February 22, 2009

Disney Dollars

The severe economic slowdown obviously hurts a destination like Disneyland. But money troubles were a constant in Walt’s business experience. As most everyone knows, he borrowed against his own life insurance policies to build the Park, and he named money as the single biggest challenge he faced.

Still, he insisted that the cost of delivering a freshly-scrubbed, brightly-polished Disneyland every day was worth it.

Burbank’s sharp pencils have had sharper points for around a quarter of a century now. I think the philosophical shift started in about 1984, when Disneyland endured the painfully slow summer of the Los Angeles Olympic Games. I remember spending long days behind an ice cream or popcorn wagon waiting for guests. After that summer, the popcorn that had been .65 became $1.00. The container’s size was cut in half. And high-profit stuff like churros and glowing necklaces became the stock-in-trade of Outdoor Vending.

Larger changes were made. Tomorrowland stopped trying to represent tomorrow and became a retro-futurist merchandising mall that wouldn’t become outdated because it no longer tried to be ahead of its time. Maintenance was cut back with results that you can still see today. The company pressed ahead to establish multinational outlets for Disney magic, while leaving the secrets of that magic home alone. It didn’t work.

Disney’s strategic decisions couldn’t prevent a global economic meltdown, of course. Still, the prices of everything associated with Disney are greater exponentially than they used to be, and the company can’t seem to make money without turning to discounting. Only a “buy four nights, get three free” promo is bringing folks to Walt Disney World these days. The product isn’t worth it without the promotion.

Disney faces a most “chilling challenge: to find a way out” of degraded financial conditions that don’t favor discretionary consumer spending. According to Argus Research, “at the economically sensitive Parks division, management will need to cut costs without diminishing the visitor experience in order to avoid long-term damage to the brand.” Will consolidation of the functions associated with operating the “Disney Parks” solve the problem? Or will it hasten the evaporation of whatever unique magic remains in the Magic Kingdom?

Those of us who miss the old days often say that Walt didn’t go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money. Maybe part of why he didn’t was because he foresaw the times when Disneyland wouldn’t make any money. He nevertheless believed that the Park was worth doing, and worth doing well. Cutting back on the essentials and raising the prices is wishful thinking, as is supposing that you can run Disneyland like any other corporate enterprise. If you could, Walt wouldn’t have prevented his associates from bringing in a bunch of businessmen when the place was just getting off the ground. You can’t fool the public into believing that you’re delivering the same value. Instead, when guests have fewer dollars to spend, you’ve got to give them greater value for those dollars.

Through innovation and dedication, Walt did just that, building an almost unimaginable amount of long-term brand value. But even something that seems infinite can be squandered, as every human-caused extinction and even the country’s own global standing after its response to the September 11 attacks demonstrates. If Disney is smart, it will protect its own global image—the one represented by Disneyland—at all costs.

February 11, 2009

The child’s approach to life

Shari Bescos was Disneyland Ambassador when I toddled onto Main Street for the first time.

As I got a little older, an “E” coupon became just about the most valuable currency in the world.

Disneyland was the uncomplicated, practically primitive by today’s standards, Happiest Place on Earth.

The Magic Kingdom was a comforting presence over the years. Things changed, of course. Big Thunder Mountain rose in Frontierland, and the old Fantasyland transformed. Other alterations happened here and there. But the more things changed, the more Disneyland stayed the same.

When I was about sixteen, I realized why.

Night was just falling, and I think my family was trying to figure out where to meet up again before the Park closed. I remember the temperature being a little bit cold, and I was standing off by myself near Town Square, looking towards the Hub.

I wasn’t paying much attention to family plans because I was absorbed in the lights. They were all on. Thousands of bulbs, each one lit up. I don’t remember seeing a single burned-out socket.

It was an electric embodiment of quality.

“That’s how things should be done,” I thought. Main Street that night became for me a visual expression of the unprecedented degree of excellence that Disneyland knew was required to truly accomplish its purpose of creating happiness. I was only a little older than a child then, but I knew that the approach represented by those lights was one I wanted to emulate. And I knew that I had to become part of the company that was Walt Disney Productions, the “wonderful organization” that Walt built, and of which he was most proud.

I think that Walt was right about the right way to approach life, work, relationships, all of it:

Why do we have to grow up?

I know more adults who have the child's approach to life.

They're people who don't give a hang what the Joneses do. You see them at Disneyland every time you go there.

They are not afraid to be delighted with simple pleasures, and they have a degree of contentment with what life has brought - sometimes it isn't much, either.

February 5, 2009

Rite of Spring

Spring is almost here. Just thinking about it makes the end of Winter come faster. Especially when your thoughts include those special things that Springtime in Disneyland brings.

It brought such things back in 1983, anyway. I remember one of my first shifts as a new Outdoor Vending Cast Member back then.

It was a 9:45-6:15 assignment behind a red-and-white-striped ice cream wagon just off the Central Plaza between the entrances to Adventureland and Frontierland. Behind me was a planter full of flowers, smiling behind a freshly painted railing and filling the air with fragrance like I'd just stepped into Mlle. Antoinette's Parfumerie in New Orleans Square. As I looked out from my big red umbrella over the top of the wagon, a shining Tomorrowland gleamed.

The day hadn’t heated up yet, and sales of frozen juice bars and ice cream sandwiches were only occasional. I spent much of the morning enjoying the opportunity to act as an unofficial Carefree Corner, dispensing information rather than reaching into the dry-ice-filled wagon for some cold confection. When my Relief to cover the wagon for a break, I almost waved him away.
There was nothing like a new Spring day in the Magic Kingdom to make you feel that everything was right in the world. It was tough to step offstage even for fifteen minutes.

There have been quite a few seasons since then, but you might be able to find a similar feeling when Spring arrives this year.

You won’t see Tomorrowland at its best, of course, and you’ll have to ignore the Ferris Wheel on the skyline as you look down Main Street. There’s no longer perfume in New Orleans Square, and you’ll have to carry your cares around with you without a Carefree Corner to drop them off.

But if you think of Thumper and hunt around the Magic Kingdom this Spring, I hope you find what Walt called “that thing - the imagination, and the feeling of happy excitement- I knew when I was a kid."

I can’t tell you exactly where to find it anymore. If you’d walked up to my wagon in 1983, though, I would have given you directions happily. It would have been easy.

Back then, the thing that Walt was talking about was everywhere you looked.