“…I fundamentally believe that storytelling is what fuels this company, and it belongs at the center of how we organize our businesses." -Bob Iger
The end of November marked one of the biggest shocks in Disney history—the return of Bob Iger as CEO of The Walt Disney Company, ousting his successor, Bob Chapek.
Speaking for myself, I did not see it coming. While Iger certainly courted his share of controversy, the last few years under Chapek’s purview have proven a time of unique tension for fans. What started out as a season of belt-tightening in response to pandemic closures has slowly evolved into a complete culture shift in the parks, one where many longtime Disney guests feel the parks are being poorly maintained, only guests with the deepest pockets are welcomed, and foundational company values have been compromised.
Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resort have always stood apart from their competition as places where imagination is celebrated, where people of all ages can live out their dreams. Quality and superior service have been held in the highest regard, and attractions have been designed with rich storytelling in mind rather than just providing a quick thrill or amusement. A trip to a Disney park previously included a lot in the base cost of admission, and if quality started to dip in any of the spheres of the park, fans quickly took notice.
This past season has been frustrating to say the least. Price increases have alienated a large portion of the fanbase, with overuse of upcharges making Disney’s best offerings inaccessible to most families (we’re looking at you, Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser). Convoluted systems like Genie+ and the Parks Pass Reservation system have left a sour taste in the mouth of families looking for a simple vacation experience. Worst of all, the company seems to have no concrete vision for the future of the parks, and fans have been less-than-thrilled with new content generated during this time.
Disney is currently in the midst of a major restructuring, and Bob Iger has a core strategy in mind to tackle the worst of these issues: put creatives back in control again.
It’s simple, and it’s honestly just the recipe Disney needs.
We’ve had some time to process Iger’s return and see some of Disney’s initial moves, both welcomed (such as expanding park hopping) and unpopular (like massive company layoffs).
How might making creativity king again solve the worst current issues at Disney parks?
1. Too many price increases and upcharges
It’s the top issue on the mind of many: Disney vacations have become just too darn expensive.
Some price increases to keep up with inflation are understandable, but well before Bob Chapek stepped into his role, Disney had already gained a reputation for increasing prices to the point trips to their parks have become inaccessible to most American families. These increases only got worse in the last few years.
The issue isn’t just price increases—it’s been a shift in transparency about how much a Disney vacation really costs. Beyond park admission and lodging, in the past you really only needed to focus on three additional expenses: dining, souvenirs, and optionally, some special tours and experiences.
Lately, it has felt like Disney has changed tactics towards trying to maneuver guests towards upcharges that are no longer clear upfront. The most notable example of this has been Genie+. In theory, Genie+ should be an optional add-on meant to enhance the experience of guests who want to make the most of their time in the parks. It should only have a minimal effect on guests who don’t partake in it.
Instead, Disney has developed a system where guests who choose not to purchase Genie+ can often end up feeling like they are being punished for that choice. The cause is an excessive portion of ride capacity being dedicated to the service, inflating standby queue times. In the same vein, the way the system has been implemented feels distinctly like guests are being manipulated to purchase add-ons to enjoy what once was a normal Disney trip.
How can creatives help solve this?
One of the areas that has set Disney apart from their competition is finding creative solutions to mundane problems. Consider the issue of the 10 hour queues we saw at the opening of some Universal Studios attractions. Disney made no bones in the media about the fact they saw this issue and felt it detracts from a quality vacation experience. In response, they came up with virtual queues as a solution for major attraction openings. They’ve had to rework the system a few times, but it’s a far better option than spending your entire day in the queue for just one ride.
In truth, rampant price increases and sneaky upcharges are a lazy answer to Disney’s larger problem—the need to drawing repeat guests to their parks with experiences found nowhere else.
Walt Disney had a philosophy to keep his money-managers and creative departments separate so that creative teams didn’t feel throttled by budgeting woes. When an entertainment company becomes too focused on the bottom line, it’s very easy to hedge your creative teams in so tightly that they are left with no room to dream or take risks. This is exactly what has happened in Disney’s film and television division the past few years.
By putting creativity back at the center of their structure, Disney has the opportunity to find new ways to allocate resources and generate revenue in a manner that leave guests satisfied. Walking this line requires creativity, and this sort of farsighted problem-solving should be encouraged. Eliminating hidden costs and the feel of being “nickel and dimed” can do a great deal for the company’s public image, but it takes minds willing to think outside of the box to implement such changes.
This problem ties closely to another issue…
2. Convoluted systems
We explored recently if too much technology was ruining the Disney vacation experience. Many guests feel they now have to spend too much time fiddling with their phones and micro-planning their Disney vacations to truly relax and have fun. The deeper issue is Disney keeps introducing guest management systems that are too convoluted.
Chief among these is Genie+. The implementation of this system was a hot mess, and it could be argued the system was made purposefully complicated to fool unsuspecting guests into making a purchase without understanding what they were getting into. Disney’s dubiously named and comically inept Genie day-planning assistant (a completely separate part of their app) is an even more potent example.
The other overly complicated system guests have learned to hate is the Parks Pass Reservation system. Its presence has been most keenly felt by longtime visitors and Passholders who lament the loss of flexibility in their vacations. The system also has left many first-time visitors confused when they show up at the parks not realizing they need a reservation in addition to their ticket. While posting lots of warnings on Disney’s site has helped this issue somewhat, the system has overstayed its welcome and continues to leave many frustrated.
How can creatives help solve this?
Similar to the issue of upcharges, creative solutions can ultimately gain Disney much more mileage in fan goodwill than quick fixes and dodgy tactics. Genie+ still feels like something cooked up by someone who handles data figures but not necessarily people. It’s complex, frustrating, and while it improves the guest experience of some, it leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth of others.
Getting creative minds involved in the development of systems like Genie+ can do much to counter bottom-line mentality, playing with ways to ensure these systems contribute to a positive guest experience across the board as well as maintaining the magic and values of Disney parks.
Having a variety of voices in the company also helps with another issue—solving the actual issues at the core of why systems like Genie+ were developed in the first place. Fastpass+ created two big problems: too much ride capacity was dedicated to it, and it caused increased congestion in guest thoroughfares by reducing the number of people “sponged” into queues. Genie+ was supposed to resolve these two issues but instead made both worse.
If all Disney is focusing on is revenue, it’s easy to miss the core reason why a do-over for Fastpass+ was needed. You need creatives to be able to help with the problem solving necessary to resolve the problems with the original system in a way that leaves guests satisfied.
As for Parks Pass Reservations, they provide guests with one singular benefit—they prevent doorbuster days where the parks are so busy, they become miserable. Because of the myriad benefits the system brings Disney management, it seems likely Disney is keeping Parks Pass Reservations in some form for the long term. The question is, how do they do this without losing any more guest goodwill?
Fortunately, Disney is already heading in the right direction. It seems Disney’s plan is likely to simplify Parks Pass Reservations for most guests, using tickets instead as the means of controlling attendance. The system would remain in place specifically for Passholders who provide a factor of unpredictability. Chapek made the mistake of making a number of statements to the media that left Passholders feeling less-than-desired as guests. In a smart move, Disney has changed course, finding a reasonable solution: during seasons that aren’t too busy, Passholders can come into most parks after 2pm without a reservation. Park hopping is also finally being expanded.