Accountineering, Disneyland Resort Attractions and Entertainment

Written by The Accountaneer. Posted in Accountaneering Disney


Published on May 30, 2013 at 4:00 am with 59 Comments

Hello readers!  I apologize for the long time between articles. Family comes first…now let’s get back to some Accountaneering!  I’m excited to share a story about a trip to WDI, in which I was able to ride a prototype attraction that I’ve never seen described online before.  But before we touch on that, let’s set some context.

The A&E Menu: this is the document that outlines all the capital spending for the Disneyland Resort over the next five years and beyond (A&E=Attractions & Entertainment).  As part of the Planning team, it was our job to populate the A&E Menu.  Generally, the major items on the A&E Menu were new attractions, entertainment spectaculars, and major refurbishments.

Now, any Disney fan would take that menu and populate it with new E-Tickets every year.  But just like any menu at a restaurant, you need some appetizers, entrees, and deserts at all price points.  A nice dinner consists of a balanced order across the menu…not just two of the most expensive entrees!

The financial planning process begins with the Five-Year Plan (5YP), where the Resort develops an all-in five-year financial model.  This model takes the base business, layers in known changes (labor rate increases, annualization of partial year impacts, removal of one-time events, etc), then adds on top new investments.  The A&E Menu at this point is often a bit aspirational.  This is when the business units “pitch” the ideal business plan up the ladder.  By “ideal” I’d like to emphasize that it is what’s financially feasible.  No theme park in the world (not even Tokyo Disneyland) can spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on new attractions. The depreciation on the income statement would bury the Resort.  What “ideal” translates to is a nice peppering of varied new offerings over the five year window.

In the years post 2001, Disneyland was in a rough spot.  We had just spent $1.4B on the Resort expansion (conversation around the content of that spending will come in a future article) and 9/11 hit.  I am not exaggerating when I say that the Resort, as a whole, operated at a loss for a few years after 2001.  Let that sink in for a moment…had Disneyland been a standalone business, it was in the red.  The last thing you can do in that situation is massively invest a boatload of new cash on expensive new A&E items.  This resulted in minor investments such as A Bugs Land and Luminaria.  Sure, it would have been great to go out and green light Cars Land but the Resort simply couldn’t afford it at the time.


We submitted the 5YP to Parks & Resorts who then would consolidate/edit and submit to Corporate.  The Corporate Planners then crunch financial models and discuss with the Senior Leaders of the company.  The results would be new targets being sent back to Parks & Resorts.   Parks and Resorts then spit up the funding and handed new targets to Disneyland.


So, as expected, those new targets would often be more aggressive than the originally submitted financial model.  This would put a squeeze on the entire business; it would push for more revenue, squeeze spending, and, most important to this conversation, reduce Capital spending.  We’d take that submitted A&E Menu and start editing to make the menu fit the new financial target.  It wasn’t always just cutting; sometimes it was just re-arranging.  Let’s say we had an E-Ticket placeholder in year four but the year four targets were tight, while year three had some breathing room (perhaps spending was re-directed to the Studios for a new blockbuster in year four or the Cruise Line had a new ship being built).  We’d potentially try to squeeze an extra D-Ticket into year three and push the E-Ticket out to year five, while year four relied on a parade.  It was an annual jigsaw puzzle of making the spend levels match the targets.

I’d like to take a small aside to talk about one aspect of the process that you never hear about online.  By reading all the blogs and forums online, it is obvious that Imagineering can do no wrong, while us Accountaneers destroy all the original concepts (I think the term DustySage used in the April MiceChat podcast was “slaughtered”).  Let’s look at the other side of the coin for a second.


For argument’s sake, let’s say any of you have a set budget to repair and enhance your house and you have to plan those items over the next five years.  Your kitchen needs a major remodel (think the current Big Thunder rehab), while you’d like to put on an addition for your growing family.  Now let’s say that I tell you two things.  First, that you can only spend 80% of what you thought you needed.  Secondly, and most importantly, I tell you that the only contractor you can use is the best one around…and the most expensive.  Despite the fact that you know this contractor may be charging you a 30% premium, you can’t work with anyone else.  I hope you like your new kitchen because you just had to postpone your addition a few years.  Welcome to working with Imagineering.  Don’t get me wrong, the Disney fan in me loves WDI and (most) everything they do, but this is a very real part of financial equation. Let’s circle back and look at two specific examples…the first small and the second, well, much bigger!

In the early years of the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay, the crowds easily exceeded all expectations!  I was working with the Operations team during those early years and we needed some stroller parking signs.  I got the call to swing out to the Mansion gate one morning, and one of the ops guys was so proud to show me the new digitally printed signs he had made.  They looked great with perfect colors and great design.  The best part was that the signs cost $10 apiece.  So, over the course of the 3 months they were being used, we could reprint and replace as often as needed.  It was a great solution to solve for an unbudgeted item that year…until WDI saw the signs.


Apparently they didn’t take too well to the fact that Operations took the initiative to have these signs printed.  They came back a few days later with the demand that the Operations team pay $1,000+ (no joke) for a wooden sign with hand-carved lettering and painting.  Sure, their new sign looked great, but I can tell you I’d never think twice seeing the $10 digitally printed sign in the park.  Operations had to purchase the new sign (WDI had show quality authority).  This resulted in an extra $990+ that got spent on a sign that sat in storage nine months of the year.  That extra funding?  It had to be cut out of the budget elsewhere (I’m sure some of you complained about a greeter position that disappeared that holiday season or that Space had cut down on some rockets to save some labor).  While it sounds small in the grand scope of Disneyland, Operations just paid a 100x premium in the name of WDI show quality.

Now let’s go to the other end of the spectrum.  Again, I’m as big of a fan of a great WDI E-Ticket as the next person, but wouldn’t some price competition be welcome?  When we first placed the Tower of Terror on the DCA A&E Menu as an E-Ticket placeholder, we put it there as $100M.  That’s a lot of coin.  The attraction actually came in just above $115M.  Think about that for a moment: $115M.


Now here’s a question: If you sent the Tower out to bid across a number of contractors, could it be built for less than $115M?  My gut tells me not only yes, but significantly less.  Working with WDI, and only WDI, to populate an A&E Menu is difficult at WDI prices.  Wouldn’t it be refreshing to have a number of attraction vendors to put up against each other?  WDI “overhead” can crush any hope for responsible spending.  I know this is not a popular argument (see my first article…bad guy) but it’s a financial reality.  How many of you work for a company where all of your Capital spending is dictated by a single vendor?

People are going to point to Cars Land and say “See what happens when you give WDI an unlimited budget?!?!?”  Agreed!  I LOVE Cars Land!  BUT, anyone notice the dearth of new attractions at WDW the last few years?  The lack of a true E-Ticket in the New Fantasyland?  As much as people like to pit the TDO (Team Disney Orlando) versus TDA (Team Disney Anaheim), the reality is that it all comes out of the same budget…Parks & Resorts.  Now think about if WDI had some competition in bidding for those projects.  I’m not standing too far out on a limb to argue that an open bid process for Cars Land and New Fantasyland could result in enough funding being freed up to finally give Disneyland or Epcot that new E-Ticket (or a bunch of smaller attractions) they have been waiting for…all within the same budget.

Back to the original intent of this article (I think I broke my soapbox). After a rough couple years in the early 2000s, the funding for the A&E Menu started to open up a bit in the future years.  I got the call in 2004 to go with a small contingent of DLR executives to WDI and have them pitch some blue sky ideas.  Some of those ideas were merely concept drawings while others were actual functioning prototypes.

As we stepped through the front door of WDI…hold on a sec…let’s make this my first two-part article!

Coming next time: some concept art that many of you are VERY familiar with and a ride on a prototype that most people have neither seen nor heard about!  Until next time…keep your pencils sharp and your beans counted!!!

About The Accountaneer

The Accountaneer grew up going Disney parks and was quickly hooked on the pixie dust. He soon found himself sharpening pencils and counting beans for the world's favorite mouse. He hopes to share with readers a little insight on how decisions are made in the Happiest Place On Earth.

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  • Big D

    Great article. I’d love to hear more about using WDI as the sole contractor. Are you talking about both the design and construction of the ride, or just purely the construction? For example, would WDI design the ride, create the blueprints, and then an outside company would just build the ride following the blueprints exactly (which I actually thought was how things are done today) including buying the materials from the specific companies that WDI specifies, or would the outside company design the ride (within certain parameters). If it’s the former, then I say let the bidding war commence, but if it’s the latter, then I agree 100% with Disney’s decision to only ever use WDI. There is only one ride that I’ve ever seen outside of a Disney park that is every bit as good as Disney and that’s Revenge of the Mummy at Universal Orlando. I don’t know if Universal hired an outside company to design and build it, but unless Disney can get those people, there is no one else who comes even remotely close to the quality and immersion of a Disney ride.

  • robbiem

    Great article

    It’s interesting to see how similar Disney is to where I work – closed supply chains, cost inflation & big costs for everyday things like signs.

    It always amazes me when other parts of the same business make money from each other in this way rather than working together for the collective good

  • Dizzey

    This is quite the interesting article. I don’t blame the author for feeling under-appreciated, when in fact, none of our favorite Disney environments could have been built without someone figuring out how to pay for it. As an earlier commentor said – without Roy, Walt likely wouldn’t have realized half of his dreams.

    I would also say, though, that the Imagineers have a pretty good handle on their audience and our demand for immersion. We don’t like cheap-looking ANYTHING. Don’t give us a standard screen door on a castle – it kills our fantasy. The attention to detail and quality is the real reason that we cough up a crazy amount of cash to hit Disney for a few days. Our decision to spend so much is as irrational as using the most expensive contractor, but, perhaps unfortunately, we notice the difference in the workmanship that comes with the expensive worker, and for these few days, are willing to pay for it.

  • psa928

    Remember, going to outside firms and taking the lowest bidder is how the “other” parks do business. So if you want to end up with something like you’d find at Knott’s or Six Flags, that approach is just fine.

    What WDI has that other parks don’t is a history of experience. Is it worth the 30% premium that they charge? Maybe. Maybe not. Keep in mind that the premium goes to pay for intangible items like blue sky design, reference libraries, R&D, and all the other parts of Imagineering that don’t sell anything or make their own profits but are important parts of what WDI does. Someone has to pay to keep the “magical” work environment humming along.

    Sure, you can buy 6 Hondas for the price of a Rolls Royce. But if your customer is expecting the luxury/performance/entertainment of a Rolls, even a handful of Hondas won’t be an acceptable substitute.

    I’m not trying to justify the obvious bloat that WDI can often add to a project (the Haunted Mansion sign is a great example), but so often we talk about the seamless theme park environment that Disney provides — there is a very real cost required to provide it.

  • Weekly-Visitor

    You’re on for about 80% of that but you omitted 20% of the puzzle and as a result the article makes it appear that TDA is a decision maker with it’s hands tied when really they’re mostly out of the puzzle.

    Step out to the P&R level – today, while cars land was under development and you see a couple things that are different.

    1) Parks and Resorts is in charge and sets the budgets for all P&R entities which include all the parks (except Tokyo’s) and WDI and the Cruise line.

    2) The 5YR plan is not the dictating plan, usually the 10YR plan dictates

    3) Deals create jobs

    P&R always allocates the funding to all the properties including WDI. That means they SET the WDI budget and oversee all the costs that go into designing, producing, and developing a new attraction. When TDA gets say in what happens, it’s usually pretty small. They’re told when they get new lands and new rides – it’s P&R that makes those decisions. Then WDI sits down with P&R and they discuss what type/level/cost. WDI usually submits a few ideas (or P&R says make Avatar land and then they submit narrower ideas) and P&R chooses them. TDA’s level of involvement comes in on the operations end after those bigger decisions are made. They end up making more managerial/operational decisions (how many CM’s does it take to operate, whats the operating cost, what’s the maintenance requirements and cost, how many guests per hour etc etc). While TDA can “kill” or change an idea- they’re rarely the ones going “New A Ticket Please!” and they’re certainly are never sitting down at a table and saying “We can’t afford that”.

    • dl3000

      Well, with P&R setting budgets, I wish they would dumping more cash in some E tickets instead of NextGen.

  • 4Apples4Disney

    Great article! I really enjoy this new addition to Micechat. It’s interesting to hear about the reality of how things work behind the scenes. I also find it interesting that it’s competition that truly breeds a more excellent product. It’s something that for the last few decades America seems to be losing. One can only imagine if bids were opened up, how much could be done and how much money could be directed to other projects that still sit on drawing room tables. Well done, can’t wait for the next article.

  • toonaspie

    I feel for ya man but honestly I don’t know how Disney thought that they could cover an entire resort wide expansion including 1 new park, 1 new hotel, new parking structures and a Downtown Disney with only $1.4 billion (which would now be $1.8 billion). That is just too many projects to spread thin on a limited budget. (And that still wouldn’t be half of what OLC spent to build Tokyo Disneysea).

    I get that overbudgeting happens. But sometimes the ideas that are put forth to compensate for the budget just fall flat…like creating a bunch of on-the-cheap rides that nobody’s going to really care for and justify it by saying maybe the customer won’t care either. That is just a money-waster. And I think TDA learned the hard way you can’t just slap anything with a Disney label and expect it to make money. As far as budget is concerned, you get a better return investment on making a few E-tickets than using that same money to create a bunch of minor rides that guests will eventually lose interest in.

  • jasmineray

    That was such an awesome read. Can’t wait for the next one!

  • JediPrincess

    I love your articles!

  • jt7

    Greetings Accountineer….this is by far the best way to get into the financial minds of Disney…and the way you explain it, bascially the other side of the story is great!!! I was wondering, you talked about how Disneyland caculates the age for admission… does Disneyland or Walt Disney Company calculate admission prices? With admission so high, what goes into the calculations? If it was explained why it is what it is, maybe the admission shock wouldn’t be as painful….

  • DobbysCloset

    Wow, great stuff for grown-ups! And to think it all started with a mouse! Fortunately I can revert to my inner eight-year-old when visiting the park and ignore all the hard work and money behind the illusions…

  • Spacepainter

    I can’t get enough of Accountineering!!!

  • nunz

    Once again..fascinating. Thanks!

  • MiklCraw4d

    So much to say.

    First, the reason that Disneyland took a financial hit “after 9/11″ is that they were paying operational costs for an entire extra theme park that was only pulling 8,000 people a day. Why? Because they took the cheap way out and built a horrible park that no one wanted to go to. It was empty from day one but Disney still had to pay people to staff empty rides, shows and restaurants. THAT is why they were bleeding red ink.

    Second, Disneyland does not operate in a vacuum. It is part of a multi-billion dollar conglomerate that, if necessary, can move the money around to make things happen. Management change brought the authorization to spend money to fix DCA and that is why attendance has gone up and that is why Disneyland is turning more of a profit.

    Third, digitally printed signs look terrible.

  • PecosBill

    I like the analogy of WDI to a General Contractor.

    However a General Contractor only makes money when they Sell/Build a project. Where does all the money come from to support all of the overhead in Glendale where there isn’t a project to be sold/built for their limited customer base?

    Does the A&E budget cover the WDI Overhead and R&D even when they aren’t providing a product/service to one of the Parks?