A faux holiday famously invented for the Seinfeld TV show, Festivus includes a bare aluminum pole in place of a Christmas tree, a Feat of Strength wrestling match, and an Airing of Grievances at which each person tells his friends and family how much they’ve disappointed him over the past year. It’s all fun and games in Seinfeld, of course, but I’d like to borrow the Airing of Grievances concept as this year winds to a close. And why not? The end of a calendar year is as good a time as any for taking stock.
Disney World has done a lot of things this year, and they’ve introduced many new elements. Chief among those are New Fantasyland (including Storybook Circus) and Test Track, but there have been others too. Rapunzel tower, mermaids in Pirates, Art of Animation resort, new castle projections, Splitsville, etc. Enough that Disney cannot realistically be accused of simply resting on its laurels. They are out there spending money and creating new stuff. This is a good thing, by and large, and I want to take a moment to applaud them for it.
But if the changes are superficial and there to MASK deeper foundational issues, then perhaps we should temper our enthusiasm. In many ways, Walt Disney World is a study in contrasts. They spend money on new stuff, sometimes quite a lot. But then they shirk the most basic maintenance costs, as if the company is in retreat mode and in danger of being de-listed from the NYSE and needs to hoard cash. It’s a bizarre mashup of spending and conserving that implies conflicted logic, as if the right hand and left hand don’t know what the other is up to, yet are still actively engaged in one-upmanship as if there was a stated conflict. It’s like a Miller Lite commercial, but replacing Less Filling and Tastes Great with “Save Money (on maintenance)” and “Spend Money (on flashy new stuff)”.
At the heart of it, of course, is the desire to spend money in TARGETED ways that attract attention, and save money in ways that don’t much matter in the court of public opinion. Call it the Miller Lite Budget. I know I keep switching metaphors, but to capture the true flavor of Walt Disney World today, you have to call it a Miller Lite mentality toward spending that yields both a Declining by Degrees outcome and a Rizzo Factor attitude toward plussing. All three metaphors are accurate at the same time. I’ll keep searching for a Grand Unified Theory that can encompass all of them. In the meantime, I’ll be comforted by the fact that Einstein, too, was thwarted in his attempt to find a Grand Unified Theory. Until we isolate that elusive principle, what we’ve got is a Decline By Degrees, a Rizzo Factor, and a Miller Lite Budget.
The Miller Lite Budget is really just a marketing-driven budget. Instead of spending money on core upkeep and core operations, they spend money on flashy new stuff that they can put into advertisements. Would it “sell” to point out to Middle America that all the Epcot attractions are open until 9:30 in the holiday season because Walt Disney never wanted to see a half-closed park? Heck no! So instead, they close most of the attractions before the park itself closes and choose to advertise something else (Test Track, in this case).
The stink of it is, Test Track is good. And yes, Disney takes away at the same time that it gives.
You would barely know that Epcot is celebrating the holidays. There are barely any decorations up. We saw one sad, lonely garland in the Land pavilion food court, but that was it for the whole pavilion. They used to decorate all the parks in myriad ways, but I guess they only show you holiday decorations now when you want to pay for the holiday party. More Miller Lite Budgeting.
Anyone looking for a park actually decorated to the HILT with holiday lights should skip the mouse and head up the interstate to SeaWorld Orlando. Sakes alive is it amazing there. They don’t quite match the small world holiday and Haunted Mansion holiday one-two punch of Disneyland, but by gum they come close. Disney World may have just given up.
Can it be said that complaining just makes us look like whiners? I would like to discuss that for just a second. It’s important to keep perspective on the purpose of “complaining” (or at least pointing out deficiencies), which in my case is not selfishly motivated. I would argue that Disney should interpret it as constructive feedback. We point out problems because we care. The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.
Also, remember that NOT giving voice to problems when you see them can (and will) be interpreted by Disney executives as tacit approval. Imagine they raised ticket prices by ten dollars next year. If there is no outcry, shouldn’t any exec worth his salt duplicate the feat, or even try to push it further, the next year? Well, that same principle applies to just about everything on this list. If we say nothing, we are telling Disney that everything is just fine.
It doesn’t have to be shrill, rude, or hysterical. It’s possible to have a level-headed discussion about shortcomings in the Disney experience and still be a fan. We love Disney and want it to be its best.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
If you speak French, you know the above phrase means that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In other words, we kid ourselves by pretending that anything FUNDAMENTAL ever changes. Frankly put, despite the flashy changes introduced in 2012 (New Fantasyland, Test Track), the core experience of a Disney vacation hasn’t changed too much in the last few years.
I pawed through the archives and discovered the last time I did an article on the “big stuff” in the Declining by Degrees category, it was a list from 2008 that still largely rings true. I wondered briefly if I could just reproduce the same list and NOT call attention to the fact that it was written four years ago–would anyone notice?
What I’ll do is use some of the language from that 2008 in today’s article, but update individual sentences as I go. It’s a shame that many sentences require no updating, since nothing has changed in four years.
Increased cost/fleecing. It’s undeniable that things have gotten more expensive at WDW, and there is no convincing argument that we’re looking ONLY at inflation as the culprit. It doesn’t take much more than a glance at the ticket costs to see this. Certainly tickets were underpriced in 1984, when Eisner first came, but is there any excuse for the enormous rise even since 2000?
In 2008, the one day ticket cost $75 and the seven-day ticket cost $228. In 2012, the one day ticket costs $89 and the seven-day ticket cost $288. That’s a 26% increase in four years for the weeklong ticket–is your vacation 26% better now than four years ago? They’ve added a few things in those years (Toy Story Mania, Star Tours 2.0, Under the Sea, Test Track 2.0) so maybe the cost is justified?
Decreased operating hours. I have in my paper collection some guidemaps from my visit to WDW in 1989, and they clearly state how late the parks are open every night in the summer: 11 or midnight, or even 1am. No more.
Excepting holidays themselves, the parks are not open nearly as late, even during summer and Christmas. If you lose 3 hours per night in the parks and still pay the same admission price, you’re being ripped off by comparison to those previous years. Add in those more-expensive admission tickets (see above), and you’re being ripped off twice.
From time to time, I hear the counterargument that the park now offers Extra Magic Hours (EMH) for its own hotel guests. I guess so. That means a couple extra hours in the morning, and a few at night. But if you think about it, even for the hotel guests this represents a lessening of the experience compared to a decade ago. Instead of all the parks being open late, now only ONE of them is. And every guest swarms there, so the place is busy. Only Disney could save money, reduce the guest experience, and STILL market it as somehow a perk for the guests. (The marketing hutzpah simply must be admired sometimes).
Sure, the parks are saving money and maximizing returns for shareholders, but at what cost? Does there come a point when people decide to return every other year, rather than every year, because things are less magical? Because they sense the company is reaching into their wallet more and more obtrusively each time? Raising prices at the same time as cutting services is extremely short-sighted, and it’s eroding the brand. I get plenty of emails from folks who used to visit WDW yearly, but do so less often now. In a word, the place is declining by degrees.
And now we’ve got the specter of FastPass+ looming over us. No one knows exactly what the effect of this perk will be, but one theory suggests that if it’s the new hotel perk (the thing that gets you to pay higher prices to stay with Disney), then they may discontinue EMH. If that happens, ladies and germs, we will be even further in this hole of “reduced operating hours.”
Hard ticket private parties. Going hand in hand with the notion of closing early is the idea to utilize the suddenly-free evenings to offer hard-ticket parties. At first blush, the idea sounds great. Go trick or treating in the parks! Celebrate the holidays! But it’s a marketing bait and switch. You get special fireworks and a special parade, sure. But why in the world can’t they do this as part of the regular day, and let all the visitors see it? Epcot and DHS do that (Flower and Garden, Food and Wine, ESPN Weekends, Star Wars Weekends, Soap Opera Weekends).
But the Magic Kingdom charges extra, and it’s just not good customer service. They close the parks extra early on that day, usually 6:00 p.m. On your way out, you are besieged by CMs excoriating you to buy a ticket for the special event that night. It’s insane. It’s tantamount to saying “get out, and pay to come right back in!” A true marketing visionary would realize that making the events free and included would give a boost to the park attendance, and keep people coming back for more. And buying event merchandise. Doing it their way now is just risking ill will.
Get out, NOW. And pay AGAIN to come right back in!
Attractions closed without replacements. Dead real estate sends a signal that the parks are partly-rotting hulks. We finally got something in the former submarine lagoon (not that a kid’s playground is anything remotely as interesting), but there’s still lots of dead space where once we had something. There’s the Odyssey building in Epcot, Wonders of Life, the upstairs zone of Imagination, the swan boat docks, the boat docks at DAK. But forget the signal sent about real estate. The real sin is a diminished experience compared to previous years.
Conflict (or loss) of theme. When you add music that clashes with the original theme of an area (such as Beach Boys at the Epcot entrance for Flower and Garden), you dilute the impact of the original idea. This occurs also with the garish flag decorations in the Future World central courtyard. It’s happened with the Captain Jack Sparrow additions to Pirates of the Caribbean, which is now about a specific movie rather than a concept, and thus makes it harder to fall into fantasy.
Most of Epcot has lost its theme. Just consider the original edutainment goals of Land, Living Seas, Spaceship Earth, Horizons (now Mission:Space), and World of Motion (now Test Track). The original idea is gone. But by far the biggest culprit here is cartoonization. The Golden Mickey now at the hub is only the most recent example. Tomorrowland is nowhere near the theme of optimistic futurism; now we have Stitch and Monsters Inc everywhere. Nemo has invaded the Living Seas.
FastPass side-effects. This is always a controversial topic. Long time readers know that while I know FastPass is free for everyone, the reality is that many first timers don’t know how to use it, or that it’s free, or how to maximize usage of it. Taken as a whole, this means the only reason the system generates time savings for users is that other people are not using it, so in practical terms, it’s an unequal system.
But even beyond all of that, you have side effects like people not being in line, and since they have to be somewhere, they are now in the walkways, and things are more crowded than they were a decade ago. Plus it gets even worse. Queues were built to tell the story even in line, and those are now being skipped some (or all) of the time. For those who do use the standby lines, the lines move slowly. Compare that to a non-FP ride like Nemo’s sea cabs or Spaceship Earth, two Omnimovers. Do you see how fast and consistent the line moves? That’s how all of Epcot and the Magic Kingdom used to be. Now the parks are uneven.
Reduced entertainment. There are still parades and stage shows, to be sure. But not everywhere. Epcot once had parades and a sky spectacular above its lagoon during the daytime. Where did this go?
Restaurants closed and replaced with food carts. This problem is worst at the Magic Kingdom, where El Pirata, the Adventureland Veranda, and the Noodle Station are often closed even on busy days. Meanwhile, a few new quick vending carts have sprung up. Sure, it may look better on paper and result in a marginal profit (sales per labor hour, labor percentage of sales, etc, will all look better with carts), but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the park. Blackjack tables would also make millions! Doesn’t mean they should rip out Peter Pan’s Flight and replace it with a casino.
Lack of menu variety / quality. The Disney Dining Program has rapidly grown, and many vacations are now sold with this pre-paid food option. It’s a separate issue that the DDP itself has had declines by degrees, like the loss of free appetizers or pre-paid tips. Let’s focus instead on what the DDP, in any form, does to the theme park. It’s made the table service restaurants full all of the time, which was doubtless Disney’s goal. But with meals pre-paid, just how much incentive do they have to make the food actually good? Isn’t it logical that quality will slide?
Quality not on the menu? Blame the DDP.
And any manager will tell you that people who prepaid for food want food they are familiar with, which often leads to simplification of the menu to more populist choices. People who in the past might have had hot dogs at carts now want hot dogs at the table service places, and as a result, the menus are becoming less varied. If you want an extreme example of where this is all leading, look at Universal’s Meal Deal, which is only accepted at a few restaurants around the park; the quality is universally bad at those places, since they have no incentive to try.
Loss of spontaneity. FastPass is one culprit here, but so too is the way restaurant reservations are now handled. It used to be you could easily grab same-day reservations, as tables were held open in each location just for that reason. But the combination of the DDP and the ability to make reservations six months out has led to a real requirement to make them early, or you won’t get them at all.
The downstream (and probably unintentional) effect of this is that the day becomes pretty planned out. Your food reservations dictate major events of the day, and FastPass tickets take care of the rest. Spontaneity, and indeed possibly relaxation, is no longer the point. They call this a vacation?
Homogenization of merchandise. Long ago, every shop had its own unique set of merchandise, some of it quite difficult to find outside of your Disney vacation. Now, it seems like every shop has the same merchandise. Part of the problem is the lame attempt to save money by branding everything with “Disney Parks” as though Disneyland and WDW were interchangeable, but the issue is bigger than even that.
Merchants may realize a small savings by buying things in bulk and buying fewer unique varieties, but by golly it means visitors are going to spend less, since they are seeing the same thing over and over.
Loss of quiet corners and special areas. There are loads of quiet corners which were once content to merely be quiet, out of the way places for people to relax. Increasingly, it seems like every square meter is required to generate money. The invasion of the parks by DVC is only one such example (did you know there is DVC in Tomorrowland as well as Frontierland?). Apparently executives didn’t know people want to sometimes just relax and catch up with their day.
Upkeep, paint, and regular cleaning. In some ways, this category is the heart of the decline by degrees. The problem here boils down to managers and those empowered to fix things not actually riding the rides and seeing the problems. Or, I suppose, it could be that things are being reported, but there’s something broken about the workflow that keeps things from being fixed.
From the customer end, none of that matters. The point is, something is broken or ugly for a long time onstage, and it diminishes the experience. Period.
Scuffed paint and visible wear and tear imperceptibly add to the notion that WDW is tired, old, and stale. This problem is literally everywhere, but particularly bad spots can be seen at the columns inside Mickey’s Philharmagic and all over the bridge over Columbia Harbour House. But as noted, this is universal. Every ride coordinator and every low level manager is somehow guilty of not following up enough on this issue.
Fresh paint is not expensive. The parks positively MUST put a premium on this issue. If the work order request system is backlogged, then they must throw money at the problem to fix it. These are the kind of details that imply to visitors that WDW has lost its sheen and is now not that different from the local carnival. They can’t afford to lose these once-a-year visitors.
Is it that hard to get managers to wander the parks?
Trash levels in the queues seem much worse than previous decades or Disney’s hard-earned reputation for cleanliness. Partly, the problem is FastPass. In the old days with fast-moving lines, you could send a sweeper into the line, and he’d just wait along with the Guests and not need to zigzag around them, since the line was moving fast. Now, with the standby line quite frozen for minutes at a time, sweepers are forced to rudely sweep under people’s feet, and to zigzag through them. I can see why some might not bother, since it appears rude.
The most obvious upkeep problems now concern two attractions: Expedition Everest (where the yeti hasn’t really moved since Barack Obama took office) and Splash Mountain (where the animated characters go silent and motionless with regularity). Oh, and in case you were wondering what those nets are doing on Splash Mountain’s loading zone, they are there to prevent another chunk of the concrete mountain from falling down into a populated area.
Yes, the mountain is falling apart. After some analysis, they seem to have decided that the culprit was the sprinklers there to provide life-giving moisture to the real plants on the mountain’s facade, so in the meantime they’ve turned off those sprinklers. Result: dead plants all over the mountain. It looks like some faded remnant wannabe park in rural China, not the world’s most visited theme park. Sad.
There are nets on the Tree of Life, too, also because of falling debris. I’m almost scared to predict it, but may we see yet another attraction gain nets in the next four years?
Air conditioning cuts. It seems like more than a few rides, restaurants, and shops have had their air conditioning levels tinkered with during 2012. This is the height of insanity. Florida is an absolute hellhole without climate control, especially in the summer, but even in mid-December sometimes (like this year). I’m sure it’s entirely true that you could alter the setting by a few degrees (3? 7? 2?) before people would complain, but THE LACK OF COMPLAINTS DOES NOT MEAN THE EXPERIENCE IS IDENTICAL.
Sorry to shout, but the above point needs the emphasis. The folks in charge seem to equate a lack of complaints with a true Rizzo-type cluelessness on the part of the guests. Well guess what? Even if people don’t say anything, many of them will notice it and stay quiet. And an even larger slice of the population will not notice it per se, but the overall experience will be less positive than it would have been otherwise. This is not brain surgery, and it astonishes me that this very basic point can be overlooked for so long. Or outright ignored, I guess.
People are happy to pay a premium price for a premium experience. The problems arise when you charge premium prices for what is no longer a premium experience, and you’re just trading on brand recognition (and eroding the brand). That’s the decline by degrees.
It’s Kind of a Good Book
Jeff Heimbuch, a fellow MiceChat blogger, has co-written a book (“It’s Kind of a Cute Story“) with none other than Imagineer Rolly Crump. You know Rolly’s work. He has a hand in all sorts of attractions at Disneyland: it’s a small world, Tiki Room, and much of the “living furniture” designs of the Haunted Mansion. He worked up many designs for a Health pavilion at Epcot, as well as much in the Land. Any such book would be welcome, as it provides a view from inside the boardroom where rides are conceived and designed.
But I didn’t expect this level of tell-all. Rolly doesn’t really pull any punches. He tells a story, for instance, of Raellen Lescault, the person who conceived of the Fantasyland re-do at Disneyland originally, but has not gotten credit over the years for this. Rolly’s storytelling is pretty direct. It’s fascinating to hear stories about John Hench the way we usually hear stories about Walt Disney (though Rolly has no shortage of Walt stories, either!)
The book is 187 pages, larger format (with a weird rubbery texture to the cover), and lots and lots of pictures (somewhere around 1.5 per page if you average the whole thing out, I’d wager). The pictures are a delight. Drawn from Rolly’s collection, they include stuff on his non-Disney projects too (I died and went to Knott’s Bear-y Tales heaven with this book), and there is no shortage of Disney stuff you have never seen before.
All that makes this compelling reading. Required reading, really, for theme park historians and super-fans. The book is available at Amazon and other retailers (disclosure: I was sent a review copy). This is the kind of book I treasure.
Disneyland Fake Facts Book
Are you familiar with the DisneyLies.com website? It’s kind of a fan’s fan website, meaning that it’s the second order of meta-cognitive. In other words, inside jokes for people who normally read Disney websites.
They’ve put out a book: 396 Pure, Unadulterated, Dyed-in-the-wood, 100% made up, completely fake Disneyland “Facts”. The book is exactly what you think it is: a list book, with most entries a single sentence (usually 30-40 words long). The main point, as you might imagine, is humor.
The best way to give you a sense of the book’s twisted sense of humor, let me re-type a few of the Club 33 entries:
- The club’s name is a reference to the fact that Roy Disney, an avid golfer, had a collection of 32 golf clubs, and Walt Disney promised that once Disneyland was proven a success he’d buy his brother “club 33″
- In keeping with its upscale image, Club 33 only serves brunch.
- Club 33 is the only place is Disneyland where castmembers are allowed to drink while on duty.
Your enjoyment of the one-liners will be greatest when you’re already a deeply embedded fan. In the above examples, you would have known that the 33 refers to the original park sponsors, that the club DOES serve brunch but not only, and that the club does serve alcohol to Guests (but not Cast Members).
And so it goes for the rest of the book, which is 126 pages long and covers the rest of the resort, not just Disneyland. It was definitely good for chuckles, cackles, and outright giggles from me. And, it hardly needs mentioning, many wry grins.
Every two pages (sometimes even less, on average) there is a line drawing of an element from the park. I liked the approach, especially because often the inside jokes of the text were made into part of the picture.
My name is mentioned in the introduction (because the list format for the book was inspired by one of my books, I think). I was sent a review copy this week.
More information and updates
Readers are invited to connect with Kevin online and face to face at the following locations:
- UltimateOrlando.com – Kevin’s personal blog for daily WDW updates
- Facebook (send a friend request) for regular “Where in Walt Disney World” photo quizzes
- On his public Facebook page (user disneybloggerkevinyee)
- Twitter feed (user cafeorleans)
- Google+ account (user cafeorleans)
- Email at [email protected]
- Weekly Walt Disney World, a Facebook group of regulars who visit Disney World each weekend. Visitors from out of town are encouraged to come and say hello when in Orlando! Join the FB group to learn when/where the next meet is.
- Kevin’s books on Amazon