Summer is in full swing at the Disneyland Resort! The attendance numbers are still very healthy and continue to reflect the new reality that DCA now pulls in over 40% of the attendance between the two parks, instead of the traditional 25/75 split that had been in place until Cars Land opened last summer. In this update, we’ll fill you in on why that attendance split has Disney’s Board of Directors making a rare park visit, why very few of the attraction plans the Board approved will be announced at D23 Expo next month, and how Disney executives finally grew a backbone in order to combat embarrassing operational problems that had been festering for a decade.
So grab your cup of coffee stirred with Swiss Miss hot chocolate, put on your fuzzy bunny slippers, kick your heels up, and enjoy a mostly good news update from the Disneyland Resort.
A few weeks ago, Bob Iger and Tom Staggs spent the day in Anaheim. That’s not uncommon, especially in the last few years, as Disney’s Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter had been visiting almost monthly and kept insisting Staggs come down to Disneyland to inspect things with him. But on this particular visit, Bob Iger and Tom Staggs also hosted a rare meeting of the Board of Directors at a Disney theme park. The Board always assembles annually at the Shareholders Meeting, and occasionally throughout the year they will be summoned to the corporate offices in Burbank. But it is very rare for Bob to assemble them in Orange County at the Disneyland Resort.
The reason behind this rare show of corporate force was Bob Iger’s next big push for the Parks & Resorts Division of the company, and Bob needed to convince the Board to approve the increased spending he has planned for the parks. It was just over six years ago that a similar meeting took place, as Bob needed their votes to approve a 1.2 Billion dollar plan to fix and expand Disney California Adventure. Corporate governance rules require that an expenditure that large get full approval from the Board, and when the DCA Extreme Makeover was publicly announced in October 2007, it was a fix-it plan beyond anyone’s wildest imagination for that troubled park. Six years later, it is now quite obvious that not only did the DCA plan work, but, right out of the gate in 2012, it surpassed the most optimistic of projections for key analytics like annual attendance, per capita guest spending, and hotel room occupancy levels. The extremely strong performance of DCA, and thus the entire Anaheim resort property, was even achieved against strong financial headwinds from a rather weak economy, which makes the numbers even more impressive.
The Board of Directors visit was planned by Walt Disney Imagineering and Bob’s sharp pencil boys in advance, as the Board spent the morning in the Presidential Suite and private board room at the Grand Californian Hotel. There they received financial briefings and overviews of the Parks & Resorts division that made the case that the DCA makeover put the Anaheim property on a rocket ride to increased cash flow and very strong customer feedback scores that promise even more future growth. Top execs from Imagineering then gave the Board a creative overview of the DCA project, as some members of the Board weren’t members back in ’07 when the project was launched. WDI also rolled out several of their top concepts to expand the Anaheim property further, with the Monstropolis mini-land and E Ticket Door Coaster planned for the sleepy Hollywood Backlot area and a new Star Wars themed makeover for the messy Tomorrowland section of Disneyland. The Board also got overviews of WDI’s plans to attempt a more modest makeover of the Disney’s Hollywood Studios park in Florida, with a scaled down Cars Land section and some of the same Star Wars concepts planned for Tomorrowland.
Once the presentations were over, and the swanky luncheon had been cleared away, the Board set out for a very rare field trip into an actual working Disney theme park. Even though the Parks & Resorts division of the company has always been a consistent cash generator and far exceeds the profits from the Consumer Products or Broadcast TV divisions, let alone the bottomless money pit that is the trendy Disney Interactive division, the theme parks are very rarely visited by top executives. Parks Chairman Tom Staggs and Chief Creative Executive Bruce Vaughn led the group through DCA, stopping at the private 1901 Lounge on Buena Vista Street for beverages.
Once they finally got to Cars Land, a photo op was set up in front of the Cadillac Range to capture their special visit to a theme park, and then Bob Iger and the Board of Directors were whisked in through the exit of Radiator Springs Racers to a waiting car so they could experience the ride everyone is still talking about. The Board genuinely seemed to enjoy themselves that afternoon, which was Bob and Tom’s strategy. The plan Bob Iger and Tom Staggs have cooked up is to use the DCA makeover as a model for future park growth, but that will require a larger outlay of cash for the next few years and for that, the Board must approve the increased division expenditures. It’s hoped that this schmoozy visit to DCA last month generated some goodwill amongst the Board members, people who would ordinarily never visit a theme park, and that they will be supportive of Bob’s plan to turn on the money spigot for Disneyland, DCA, and DHS.
A GREAT BIG BEAUTIFUL TOMORROW
With so many headliner additions slated for the parks in the next few years, you would think that would make next month’s D23 Expo a home-run of exciting announcements and lavish Imagineering artwork of the upcoming rides. But it appears the exact opposite will be true, as WDI has been warned by Burbank to keep their cards very close to their vest at D23 Expo while Comcast pours money into several new rides at Universal Studios up the freeway in Hollywood. And until the Board officially approves the big expenditures for Fiscal Year 2014 through ’17, it doesn’t look like the beans can be spilled in time for D23 Expo.
That’s not to say that smaller scale projects can’t get underway sooner, particularly in Tomorrowland, as part of a strategic plan is to remake that aging section and restore its former glory. The plan now, using development funds under the 100 Million dollar mark already earmarked for Disneyland, is to go in and do “placemaking” and aesthetic improvements in Tomorrowland just prior to the 60th Anniversary in 2015. Captain EO is on the chopping block with that plan, which should come as no surprise to anyone. The long-rumored West Coast version of the Monsters Inc. Laugh Factory would take up residence in that 3-D theater, while the area around it gets an aesthetic re-skinning that will help it mesh better with the big-budget plan to bring more Star Wars presence to Tomorrowland. The E Ticket of the Tomorrowland remake uses the speeder bike coaster concept on the old PeopleMover route, originally Imagineered with a Tron theme but now using Star Wars as the storyline for the new ride.
Also currently planned for the 60th is a new night parade from the capable hands of Steve Davison for Disneyland, and a new afternoon parade for DCA. The tentative parade plan has the MSEP staying in Walt Disney World until it is permanently retired (although when it left Anaheim in 2010, it was originally supposed to return to Anaheim in 2012), and the existing Pixar Play Parade at DCA would be shipped out to Florida if the TDO team wants it. And there is still the creative plan to dramatically re-Imagineer the existing five Fantasyland dark rides for Disneyland’s 60th that we told you about a few months ago.
Meanwhile in DCA, the planning for Monstropolis has shifted into high gear this summer with Anaheim’s operations team. Mary Niven and Michael Colglazier would like to see the new mini-land and E Ticket Door Coaster open by the Fall of 2016, even as WDI rushes to fine tune the engineering and design of the new ride building and attached dining and retail. The Door Coaster concept would have riders strapped onto the sides of doors as they are sent through several large show scenes in addition to a thrill ride component through the cavernous door hangars. Building on the wild success of Radiator Springs Racers that brought back the art of animatronic dark ride storytelling paired with a family thrill ride, both WDI and TDA want the Door Coaster to wow audiences even if the riders aren’t huge Monsters Inc. fans. And it helps immensely that this is a Pixar property, as John Lasseter’s Pixar team that keeps a close eye on Cars Land will be intimately involved in the process for Monstropolis and the Door Coaster.
So while there are still plenty of things moving forward for the Anaheim parks short-term, plus even bigger plans for large-scale investment in the broader Parks & Resorts division, the financial timing and corporate politics don’t align well for any big D23 Expo announcements next month. And that’s not an easy pill for D23 to swallow, as fans will be expecting a big announcement, as in years past. Now that The Lone Ranger has flopped bigger than John Carter, there won’t be much buzz to generate from Disney’s movie studio at the Expo. Broadcast TV is struggling with audiences, and Disney’s more successful cable networks like ESPN have only a small presence at the Expo. And, since Disney’s Interactive division is still struggling to get traction as it loses tens of millions of dollars every quarter, Burbank refuses to go big with D23 Expo exhibits for that division. WDI has expanded their pavilion footprint this year, as their separately-gated exhibit is always a hit with Expo crowds. But without a major announcement about new E Tickets and splashy theme park expansion, D23 Expo may have a hard time generating fan interest from the 50,000 expected to attend. Unless things change in the next few weeks, due to The Lone Ranger casting a dark cloud over the summer, don’t expect anything unless Bob Iger changes his mind and allows at least one of the new projects for Disneyland, DCA or DHS to get announced.
While fans prepare to be either disappointed or surprised at D23 Expo in August, the management on both coasts are preparing to roll out a dramatic makeover to the existing Guest Assistance Card (GAC) program at all parks. The GAC, generally used as a front-of-the-line pass with few strings attached, got national exposure on The Today Show back in May. Today Show producers hired several unscrupulous Annual Passholders who rent out their GACs for cash in order to allow people to cut to the front of the line at unlimited rides each day, and then exposed the practice in a major undercover camera feature that had Today Show audiences gasping at their TV sets.
In an example of just how out of touch many of Disney’s theme park executives are, it was only when this Today Show expose aired that they would admit that they had a problem. Their own theme park teams in Guest Relations and Attractions have known this was a problem for years, and had been trying to tell the executives it was something that needed attention, but they were constantly told not to worry about it, mostly because no executive had the guts to attach their name to this hot-button issue. The problem is at its most severe in Anaheim, where over 100,000 Annual Passholders are now using the GAC process to board attractions each year, in addition to smaller numbers of hotel guests or casual visitors who aren’t Passholders. On the average busy day, Disneyland Resort’s Guest Relations teams in City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Guest Services windows in the Esplanade, are now issuing between 1,200 and 1,400 GAC passes per day. And until recently, those GAC passes could be post-dated for 60 days at a time, in an attempt to cut down on the number of people applying for GAC passes each day. But that practice exponentially increased the numbers of pre-issued GAC passes that would arrive on days with high Annual Passholder visitation.
That means that on the average busy Sunday, when AP visitation swells, there are upwards of 3,000 GAC passes being used between the two parks, most of them stamped for a total of 6 people allowed per pass. The Cast Members at Guest Relations can track those numbers easily, and the Cast Members who staff the GAC check-in podium at Radiator Springs Racers marvel at how up to 4,000 people per day will access Racers via a GAC pass instead of using a Fastpass or waiting in the Standby or Single Rider lines. When a popular ride like Racers, which can only accommodate 20,000 people per 15 hour day under the most optimal of conditions without any major downtimes, has 20% of its riders coming through using a Guest Assistance Card, you know there’s a problem.
Once a small but sensational slice of the larger GAC abuse issue was exposed on The Today Show, the alarm bells rang in executive suites in Anaheim and Orlando and the top suits were embarrassed enough to finally do something about it. And in a 180 degree turnabout after ignoring years of complaints from their operations teams, several key executives are now rushing to jump on the bandwagon and attach their names in support of this suddenly trendy topic. The managers in the parks can only roll their eyes and think “Now you’ll listen to us? What took you so long?” The result is that top managers from Anaheim were quickly flown out to Orlando for a week-long summit with dozens of Orlando managers on how to end the current GAC program and rebuild a new process in its place.
Guest Relations Cast Members on both coasts have heard rumblings on the more restrictive plan, still being hashed out via bi-coastal video conferences, and they are preparing to don their suits of armor for the inevitable yelling that will occur at Guest Relations in all six American theme parks when the GAC gravy train comes to an end. The first step in the process already began last month, as Guest Relations no longer post-dates a GAC for two months at a time in order to flush the system of old cards prior to the new program rolling out. The current policy only allows a GAC to be dated for two weeks at a time. However, when the rollout for the new program approaches in August, Guest Relations will stop dating them for two weeks and only issue GAC passes one day at a time in an attempt to flush out the last of the old cards. The new system can then begin without any old valid GAC passes still in circulation, and that date is tentatively slated to happen in August.
The new process for accommodating those with legitimate disabilities that prevent them from waiting in a line is still having the details ironed out, as we hear more about how it might work we’ll fill you in. What’s important to know now is that the current GAC process is coming to an end, and very soon. The Today Show kicked off the panic, but perhaps this could be a lesson for the executives in TDO and TDA that their front line staff knows what is working and what is not. It would be nice if an executive or two would be willing to stick their neck out just a bit to help their own teams provide the best service possible to the broadest range of paying guests possible. It’s a shame the problem was ignored for so long that a hidden camera expose had to end up on The Today Show, instead of simply fixing the problem years and years ago like the front-line teams had been requesting.
Life’s full of tough choices, innit? Speaking of which, the latest MiceChat Podcast features a gutsy interview with Ursula the Sea Witch, Pat Carroll herself, and a surprise appearance by legendary Imagineer, Bob Gurr. You won’t want to miss what happens when these two 80+ year olds get together and take over the show. Plus more theme park news and gossip. It’s a real hoot and a must listen.
Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and share with your family and friends. We are looking forward to hearing your comments. Is Laugh Floor a good replacement for the Captain or is it too much Monsters with a whole mini-land on its way to DCA? Do you have ideas on how best to change the GAC program? Attending the D23 Expo this August? We await your always interesting observations!
Special thanks to Fishbulb and Andy Castro for their photos