rabbit, and we could probably list several more maintenance issues that could/should be dealt with.
I'd like to think the decision to partner with James Cameron wasn't a "knee jerk reaction" to Harry Potter, but I can certainly understand the sentiment.
" So I could go on … mentioning the cutback hours for the monorail and other things… but I have bigger fish to fry today."
My information says the recent cutback to the monorail hours is due to beam maintenance, and Disney has brought on additional buses to handle the traffic. However, this comment may be based on the past decision to shut the monorails down earlier each evening. I have no idea why this was done but I agree it has a negative impact to the guest experience.
"Oh by the way, there is a rumor that the Not So (Scary) Halloween Party will run from August 29 through November 2. I'm sure it costs money to put on that party but why not stick to just October and use the savings to keep things we love like The Voices of Liberty, which have been around for years?"
I, for one, think it's ridiculous how we, as a society, seem to celebrate "holidays" as seasons rather than days—Halloween in particular. I would agree that celebrating Halloween in October makes more sense but… "savings"? I don't believe for a second that Disney would save money by cutting back on the number of Halloween parties. I think, at the prices they charge for this extra entry into the Magic Kingdom, Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party is a huge money maker for Disney. In my opinion, that's what drives the additional schedule.
"Oh and how about what many people knew as The Lights of Winter in Epcot when they were referring to the trestle with the dancing lights? Oh… old technology we were told… that's why it's gone… well wait… we still loved it and if it was technology already established then wouldn't it be less costly than developing new technology?"
I could be wrong here, but my understanding is that it was becoming impossible, or prohibitively costly, to maintain the existing, older technology lighting systems. At some point, replacement parts simply aren't available, at any cost. However, like the poster, I loved the Lights of Winter and wonder why it wasn't simply replaced with newer, less costly and more easily maintained technology. It is sorely missed each holiday season.
"So excuse my rant but for years I've been good about stuff… relatively speaking… but this latest rumor… hopefully it is… just kind of put me over the edge."
From his work, I know this to be true. There, arguably, hasn't been a bigger fan or stauncher proponent of the "Disney way" than this poster. But we all have our breaking point. Unfortunately, sometimes our emotions cause us to react without first getting all the facts.
"And… I'm calling out the WDW execs to come forward and start changing their ways. That is, if there is a change that is being considered let us in on it and how about asking us what we think about it? How about at least giving us a choice… let us tell you what we would least miss if we could make that choice."
See my earlier comments about the recent survey on Fastpass+. Disney certainly does poll their guests regularly and they seem to take comments seriously. I would join the poster in his wish for increased guest involvement to a point.
However, my experience in the business world has taught me how difficult it is to get more than a few people to agree on anything. I guess what we're asking for is to have the Imagineers continue doing what they're great at—designing and implementing new attractions for our enjoyment. But please don't do it in a vacuum. Likewise, while I think Disney fandom should have a voice in these decisions, I'm not comfortable with "John from Brooklyn" making the decisions.
Companies like Disney spend tons of money trying to determine what will sell, and what their customers will find attractive. Our history is dotted with successes and failures. Disney, at least in my opinion, seems to be right more than they're wrong, evidenced by a fairly impressive track record.
"Don't shove things down our throat thinking we'll eventually like them."
"I still say since the latest change to Spaceship Earth, it's—in a colleagues words—"An E-ticket ride going up and an A-ticket ride coming down."
It's difficult to argue with that assessment. We've had some fun with the generated video on the "coming down" side but I do believe this ride could use some work on that end.
"To keep that God awful Stitch's Great Escape going while removing the Voices of Liberty is just mind boggling to me."
As mentioned, the Voices of Liberty are staying put. Stitch's Great Escape is not a favorite of mine but, every time I walk past, there are people queued up. Personally, I preferred the previous incarnation, the Alien Encounter, but I might be in the minority.
"If you remember correctly, there was a huge uproar decades ago when Disneyland decided to replace Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln with another attraction. The folks in California felt that attraction was part of the family… it was something their children grew up with and looked forward to seeing every time they strolled into DisneyLand.
"The same holds for many things here… I know there are those who still are not OK with Snow Whites Adventures being taken away, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride long gone, and an attraction so beloved as Horizons now just a 12-minute clip on YouTube… I don't have the time to list the others… but feel free to add to the list."
Joni Mitchell once sang, "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." I think it applies here. Our hope is that whenever an attraction is replaced, the replacement will be better than the old. Whether it is or isn't is up to the individual, and opinions will be all over the place. I also loved Horizons and I think it's easy to use that attraction in the "What's wrong with Disney?" argument. We can debate all day about whether or not Mission: Space is an improvement, but there's strong evidence that there were major issues with the Horizons structure and equally strong reports that, in its last years, ridership was down significantly.
"Let it be said that the Walt Disney World Resort is our playground. We understand it's a business and we want it to thrive and exist, but at the same time, we don't understand some of your decisions.
So you build a [Disney Vacation Club] for Grand Floridian and take away Voices of Liberty… that doesn't make sense because not everyone is a DVC member… but everyone visits Epcot… and I don't want to beat a dead horse, but as someone who is a huge science fiction fan, I can tell you that Avatar does not do it… I would say less than 20 percent of my Disney friends—and I have a lot of them—expressed an interest in this Avatar venture… "
In truth, not everyone visits Epcot—or even likes Epcot. Everyone could stay at the new DVC Villas at the Grand Floridian—not just DVC members. But, of course, everyone won't, and I get the point. For one, I don't think it's difficult to understand the business reasons behind the proliferation of new DVC resorts. Disney was, is, and will be driven by revenue. While that's not a surprise, what has separated Disney for folks like you and me is its notable commitment to excellence and customer satisfaction.
On the Avatar issue, I truly understand the skepticism. As I said earlier, let's wait and see what they come up with.
"OK, my venting is done… whether my Facebook friends agree with me or not, I hope at least you understand from where this rage comes from, and I welcome you to share this tirade with whomever you think would appreciate it."
I truly do understand where this comes from. I've certainly expressed negative opinions whenever Disney has taken away something I truly enjoyed (the Comedy Warehouse and Adventurers Club for two). But I also understand that Disney is making decisions from a broader perspective than my personal likes and dislikes. I wasn't privy to the financial records of the two Pleasure Island clubs, but even I wondered how you could sustain a bar, with live entertainment, when so few people were actually ordering drinks.
I would contend that, when it comes to new attractions, Disney and its Imagineers have had many, many more homeruns than strikeouts. For every Stitch's Supersonic Celebration, there's a Toy Story Midway Mania and an Expedition Everest. There have been many recent and positive improvements to existing attractions, like Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, Star Tours, Test Track, and Pirates of the Caribbean. It may never be enough for us, but we can't argue that there is more now at Walt Disney World than there ever was.
Like the poster, we're all hopeful that they never lose sight of us, their biggest fans. We want things done that are positives to all, or at least most, of us. We don't like to wait for things and, above all, we want to feel like we have a voice in the changes that impact our enjoyment of the resort.
As always, thanks for reading.