Sunday, June 24, 2007

What Would Walt Do? Part Three

Talk about timing. John Frost at The Disney Blog pointed me towards this link about the name change (or lack of) to the Disney-MGM Studios. Apparently, they are only going to rename the section of the Studios that will feature Toy Story Mania.
So this does change my intent for the third part in the What Would Walt Do series--sort of.

Let's look at something a little different: appeal.

What about the internal forces that Disney has to deal with in order to please the stock holders and the customers. They know they have to make money to please the stock holders, but they also need to bring people into the parks to make money and sell merchandise. You've got to appeal to all these different sides. You have to appeal to Imagineering--give them the creativity, give them the power and give them the ability to do what they need to do.

The stock holders not only have to realize they are making money for themselves, but they are building the future of the company. I read in a blog post somewhere that the baby-boomers are just destroying the current economy because they only are looking after themselves, they don't care if in 15 years the company is going to make profit--they want their money now. Of course, that is a very broad and general statement. Most people want their money, prize, reward--whatever--right now! Disney has to deal with this aspect in the theme parks, the movie franchises and everywhere else that they go. It's just big part of what they have to do.

Disney must realize that they have to push that angle. Instant gratification. Not only do they have to get the nostalgia going and the stockholders happy but they have to bring the people into the park. People have to want to be there and share it. Foxxfur (from Passport to Dreams Old and New) has written a wonderful post on Jeff Pepper's blog entitled Attack of the 20 Billion Dollar Expansion. She received a lot of heat for this post. Mainly from people misinterpreting her meaning. She loves the Disney Parks and this was obviously a cry to look at expansion for expansion's sake. And money for nothing--just open the gates to the Magic Kingdom and they will come. No matter how many complaints, nor how empty Epcot or the Animal Kingdom is.

Foxxfur writes:

And yet, terrifyingly, park attendance numbers continue to climb and soon you won’t even be able to go into Magic Kingdom on any day of the week without being slaughtered alive by ravenous Disney Dining Plan equipped theme park commandos because you’re standing between them and the Fast Pass machine. Considering that on many days EPCOT and Animal Kingdom can’t reach the numbers they’re capable of, Disney doesn’t care: they’ll push people through those Magic Kingdom turnstiles until nobody can move on Main Street and if anybody strikes a match everybody’ll burn alive because it doesn’t matter what the Guest Experience is like now that they’ve already got your money.

So looking at this comment, your gut reaction might be that it is pretty hateful towards Disney. It's not. Trust me. Taken in context of the entire article, Foxxfur is driving home the point that Disney is openly creating demand for demand. They are looking at the biggest demographic with biggest desire to spend as much money as possible to experience the dream. My educated guess of the largest demographic, based on the commercials and marketing, would be families with at least two kids. But look at the most popular park, the Magic kingdom--it is featured on most all of the advertising--with little girls dressed up as princesses and little boys emulating Captain Jack. So what else are parents to do? The kids only want to see Nemo at Epcot, so it is back to the Magic Kingdom. And the Animal Kingdom is way too large and way too green to keep the kids attention. Sure, it has some great attractions, but they require a lot of focus without nary a character in sight (besides Bug's Life and the whole Camp Mickey-Minnie section).

Foxxfur continues:

Disney ought to be reducing their attendance cap at Magic Kingdom and MGM and start outlawing traditional strollers in the park and helping guests enjoy themselves and stop shoveling more price effective and price gouging “punishment packages” at guests hoping they won’t notice they’re being conned. But they won’t. They’ll build more resorts and try to drag in more people and offer nothing in the way of a pressure relief valve until it’s too late.

Wow. The above paragraph really got me. "Punishment packages" and the word conned. She must be talking about the extremely popular and maddening Disney Dining Plan, Extra Magic Hours and Magic Your Way plan.. For starters, no one (including Disney employees) really knows how the Disney Dining Plan works. You stumble and fumble for a few days until you kinda wrap your brain around it. It's not too difficult, really. It's just the amount of pre-planning that goes into it that can best even the most ardent park commandos. And the complaints that I have heard from people with completely different experiences; it seemed like the Dining Plan rules changes for them based on the day. I won't even get into the tiered and hierarchical Magic Your Way Plans. You pretty much just have to trust whatever your travel agent, favorite website or blog author says (wink, wink). But look at Foxx's other comment: helping guests enjoy themselves. Seriously, this is what needs to happen. Somehow. Whether it is a graduated FastPass plan, multiple Dining Plan offerings (or a complete re-vamp), or making the other parks more like the Magic Kingdom. Or maybe it is just letting the customers in the gates to enjoy themselves instead of throwing these supposed value-added packages. All to get you to stay on property for longer periods of time. Also, what does this do to the non-hotel guests? Limits their hours and their dining choices. I am all for the ultimate Walt Disney World experience (hotel, etc), but I can empathize with the bewildered day visitors and annual passholders that can miss out on so much.

More from Foxxfur:

And meanwhile the parks deteriorate because management is terrified that these people will stage a revolt if something is closed (if you doubt this one, you should’ve seen Orlando Pirates between April and July last year) because they’ve been planning this trip for years and Disney can’t get its’ act together to actually work on the time table they’re encouraging guests to have to plan on. It’s disgusting that you have to make dining reservations months in advance, but that’s the way Disney wants it. They’ve dug themselves into a hole they can’t even function inside of.

So, you've got the foamers and purists screaming for Disney to leave the parks alone--as Walt would have wanted, no less--and the pollyanna's raving about the good times ahead now that Iger is letting the creative types run the ship again. (I'm a pollyana, in case you didn't know). You can read my earlier posts about Walt to get a more detailed answer. But basically, Walt would have wanted the parks changing and evolving. Not only to keep up with demand and popularity, but to also create a place that people can share, dream about and write really long blog posts about every little detail (tongue in cheek).

Foxxfur loves the parks as much as you (why would you read this otherwise?) and she still was on the receiving end of a lot of hate from people who didn't really read the post. So visit her blog and Jeff's. Show them the support and love they deserve and warrant.

Now, on with the show!

Transforming Epcot into the Magic Kingdom

More people visit the Magic Kingdom than Epcot. Why? Is it the baby-boomers? Look at the Princess and Pirate Parties that are so huge and the Bippity-Boppity-Boutique. So much cash is being outlaid by baby-boomers and gen-xer's because they want their kids to have these great magical moments. They want their kids to love Disney as much as they do. Not everyone has kids, but the Magic Kingdom has more of that nostalgia stuff that we've been talking about than all the other parks combined. And don't forget, that the Magic Kingdom looks remarkably like her older sister, Disneyland--Walt's creation. Whew, I can smell the nostalgia from here!

Faced with a park with very little in the way of traditional character (Figment, anyone?), the suits figured that Epcot needed some characterization. The Magic Kingdom was popular from the get go. Why? Because we all knew what to expect. We saw Uncle Walt talk about Disneyland. It was a property that most of us knew by heart. Even though the Magic Kingdom is much grander in scope, it still mirrors the charm and carries most of the substance of Disneyland. Everyone is familiar with the icons: the castle, Dumbo, Pirates and the Haunted Mansion. I bet you that first-time visitors wouldn't be able to tell you anything about the other four parks (unless they do their homework first!).

So, a few of the original attractions are pulled out to make way for some thrill rides. Figment gets some plastic surgery. Thrills abound, but what about the characters? Are we really looking for characters? Seriously, what are we expecting from Epcot? Was it ever defined? Did we know what we were getting? Do we know what we have? Did Disney know how to market Epcot?

I am looking for a dare to be great situation. -- Lloyd Dobbler.

The installation of Nemo has caused such heartbreak, mirth, consternation and anger. How many of you have ridden the Sea Cabs before they were turned off? Stand up...lemme count...not that many, huh?

Nemo, as a property, is huge. Nemo is beloved by almost every child under the age of 12. The whole family knows Nemo. The parents have watched the movie over and over again.They can recite the lines of the characters. Nemo is a perfect addition to Epcot because it deals with fish. It is actually a Disney property that can be entertaining and educational at the same time (Mr. Ray, anyone?).

Now we get to the core issue. You never get the scope of being under water in the Nemo attraction. Or of being part of their world. It just wasn't large and grand like it needed to be. It was just a small ride. You needed to experience Nemo. You needed to know what it was like to be searching for Nemo--but not just a game of peek-a-boo. It needed to have more of a sense of urgency. While being a lovely game of peek-a-boo for toddlers; it can cause some consternation for the people spending their money. When I rode the original Sea Cabs in 1994 and 1997, I remember a feeling of traveling through the aquarium. Even though you didn't see much, you still had this sense of a huge attraction.

I was listening to the MouseGuest podcast. There was a comment on the podcast from a listener that talked about Nemo at Epcot. The listener said that it is terrible and it doesn't fit in Epcot. Okay, so, I am wanting to scream at my MP3 player that the statement is complete crap. It is a fish ride--at an aquarium--of course it fits. I think the problem the listener was talking about dealt with the fact that the property of Nemo itself is too large for the existing ride. It doesn't make sense, as a ride that small, in such a large theme park and show building.

In my opinion, it looks like Imagineering under shot on many different levels. The age of the attraction visitors being the biggest misinterpretation. The technology was awesome. I really just can't convey how cool the effects were. At the same point, I got off of the ride and thought, "This is for Nemo?" It is the largest grossing Disney animated film ever and you get this tiny little attraction, I mean that's the big problem that people have with the ride.

On the same MouseGuest Weekly show, Dan and Eric had a few great points--not only about Nemo--but about all the outcry over the supposed invasion of Pixar. Here is a loose and generalized quote: "don't hate the attraction because you think it's in the wrong place, judge it based on its ride". They also said that they don't mind the changes happening in Tomorrowland due the adding of Pixar based attractions. Simply because you know that they are great rides and great attractions that the Imagineers are adding to the parks.

So, what are we looking at? The opportunity to change the face of Epcot. To make it more appealing and broaden that appeal to more age groups. Mission: Space and Test Track definitely give the thrill seekers and the teens and tweens something to get excited about. Nemo is capturing the hearts of toddlers and pre-schoolers. It seems that everyone loves Soarin'.

As a nod to classic Disney animation, we have to look no further than the overlay of the Three Caballeros to El Rio del Tiempo. I enjoyed this ride before the overlay. Mainly because my kids liked it. And it was air-conditioned. And it never had much of a wait. The reviews have been mixed, but a lot of people thought that the overlay was a good addition to the ride. It added a very familiar character and introduced two new ones--new for a lot of people, anyway. It was great to see the Imagineers do something to the older attraction. Especially with the addition of such a classic animated film. Still, why aren't people screaming and yelling about the Gran Fiesta Tour at the Mexico Pavilion? Because it is an update to an attraction that wasn't getting much attention in the first place. And because it wasn't overlayed with an extremely popular character and brand. (I know, Donald is HUGE--but he is everywhere, too). But in my opinion, they didn't make the overlay at the Mexico Pavilion seem smaller.

But What Would Walt Do? I think he would smile and tell the Imagineers to keep moving forward. Keep trying new things. Make the parks the places that people want to be. The places they will want to bring their family and friends. The places where memories will be made and shared.

See, all of the purists want to keep everything tucked tightly inside a glass jar--just like Beast with his enchanted rose. We have to remember that Walt made significant changes to Disneyland from 1955 to 1966. It is to be expected. The theme parks need to grow or else they will become stagnant. A lot of bloggers have been championing John Lasseter and Ed Catmull. Robert Iger has seen fit to give them the power and let them run free. We've seen what adding Lasseter to the Nemo Submarine ride has done at Disneyland. The web is glowing with the positive reviews of this attraction. From comments, it looks like the submarine ride has a much better fit. And it has retained and re-imagined its nostalgia.

I guess my final words would be that, no matter what, we can't go back to 1982; We can retain and keep the spirit of 1982 in future attractions and shows.

--Disneyland will never be completed as long as there is imagination left in the world. (Walt Disney)

Thanks to Foxxfurr, Jeff, John, Honor and Ray for the inspiration and much needed changes to this series.

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