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  1. #1

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    The Captive Audience and the decline of DL (long post)

    As with many of you, I grew up in southern California, and, analogous to Ralphie in "A Christmas Story," for us the entire kid year revolved around making the annual treks to Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm.

    As soon as school let out, the planning started. Ticket books were examined after Fourth of July fireworks, over some apple pie alamode. I'd read and re-read my souvenir picture books until they were dog eared. My sister and I planned our routes, and salivated thinking about Monte Cristo sandwiches.

    And so it went, year after year, decade after decade. The Annual Pass came along, and then I could go to Disneyland whenever I wanted (although we'd still go to Knott's once or twice a year as well).

    These two theme parks were my themed entertainment universe. They were all I knew.

    And then, three years ago, we moved to North Carolina.

    As a great fan of Disneyland (much to the contrary of some who post here), I was very saddened that I would not be able to go to Disneyland as often as I had with my annual pass. But the move was for the kids' welfare, so it was a sacrifice I was willing to make.

    But where would we take the kids when we wanted to hit an amusement park? Well, Busch Gardens Williamsburg was up the road, just a few hours away. But I knew (or thought I knew), that it was simply going to be a Magic Mountain clone.

    Boy, was I wrong. As I have experienced the Park over the past two years, my eyes have been opened. I thought that there were only two types of theme parks in the world: Disneyland, and everything else.

    There is no doubt Disneyland knows the theme park business. But Disneyland has something lots of parks don’t: a "captive audience" (locals, folks from farther away who will ONLY attend a Disney theme park, etc.). I have come to the conclusion that this captive audience has given Disney free reign to lower the quality of what they offer, and at the same time, raise prices dramatically.

    Some examples: The dining experience at Busch Gardens was beyond superb. While there was no sit-down service (with waiters/waitresses), the food itself was immaculate. Lunch was at the Festhause, a German themed restaurant with a cafeteria-style line. I had a sampler platter that included two German sausages/bratwurst, German potatoes, and smoked ribs. All of this was cooked on a grill in front of us. Here’s the menu:

    Baby Back Ribs
    Authentic German Sausages
    Mile High Corned Beef Sandwiches
    Hand Carved Turkey Sandwiches
    Cheese Pizza
    Pepperoni Pizza
    Turkey Entre Salad
    Turkey and Ham Club Sandwiches
    Child's Hot Dog
    Red Cabbage
    German Potato Salad
    French Fries
    Mozzarella Sticks
    Mixed Green Salad
    Hash Brown Casserole
    Cherry Chocolate Cake
    Cherry Cheesecake
    Carrot Cake
    German Chocolate Cake
    Lemon Cake
    Strawberry Short Cake
    Torte Cake
    Chocolate Pudding Parfait
    Strawberry Parfait
    Apple Strudel
    Fresh Cut Watermelon
    Jumbo Pretzel
    Assorted Pepsi Products
    Iced Tea
    Fruit Punch
    Lemonade
    Coffee, Milk, Water
    Hot Chocolate
    Anheuser-Busch Beverages on Draught.

    For dinner, we went to the Smokehouse, where, yes, the meat is smoked over oak and hickory coals beginning in the morning—actually barbequed—unlike what Disney tries to pull off as BBQ. Here’s the menu (minus the desserts and drink selections, as they’re nearly the same as above):

    Smoked Chicken (quarter or half)
    Baby Back Ribs
    Spare Ribs
    Beachwood Chip Grilled Salmon
    Sliced Brisket Sandwich Platter
    Pulled Chicken Entree Salad
    Child's Chicken Tenders
    Child's Hot Dog
    Creamy Macaroni and Cheese
    Mixed Green Salad
    Baked Beans
    Corn on the Cob
    Waffle Fries
    Cole Slaw
    Fried Pickles
    Grilled Vegetables

    Smoked salmon? Sliced brisket? Hand Carved Turkey Sandwiches? Chocolate Pudding Parfait? These options, and more, put the majority of Disneyland's so-called "eateries" to shame.

    There are 22 permanent restaurants and snack shops in the park. There were no ODVs that I saw. While the Blue Bayou certainly is a top restaurant, the fact is that it’s the only one. The dining in the rest of the park is mediocre at best, and downright bad at worst. The hamburgers at DL are so bad as to be nearly inedible; as you can see above, Busch Gardens doesn’t even serve them, even at the BBQ. The food is so far above what can be found in the majority of DL that it can be nearly a destination for dining.

    Prices? Again, Disney appears to be shafting their “guests.” I paid $10.99 for a large rack of five baby back ribs, freshly smoked, with a large side of fries and a huge freshly-baked roll. My family of four got away with a dinner that left us more than full, (including a draft beer for yours truly and dessert for the kids) for $40.00.

    Again, the “captive audience” has no idea that such delicious food is available at parks other than Disneyland.

    (BTW, the German meal was accompanied by a massive stage show, including a live “Oompah” band playing traditional Bavarian songs, with dancers that really got the audience involved. It was a 25 minute show, and really made the meal enjoyable).

    Oh…and another thing: All the restaurants—near as I could tell—were open from park opening to nearly closing. I remember being in DL, on the west side, when Rancho had closed. I think I ended up eating a box of popcorn for dinner…)

    Now, to change tack: The shops. Being that a beer can plush is probably not the cuddliest of treasures, there really weren’t shops all over the place selling exclusively “Busch” souvenirs. Certainly there were a few, selling cool glasses and mugs and the like. But the fact is, 95% of the shops were displaying wares appropriate to their themes (Busch Gardens’ has a European theme, with “lands” that represent various European countries). Frontier-themed toys in “New France (Quebec); mythical dragons and leprechaun merchandise in Ireland; importer Italian ceramics in Italy. Beautiful steins in Germany. The variety of different merchandise was truly amazing. It was a great feeling to be able to enter different shops in the different lands and not see the same thing.

    Oh…and another thing…All the shops remained open, near as I could tell, from opening until after closing.

    Again, Disneyland has cheapened the shopping experience, because with their captive audience, they don’t need to distinguish themselves or the shopping experience.

    Next: I truly respect the DL cast member. I think they are tasked with an impossible standard, at the lowest wage Disney will pay. Truly a challenge for those who want to work there. But, I don’t think it can be disputed that quality at DL seems to be ebbing.

    The CMs at Busch Gardens (and they are called CMs, obviously a term appropriated from Disney), were absolutely splendid in every way. From the cashier at the front gate who told me that my youngest son “was going to be three” so I wouldn’t have to pay for him (after I told her that he was three so I could pay for his ticket), to the food servers to the entertainers, everyone was so friendly that it seemed as though they were actually having a great time on the job! Certainly some Disney CMs seem like they are truly having fun, but I never came away from the Park with the overall feeling that everyone, from ride op to tram operator, was simply having the time of their lives.

    As a family theme park, which caters to families better? I don’t know…it might be a toss-up.

    First of all, the parking lot trams. Busch Gardens simply thought through their trams much better than Disney. There is a separate line for folks with strollers, and the tram is designed to accept them without folding them. If you have a stroller, you know that’s just awesome. The stroller queue is delineated with rails, and it’s single file. Once you get to the tram, a CM will assist you with loading the stroller.

    Now, I can’t tell you how absolutely frustrated I’ve been with Disney. One must very nearly fight with others to defend a spot in line, and then when the tram arrives, all hell breaks loose in the mad dash to lift massive folded-up strollers into the cramped space provided. Fists nearly fly in the process 10 people try to fight for the space of two. The day begins on a sour note, and ends the same way. Really terrible design.


    Now, Disney certainly does better than Busch Gardens in several respects: The theming, at least in some lands, is better than others, although it is definitely declining to the Busch Gardens level. And foremost, Disney definitely does a better job with attractions that can be experienced by the entire family. Pirates, HM, TSI, Nemo, etc. are all great in that respect. At Busch Gardens, we definitely had to separate so that the adults and older kids could do things that the younger set could not.

    What it all comes down to is that the Captive Audience Disneyland enjoys has allowed it to rest on its laurels. Guests who don’t know any better give Disneyland a pass. Disney then takes advantage of their guests’ good will by limiting options in shopping and dining, and raising prices. People who only patronize Disney theme parks have been brainwashed since children into thinking Disney is the best in all respects—as I was. But the sad truth is, there are theme parks out there that are consistently besting Disneyland in many areas where Disneyland once reigned supreme, including in dining, shopping, and customer service. Only when folks realize that Disneyland has done better and can do better, and demand such quality by tightening their purse strings, will Disney realize that they need to not just meet the minimum standard, but to excel as they once did.

    Because of the captive audience, however, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

  2. #2

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    Re: The Captive Audience and the decline of DL (long post)

    But you forget one important thing, Steve...Busch Gardens is on the verge of bankruptcy! Surely no one cares about it! Quality is not a realistic business model! They'd be better off spending their money on more important things!



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    Re: The Captive Audience and the decline of DL (long post)

    I completely agree. When Walt started, he became successful because of his boundless
    imagination and intolerance for low quality. Now, they're just successful because
    they're successful. They've forgottenthe fact that quality and care for the customer
    got them to where they are now.

    But, there is hope. Thanks to DCA, Disney now knows that they can't always skimp
    on theming and attractions. And more recently, they lowered the food prices over
    at Celebration Round-Up. So, despite Disney's flaws, I think they're starting to learn
    they can't get away with everything.


  4. #4

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    Re: The Captive Audience and the decline of DL (long post)

    I know Busch Gardens has two theme parks, and I remember reading a few years back that it completely obliterated DisneyWorld as the best theme park in the States. It was the number 1 theme park in a list of top ten theme parks. Ever since then I have wanted to go see this "better than Disney" park.
    I am definitely not one of the peopel on this site that doesn't believe Disney can do no wrong. Quite frankly, not only in parks, but in movies as well (but that's completely different).
    Being raised with my mom I learned early on that if you can take snacks into the park, take them and don't waste your money on overpriced churros, pretzels, cotton candy, etc. Your points of DL are also dead on. I don't think that the food there is worth the price it set at. To be quite honest, the best restaurant I have been to at DL is the Storybook Cafe. I've been to Blue Bayou (good.... just not worth any of its prices), Plaza Inn, and many of the smaller eateries. I admit the food is overpriced and I hardly ever get "souvenirs" so I don't know about those prices. One day though, my gf and I decided to go on a whim to DL and we didn't take sweaters and had to buy one for the each of us. the cheapest sweater we found was 40 bucks!
    I enjoyed reading this post. Great job

  5. #5

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    Re: The Captive Audience and the decline of DL (long post)

    Great read, Steve. Thanks.
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    Re: The Captive Audience and the decline of DL (long post)

    Quote Originally Posted by Datameister View Post
    But you forget one important thing, Steve...Busch Gardens is on the verge of bankruptcy! Surely no one cares about it! Quality is not a realistic business model! They'd be better off spending their money on more important things!

    There is unfortunately more than a little truth to that statement. Up to this point regardless of how bad the offerings are for food and merch at DLR the crowds keep coming. Until they run out of suicidal promotions DL will continue to offer crap with a nice bow and call it luxury. While quality may be salable most retail efforts in general have shown quality isn't a big seller, even in previous good times. At some point we became a disposable culture, perhaps in reaction to the ever increasing gains in technology, and now we equate disposable bling with value. Who needs something well made when we will be getting rid of it in a year or less?

    DL has been able to exploit those thoughts to the detriment of the quality of the park.
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    Re: The Captive Audience and the decline of DL (long post)

    Quote Originally Posted by matterhornlove31 View Post
    I know Busch Gardens has two theme parks, and I remember reading a few years back that it completely obliterated DisneyWorld as the best theme park in the States. It was the number 1 theme park in a list of top ten theme parks. Ever since then I have wanted to go see this "better than Disney" park.
    The Park has been voted "Most Beautiful Theme Park for 19 straight years by some amusement park by the National Amusement Park Historical Association:

    http://www.williamsburgcc.com/media/...s/PR-Busch.pdf

    Its landscaping rivals or surpasses DL.

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    Re: The Captive Audience and the decline of DL (long post)

    Quote Originally Posted by Datameister View Post
    But you forget one important thing, Steve...Busch Gardens is on the verge of bankruptcy!
    Well, I don't follow the overall theme park scene enough to be able to knowledgeably comment on it, although a google search on its financial status doesn't bring up too much.

    Also, we were told that they were retiring their one of their oldest coasters on Labor Day to build a new one. Doesn't sound too feeble to me.

    But then again, maybe you were being sarcastic?

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    Re: The Captive Audience and the decline of DL (long post)

    Pure sarcasm, I assure you. I don't have any financial information about the park or company. Perhaps they actually are on the verge of bankruptcy, but I wouldn't know. And I certainly hope they're not.


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    Re: The Captive Audience and the decline of DL (long post)

    Amazing post Steve. I too fall into that blinded category. I know what to expect from Disneyland and the memories I have as a young child can never be taken away. I have been one to avoid other theme parks because I remember what has happened to Knotts as far as quality goes and how unsafe I felt at Magic Mountain. Have those 2 parks changed? Probably a little bit but I felt burned with the quality and now that's how I percieve non-Disney parks.

    Now this feeling isn't 100% branded. Sea World's cleanliness and value rivals Disney IMO. Some of the deals other parks offer make it tougher to say Disney is a MUCH better value. What eventually could turn my opinion of Disney is exactly what you speak of and that's Disney's knowledge that some of us will return no matter what. Less choices (food wise), nickel & diming me to death (paying for named on Mickey ears) constant movie tie-ins (small world, POTC, TSI) all add to this feeling that this is now a business and not the place I remember. And I know all too well it's a business, I just don't want to feel like it is.

    So here we stand, Hearing the "all-aboard" when I come in and all the old rides bring me back and the world is good again. I just hope that those memories won't be faded someday by the feeling that Disney considers me as a wallet and not one who needs to feel like a child again.

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    Re: The Captive Audience and the decline of DL (long post)

    Quote Originally Posted by Steve DeGaetano View Post
    The Park has been voted "Most Beautiful Theme Park for 19 straight years by some amusement park by the National Amusement Park Historical Association:

    http://www.williamsburgcc.com/media/...s/PR-Busch.pdf

    Its landscaping rivals or surpasses DL.
    How much of that landscaping is natural? Disneyland's landscaping is mostly artificial, isn't it?

    I know I probably sound like one of the people you describe as a 'captive audience,' but I've never been to a theme park outside of the ones offered in Southern California (or, if you want to count Las Vegas, too - MGM's old park and the dome thing at Circus Circus...) and I definitely prefer and appreciate everything Disneyland has to offer compared to others. I like a lot of aspects of Universal Studios, Knotts, and Magic Mountain, but the entire package Disneyland offers surpasses the rest.

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    Re: The Captive Audience and the decline of DL (long post)

    I've only ever been to four self-professed theme parks in my life - Disneyland, DCA, Knotts and Magic Mountain.


    My mother, grandmother and I went to Knotts when I was six (when someone told us it was "better than Disneyland"). We were so utterly underwhelmed that we left early, and though we went to Disneyland twice a year, every year until I was around 16, we never went to Knotts again.


    I went to Magic Mountain twice with friends as a teenager. Great coaster park. Lousy theme park. The only thing I was impressed with thematically was the cold air blowing in the icy Fortress of Solitude queue of Superman: The Ride.


    I'm not even gonna touch DCA right now. Too complicated to get into .


    Every time I read about a new (non-Disney) theme park, I think "that sounds cool" - and then I do a Google image search and come up with pictures of undisguised steel roller coaster tracks. Even with Busch Gardens - while the obviously do have theming, and it looks better than Six Flags - I see tons of brightly painted twisted steel :P.

    On the other hand, I would like to see theme-appropriate merchandise and some of the other things you’ve mentioned returned to DL.
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    Re: The Captive Audience and the decline of DL (long post)

    It's interesting... as the topic has come up from time to time. Most recently it was brought up in the BBQ thread. Prior to that a heated debate in the French Market thread comes to mind (specifically an attempt to justify 15-20% price increases)...

    ...the bottom line is that the prices and offerings are reflective of a captive audience. Any business outside the berm that tried to sell similar low quality products at Disney's substantial markups would be out of business.


    I also liked the jabs of land specific merchandise.
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    Re: The Captive Audience and the decline of DL (long post)

    I always thought KNott's Berry Farm could rival Disneyland. I grew up with both those parks and I have always loved Knott's just a bit more than DL. I haven't gone to Knott's for a while and seeing how the last time I went they had removed nearly anything that made it Knott's made me sad. Still, I won't lie and say I don't enjoy thrill rides, I just wish Knott's had kept a lot of the scenary in place of just adding coaster after coaster. That's what Six Flags is, and I hate that place.

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    Re: The Captive Audience and the decline of DL (long post)

    Well, back when Disneyland opened, Knott's was it's primary competion and now both Disneyland and knotts have lost the magic of what it was was.

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