Executive Shuffle

by Mark Goldhaber, staff writer

Back in June, I wrote about the structure of the Walt Disney Parks & Resorts division. At the time, each resort directly reported to James A. (Jay) Rasulo, President of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts. Last week, Rasulo (who became Chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts this fall) announced a reorganization of the division, which according to a Disney press release, “aimed at aligning internal operations and capitalizing on future growth opportunities in the expanding global family vacation market.”

The most obvious change is that all Disney parks and resorts around the world have been consolidated under Al Weiss, who receives a promotion from President of Walt Disney World to President of Worldwide Operations. While Hong Kong Disneyland interim head Don Robinson will continue to report to Rasulo, that position will eventually report to Weiss, as well. Weiss will also continue to act as President of Walt Disney World until a successor is named, which may take a year or so.

Building off of Weiss' new position, Rasulo has reorganized the division to create a new Executive Committee to act as a leadership body and to provide counsel to Rasulo on new initiatives. In addition to Weiss, the Executive Committee will include: Meg Crofton, Executive VP of Human Resources, Diversity and Inclusion; Jim Hunt, Chief Financial Officer and Executive VP of Finance, Information Technology and Research; Leslie Goodman, promoted to Senior VP of Public Affairs; Mike Mendenhall, Executive VP of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts's newly-formed Global Marketing organization; Don Goodman, President of Walt Disney Imagineering, Creative Entertainment, Disney Regional Entertainment and Adventures by Disney; and Nick Franklin, Senior VP of International Development and Walt Disney Attractions Japan.

This new structure will allow Rasulo to better command the various areas under his command by reducing the number of people that directly report to him and by forming them into a committee that needs to work together. In addition, it will allow the consolidation of similar functions into single units, so that a smaller overall group can manage the same function across more individual units. The realignment into functional “silos” will also allow incremental increases in existing “back-office” departments as the company moves toward opening additional theme parks.

Finally, this change is intended to help support the new overall corporate priorities. As Rasulo put it in an announcement of the changes to cast members, “Our new organization aligns our business with Bob Iger's three priorities for the enterprise: creating quality and innovative content; deploying cutting-edge technologies to showcase our content; expanding and adding depth to our global presence.”

Changes to the presidency of Walt Disney World

Al Weiss started working at Walt Disney World in 1972 while still attending the University of Central Florida. That hourly position in the accounting department eventually led to greater levels of responsibility as he first graduated from UCF and then received his MBA from Rollins College. After holding senior leadership positions in both the Resorts and Finance divisions, he was promoted to the newly created position of Executive Vice President of Walt Disney World, reporting then head of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts Dick Nunis. In 1996, that position was retitled as President of Walt Disney World.

While Weiss will continue to run the Florida operation for now, who will be the beneficiary of the search process? Will someone from elsewhere in the organization be brought in, as with Matt Ouimet at Disneyland? More likely, the next leader will come from within, as Walt Disney World—with a much larger “bench”—has more candidates to choose from. In addition, those candidates have already learned their park management skills from Weiss, who will most likely look for someone to continue the work already in progress.

At the moment, most speculation centers on Lee Cockerell, Executive Vice President of Operations for Walt Disney World. Heads of other divisions at the Florida resort are also likely among the leading candidates, but my money would probably be on Cockerell. We'll have to wait and see how it turns out.

What these changes mean

Rasulo will be able to spend less time on the parks themselves, with Weiss taking much of that workload off of him. This will allow him to spend more time looking at the development of new ideas and new initiatives across the board. He will also have more time to pay attention to Imagineering, which has been undergoing some major cutbacks of late.

Many Disneyphiles fear that the consolidation means that there will be widespread cloning in the parks, and that Magic Kingdom-style parks, for example, will become indistinguishable from one another. However, Weiss told the Orlando Sentinel in a telephone interview that this would not be the case. “They're going to continue to stay very unique,” he said.

That said, there will still likely be clones of new attractions appearing worldwide, especially the less-expensive but highly successful ones such as the Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin/Astro Blasters ride currently making its way around the world. The efficiencies of getting multiple installations out of one attraction design can't really be ignored. We just have to hope that Weiss keeps to his promise, not overusing the cloning process win comparison to allowing the creation of unique attractions.

What the change does likely mean, however, is that many of the systems designed to bring tourists onto Disney property—and keep them and their money there as much as possible—will be rolled out worldwide. Features already in use at Walt Disney World, such as having your Disney resort room key also serve as your park admission and, with your consent, act as a credit card to charge your purchases back to your room, are extremely popular with resort guests. I would look for this to roll out to other resorts.

The Destination: Disney project, created at Walt Disney World, will be the flagship system. Many phases of the system have been rolled out in Florida, such as Disney's Magical Express bus service. That program has been so successful for Disney that it is already being adopted elsewhere, in the new Disneyland Resort Express service, created in conjunction with Airport Bus in California. Other initiatives, such as Pal Mickey, Disney's PhotoPass, and PhotoMovie (still in test mode), are still only available in Florida.

There is even more that is yet to roll out anywhere, but which may soon appear in Florida. When you call to make a reservation, how would you like the reservationists to know your preferences in favorite restaurants and recreational opportunities via a reminder on their screen, and for them to offer reservation suggestions for you? How about a loyalty program where you receive extra amenities or discounts based on how frequently you visit the resort? How would you like to check in to your resort and get your room key when you check in for Disney's Magical Express, so that you can go straight to a theme park from the airport? What would you think about a Pal Mickey that allowed you to make dining reservations through him, or even charge your purchases with him?

These innovations have all been in development and may (or may not) be coming soon to Walt Disney World at which point, if successful, they would be spread to all resorts by Al Weiss as the overseer of worldwide operations.

This will allow money spent on developing these new initiatives to benefit all Disney destinations, not just the one that spent the money to develop it.

The additional attention to be paid to Walt Disney Parks & Resorts Online by Rasulo may turn some of their up-and-coming projects into new experiences. For example, back on September 12, MousePlanet broke the story on the new handheld, interactive games tested in Disneyland on Tom Sawyer Island and in the Haunted Mansion. If those projects get the go-ahead in California and prove to be successful, you can bet that they will make their global appearance rather quickly after that.

With the continuing creation of functional “silos,” opening a new park becomes easier organizationally. Need to hire an entire resort staff for a new park? No need to set up a whole new department, because the existing worldwide Human Resources department has people that they can deploy short-term, or they can add a smaller amount of people to take on the additional function. Need to set up the park's financial and technology infrastructure? It's a lot easier to add on to the existing worldwide infrastructure and use the already-designed policies and procedures. Have to set up the park's marketing organization? Already got one. And on and on with public affairs, operations, and so on.

With that in mind, the likelihood of a couple of additional parks beginning construction around the world in the next decade becomes a much stronger proposition. Whether that is a good decision or, as with Michael Eisner's push into “cheap-quel” direct-to-video animated features may serve more to dilute the brand, has many interesting arguments on both sides of the debate.