Minor characters discontinued; Frozen characters extended

Written by Kevin Yee. Posted in Walt Disney World

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Published on February 11, 2014 at 3:00 am with 12 Comments

The talking trashcan, PUSH, has been discontinued at the Magic Kingdom. At least, that’s true as of this writing; I wouldn’t be too surprised if this changes yet again after this story is published. Why? Because this story has had numerous twists and turns so far, and it’s not clear the public even knows the full story yet. But to me, the real story is not the loss of PUSH, but rather the discontinuation of the much lower profile Ziti Sisters in Epcot. But the reasons for my statement may surprise you. What is significant is what this cut represents–and what it says about theme parks, budgets, and lines of business.

First, let’s clarify that the discontinuation of the talking trashcan likely had nothing to do with the simultaneous cancelling of the Ziti Sisters. This wasn’t some sudden crackdown on all entertainment at Disney. Nor was it a widescale cost-cutting program that resulted in both closures. This does not appear to be Disney simply being cheap.

PUSH, you might have known, is actually run by an outside contractor/vendor. And they had a contract with Disney that ended Saturday. End of story? Maybe. A few days before the end of the contract, there was a movement online by fans to #SavePUSH by spreading the word via Twitter and other social media. On Friday, a Disney spokesperson told the Orlando Sentinel that PUSH wasn’t going anywhere, but by Sunday PUSH didn’t appear and Cast Members were told on their online portal that PUSH wasn’t coming back.

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It’s hard to suss out the true story amid the accusations and recriminations, but on Twitter I saw allegations that the PUSH contractor may have reached out to fans and websites to start off the #SavePUSH movement, effectively turning them into an (unwitting?) part of the contract negotiations. Could it be that Disney just didn’t want to allow an outside contractor to set a precedent using social media and failed to renew on this basis? This led to counter-accusations and took on a life of its own. I had no real inside info, so I stayed out of that particular online spat.

A columnist at another site dug up some interesting details and an elegant theory to match: apparently the PUSH operator allowed the trademark for a talking trashcan robot to expire, possibly opening the door for Disney to simply make its own talking trashcan robot without needing this outside vendor. In other words, this saga may not be over yet.

All that means that PUSH was likely unrelated to the closure of the Ziti Sisters. This comedy troupe in Epcot possibly WAS canned for budgetary reasons. One whispered suspicion is that they had to be let go because Epcot needed a way to pay for the continuing presence of Elsa and Anna in Norway.

A little background: it was the Studios (in Burbank) who paid the initial cost for a meet and greet related to Frozen in Epcot. It was part of their marketing budget, and it makes sense. What better place to find Disney-interested fans (and future moviegoers) than in a Disney theme park? So one could see how the corporate studios decided to fund a meet and greet.

It takes only a moment to realize that this corporate studio isn’t going to pay for an eternal meet and greet; their purpose and mission is to get as many people into the theater as possible (especially EARLY in the theatrical run, when the studio’s cut of the grosses is larger). Thus, they have no incentive to fund a meet and greet after the movie leaves theaters (or when the run is extended, and most of the profits then go go the theater owners rather than the studios).

You see the problem. Elsa and Anna were slated to be out of Epcot by now; this was always meant as a kind of unannounced Limited Time Magic event. The thing is, the characters, like the movie, are hugely popular. The lines are enormous for this meet and greet, and Epcot likely realized they’d face an unhappy mob if the characters suddenly weren’t there.

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But if you’re Epcot management, you can’t just wave a wand–with apologies to the “boy who lived” up the freeway–and create additional money. Major corporations like this set their budgets in stone at the start of the fiscal year. You can just ask for more money later; it’s not there. You live within your budget. And if you’re Epcot, wanting to now pick up the tab for something that the studio provided for free for a while, you look around for what you can cut in favor of the thing you want to keep.

I get the complaints that it’s short-sighted. I especially agree that maybe Epcot could have kept some money in reserve and/or planned to pay for Elsa and Anna at the start of the year when the studio provision was scheduled to end. Maybe they wanted to see first if the movie would be popular? I still say they could have then decided at that point to allocate to the money to something else in mid-year, with no one the wiser.

Frankly, I’ve come to understand the WDW attitude toward characters more and more. The crowds simply love them. If WDW wanted to spend money, all they’d have to do is hire performers to be the various Disney characters from films over the past 60 years, and they’d have more guest compliments than they’d know what to do with. I’d just FILL the streets with roaming characters–Disney has hundreds to choose from, you know–and watch as the crowds fawn.

It turns out that Disney’s intellectual property that matters the most isn’t a talking trashcan; it’s the animated characters from the many decades of film. One reason Disney has been the industry leader all these years – rather than Universal, for instance – is that strong brand identity.

I hate to say it, but a (minor) “Potter Swatter” would probably come from simply releasing dozens of rubberheads into the parks, helping those once-a-decade (even once-a-year) tourists feel like they’ve stepped into a Disney movie. Or at least a TV commercial about Disney parks.

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If Universal sent Woody Woodpecker, ET, and whatever those Easter movie characters are into the streets, not that many people would care. But every time WDW sends out “rare” characters into the streets, a line ALWAYS forms. Such is the draw and staying power of Disney.

So yes, it may have come down to Ziti Sisters or Frozen Sisters. It’s clear which one has more brand recognition, and if that was the choice, I think Disney made the right choice. Of course, it’s not going to feel right for the performers of either PUSH or the Ziti Sisters (some of whom I have met and are great people). So let’s keep them in mind, too.

Re-Launching Ultimate Orlando

I’ve maintained a “side blog” since 2006 and have finally decided to unify all my social networking around this one site and brand. That means I will soon stop posting about my Disney updates to my regular Facebook account, and will only use the “Ultimate Orlando” venues/accounts going forward. Also of note: I had to change the YouTube channel, so if you subscribe to the current one be sure you switch your subscription to the new one. If you follow me on any of these services, please update your bookmarks:

Ultimate Orlando Clicks

This week we start at Universal to show you new additions to the Simpsons food court then examine the progress on London and Diagon Alley. We stick around Universal for the Mardi Gras parade, then hop over to Animal Kingdom for the Dug meet and greet, which has a new interactive prop. We glimpse some Polynesian DVC construction and then also see the newest progress on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Coaster: a ride vehicle prop and a waterfall!

Direct link: http://youtu.be/bGfC8Q7h7gA

About Kevin Yee

Kevin Yee is an author and blogger writing about travel, tourism, and theme parks in Central Florida.

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  • gboiler1

    Thanks for the insight Kevin. It’s always interesting to hear the real story behind the decisions and typically there is a logical explanation that most people can relate to once you hear the facts.
    I agree that Disney likely has the richest amount of character recognition of any entertainment industry than you can think of.
    While I’ve never run across Push before we had wonderful interactions with Pipa at Rafiki’s and Wes Palm outside AK when my daughter was young. I hope Disney continues with these characters as they were magical moments I remember fondly over a decade after they happened.

  • lionheartkc

    The one thing that PUSH, Wes Palm, and others have going for them is that they add to the magic because they are unexpected and, for the most part, create a personal experience, because there is never a line or a crowd when they show up. I’ve run into most of these characters, and they have always brought a little extra joy to my day, because I wasn’t looking for them, they found me.

    While I agree that the main characters take precedent in most guests minds, especially those with children, to me, the biggest joy of Disney is unexpected magic, and that is becoming a thing of the past with their movement to structure everything and phase out the little things.

  • whamo

    I saw my first talking trashcan at California Adventure Park about four years ago. A young boy was trying his best to tear it apart. His mother finally stopped him. How did it wind up in Florida?

    • solarnole

      I saw it in Florida in 1996. Maybe Superstar Limo is the talking trash can you are thinking of.

  • Esmeralda

    Characters roaming the parks?! Yes, yes, yes. As an avid fan with a family of avid fans, we all say we want to see the characters riding the rides again and would love to see them just out and about within the park. Perhaps I’ve been watching my 18 month old’s favorite video too much (the sing-along Disneyland Fun) but that idea sounds like a dream come true!

  • solarnole

    Universal is the ride park and Disney is the meet and greet mall.

    Meet and greets seem forced and fake like meeting Santa in a mall. I always liked riding the train in Santa’s village better then meeting him and being forced to take a cheesy photo.

  • holierthanthoutx

    I heard from a very reputable source inside Disney that Disney wanted to renew the contract for PUSH, but whoever owns PUSH wanted more money for the contract, and Disney opted not to renew the contract for that reason. Not a very exciting story, but it makes sense

    Honestly, it sounds like a negotiating ploy, where both sides dig in and hope that the other is the first to cave. I hope they can resolve it, because our family loves PUSH. We have fantastic video of PUSH interacting with our kids. As someone else pointed out, PUSH is so magical because it’s so unexpected. One of our boys was so enamored with PUSH when he was gounger that he would run around Tomorrowland talking to all the trash cans, trying to figure out which one was PUSH!

  • Jkom

    The girl dressed up as Anna, was actually dressed up as Ariel when my wife and I were there at Epcot back in August 2013. (i have a picture with her as Ariel). I think its really just about who’s popular and relevant not about budgets so much.

  • Susan Hughes

    I was talking with the Imagineers inside, what was then, the Tangled meet and greet at Disneyland. They had all their blueprints and sketches laid out for the new Frozen meet and greet which would take over that location.
    I asked how long Frozen was going to be there and one of them said, “It depends on how popular the movie is. If it’s not a big hit, Tangled will return.” Well, it’s safe to say Flynn and Rapunzel will never return to their tower.

  • MikeBlakesley

    I own a movie theater and am a Disney fan. Kevin, your comment about Disney wanting to get moviegoers into the theaters “early in the theatrical run” while the studio’s cut of the gross is bigger needs some updating. For a few years now, Disney (and Warner Bros too) has been using a system called “sliding aggregate” whereby the more a movie grosses, the higher their percentage cut of the gross is. If a movie flops, the percentage is fairly low; and if a movie is a megahit, like “Frozen,” the percentage is much higher. The most important thing is, the final percentage applies to ALL weeks of the engagement. Theaters playing the movie are obliged to take their “best guess” at what the movie will ultimately gross by the end of its run, and pay the appropriate percentage on the scale for each week they play the movie. The worst part of the whole equation is, let’s say we assumed “Frozen” would top out at $250 million (which was thought to be a pretty good guess, back in November). So we paid the appropriate percentage for those weeks. But now the movie is going to gross close to $400 million, so guess what? We have to pay retroactively, probably somewhere around 10% more than we had originally paid. To my knowledge the only theaters who don’t have to participate in this system are the “dollar houses” which get movies two to three months after their first run.

    • Kevin Yee

      Mike, thanks for this correction. I have indeed missed the news of the altered way theater owners share in the profit – good to know!!

  • WorldLover71

    I understand the logic that when you have a budget, you have to stick to it. However, Disney made far more money on Frozen than it expected to. Is it that unreasonable to spend a tiny, insignificant percentage of that money to keep the M&G open so the entertainment department doesn’t have to cannibalize itself? I always find it funny how the studio and the parks act like they are not both parts of the same company (not that that is unusual in large companies with different divisions or even departments.)