Home » THE CHAPEK YEARS ARE OVER: Four Essential Reflections on Disney’s Most Divisive CEO and Where It All Went Wrong

THE CHAPEK YEARS ARE OVER: Four Essential Reflections on Disney’s Most Divisive CEO and Where It All Went Wrong


NOTE: Many of the thoughts in this piece represent those of the author and not necessarily Theme Park Tourist, its owners, or its sponsors.

It happened. The unthinkable, the unimaginable, the unprecedented… In a late-evening announcement on Sunday, November 20 2022, it was made official: beleaguered and bemoaned CEO of The Walt Disney Company Bob Chapek was gone. Less than three years after he was hastily elevated into the position (replacing long-time precessor and beloved visionary Bob Iger) and just days after announcing he intended to launch waves of layoffs and hiring freezes in his data-oriented, revenue-maximizing approach to leading the world’s largest entertainment company, Chapek had been given a pink slip himself.

In his place would stand… Bob Iger, again. Returning to The Walt Disney Company he shepherded until February 2020, Iger would serve as both Chapek’s predecessor and successor. In an internal email to Cast, Iger announced with “gratitude and humility – and I must admit, a bit of amazement” that he would return to his former post, officially becoming the CEO of Disney again.

As for Chapek? Well… though Disney’s Board formally thanked Chapek for his leadership during the pandemic and wished him well, the multi-million-dollar golden parachuting of a divisive CEO speaks volumes. And now, with Chapek’s involvement with The Walt Disney Company officially concluded, we wanted to reflect on Chapek’s era with four important things to consider when we discuss Chapek and his short-lived tenure as Disney’s CEO.

1. Bob Chapek was placed in an impossible situation, and didn’t have a good path out.

Frankly, any understanding of Bob Chapek has to start with a note on Bob Iger. We actually dove deep into both Bobs’ histories in our must-read “Who’s Who At Disney” feature – a great place to start! But In short, we have to remember that Chapek’s predecessor (and now successor) Bob Iger was CEO of the Walt Disney Company for fifteen years. In those years, he was a transformational force in Hollywood – the man who acquired Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and 20th Century, turning Disney into the unbeatable giant in the Content Wars that we know today.

Of course, Iger also famously set up a number of executives (most famously, Jay Rasulo and Tom Staggs) as potential successors. Ultimately, none of them worked out, with Iger continuously extending his contract by a few years at a time, all while remaining one of the most powerful (and importantly, most well-respected and well-liked) figures in entertainment. With Iger plugging away at successful acquisitions, Park expansions, and the development of Disney+, the multi-year process of training a second-in-command simply fizzled out… until COVID-19.

Suddenly, just as the global repurcussions of COVID-19 became clear and markets began to disintegrate, Bob Iger announced that he was exiting before the end of his contract (which had been extended several times) and that, “effective immediately,” Bob Chapek would assume the role. Surely, Chapek wasn’t the hand-picked, mentored, and ready replacement Iger had hoped for, so we have to acknowledge that in many ways, Chapek was set up to fail. 

Accepting the job pretty much assured Chapek would be a “fall guy” whose primary purpose was to keep Iger’s legacy from being dented. Obviously, it worked. It’s not that we shouldn’t celebrate Iger’s return as a “prodigal son” whose proven track record with Disney is a comfort for fans and financiers alike… but let’s also remember that Iger largely avoided the stresses of the pandemic and his 11th hour return to replace his failed successor is being viewed as a victory (and it is!)…

… But Iger’s reinstatement should also be recognized as something of an embarassement… Downplayed as it may be, a secondary headline to Iger’s return is surely that his succession plan failed spectacularly… and more to the point, that he could’ve (or even might’ve) known it would… Which brings us to the second thing we have to acknowledge about Chapek.

2. Bob Chapek wasn’t well-suited to be CEO of The Walt Disney Company, and everyone knew it.

Seriously. Fans reported on Chapek’s ascent as a “worst case scenario” for the company; financial markets recoiled; even Iger was supposedly quite disapproving of Chapek’s ensuing moves.

But c’mon. Chapek did not suddenly appear from the mist. This was a man with three decades of experience in Disney’s products division. Chapek was the proud poster child of the “finance guy.” In his thirty years with Disney, Chapek’s stance was clear. He was the hard-nosed, data-oriented, budget hawk with practically zero experience in the “creative” side of the company. Chapek was the guy who trusted spreadsheets, not his gut. He was inexperienced in dealing with Hollywood talent; saw the theme parks as “brand loyalty centers” meant to be filled with IP and bolstered by upcharges; laser-focused on what he called the “synergy machine”; and hellbent on reorganizing the company around streaming – a venture that precisely no one has figured out how to make profitable. 

So let’s be clear: Chapek didn’t pull a “bait and switch.” His management style wasn’t a surprise. He was exactly the kind of CEO anyone – including fans, entertainment insiders, Bob Iger and the Board of Disney – knew he would be.

And until the stock price began to reel, Disney’s Board actually extended his contract until 2025 – an overt approval of his finance-focused regime, his restructuring of the company, his dismissal of many “Iger-loyal” creatives, his penny-pinching relocations, his bare-bones staffing models and upcharge-focused processes for the parks, and even his final act: announcing tough times ahead with layoffs, hiring freezes, and a straight-from-the-Paul-Pressler-playbook formation of a “cost structure taskforce.”

It’s not Bob Chapek’s fault that he was pushed into the frontlines at the worst possible moment in the economy’s history. It’s also not Bob Chapek’s fault that people didn’t like that his management style was… well… the same he’d used for three decades at Disney. But before to get to thinking that we’re Chapek fans or that we’re willing to make excuses for the now-dismissed former CEO, read on…

Though points 1 and 2 may make us sound like a Chapek apologist willing to make excuses for his poor performance, I’m not. At all. Because even if Chapek was handed an unfair disadvantage, and even if Iger and the Board should’ve known what they were getting into by choosing a proudly-data-driven financial guy as the lead of an inherently-creative company, we all have to admit… 

3. Bob Chapek really needed to go

Listen, I feel bad for Chapek in some regards. He really was set up to fail in more ways than one. But he failed as spectacularly as he was set up to and then some. His lack of experience in entertainment; his lack of finesse with fans; his seeming disinterest in the creative side of the company; his exhaustingly monetized view of the theme parks; his notoriously data-driven decision-making processes and painfully stark treatment of the company’s legacy…

In the category of “first-world problems,” Chapek also oversaw the first and only D23 with zero – zero! – new ride announcements for Disney Parks. He orchestrated the franchise-focused 50th Anniversary of Walt Disney World – a major swing and miss. His regime will be remembered for instituting the deeply unpopular park reservation system and paid-for FastPass, the end of Magical Express, and slashed operating hours, maintenance, & staffing at Disney Parks. He also famously insinuated that animation wasn’t for adults, kicked up a PR war with Scarlett Johannson, and much more. 

But no discussion of Chapek can be complete without acknowledging the very real damange he did. Hundreds of Imagineers fled the company rather than undertake his required relocation from California to Florida; tens of thousands of Cast Members at the parks have been negatively affected by his staff reduction techniques; millions of guests have turned away from Disney Parks thanks to Chapek’s slashed perks and new upcharges; an army of Chapek-appointed financially-minded executives filled the company’s ranks; and incalculable creatives kept their distance from the “Mouse House” because of Chapek’s infamous management style and his fumbling of Disney’s response to important state and federal politics. Those are real impacts to real people.

Even two more years of his leadership would’ve made unthinkable changes to Disney’s structure, processes, offerings, and culture. That’s why the Board was willing to undertake the incredibly fraught and deeply embarassing process of having him exit in the middle of a contract. So I have no tears to shed for Bob Chapek, who was paid $2.5 million in salary 2021 (plus about $30 million in stock) and reportedly made off with a “golden parachute” payout of around $20 million cash upon his dismissal. There’s no question: he needed to go. We should just be thankful that his actions finally impacted the stock price enough for the Board to agree.

And more to the point, given how many Cast Members his policies hurt and how many guests were impacted by his actions, it feels alright to laugh about the fact that Bob Chapek was CEO for less time than it’s taken to build TRON Lightcycle Run.

4. Even though Chapek is gone, we should still hold Disney to account.


For all he did not do, there is something Bob Chapek did that very few others can: he unified Disney fans. Chapek wasn’t just a convenient scapegoat; he was a Maleficent-level Villain in fans’ discussions about the parks, studios, and beyond. It’s a unique relationship evidenced by the fact that Chapek (as Chairman of Parks) got the blame for price hikes and slashed perks where Iger (CEO) did not; but when Chapek was elevated, so was the blame, leaving Josh D’Amaro (new Chairman of Parks) innocent as Chapek (CEO) was viewed as the orchestrator of price hikes.

With Chapek gone, on whom will fall the “blame” for poor guest policies, price hikes, upcharges, and slashed perks? Will fan-favorite D’Amaro become a scapegoat? Iger himself? Or will fans turn their fervor toward CFO Christine McCarthy (who clearly caught foot-in-mouth disease from Chapek, infamously commenting that Disney would tackle inflation by raising prices and reducing portion sizes, “which is probably good for some people’s waistlines,” and defended Genie+ by saying some guests have “more money than time” while others have “more time than money”)?

Chapek was a uniquely unlikable leader who couldn’t seem to warm up to guests. Cold, calculating, and data-oriented, it was easy to single out Chapek as “the problem.” And listen – he earned it! Chapek likewise boasted about Disney’s “unparalleled synergy machine” and the “franchise flywheel” as if average people speak in corporate memos. He openly asserted that his business plan for Disney Parks was to attraction fewer guests, but who spend more money. He combatted Parks fans’ questions about original, IP-free attractions by asserting that that was not Disney’s priority and wouldn’t be. In other words, he was easy to dislike and therefore, easy to hold to account.

So now, without a leader whose name can be invoked in every negative Facebook comment on Disney, we have to wonder… will we, the fans, continue to demand excellence of Disney Parks? Or will we simply deal with it since D’Amaro and Iger are largely likable, attractive, friendly, and warm leaders?

What’s next?

Clearly, Bob Chapek lacked the kind of vision that a CEO of the Walt Disney Company needs. We can feel bad for him but there’s no question at all that Bob Iger’s return is a victory in many ways. Iger is a uniquely good leader for The Walt Disney Company, and a uniquely stabilizing force. But at age 71, his commitment to two more years means that once more, a cataclysmic countdown clock begins for Disney…

Will Bob Iger somehow manage to return Disney to fan esteem and overwhelming financial success? How many of Chapek’s leadership team will he rehire? How many of his short-lived successors policies will he undo? Will a guest at Disney Parks notice any difference between Chapek’s era and Iger’s second? If anything, this whole event had taught us it’s not worth trying to guess what’ll happen…

But if Iger intends to not only re-orient Disney back in the creative direction he initially set course for while finding someone who can step into his shoes in 700-ish days, we’re likely to see some major shifts at The Walt Disney Company relatively quickly. And with the Disney100 celebration launching the company’s second century with Iger back at the helm, it’ll certainly be interesting to see what of Chapek’s regime stays and what is left behind…