A Different look at Disney...

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More
Disney Tickets
Universal Studios Tickets
Sea World Tickets


Declining by Degrees: The Definition and Context

Lest newer readers think the following marks me as a Disney-hater, every time I return to the "Decline by Degrees" I like to preface these comments with a disclaimer. What looks like criticism of Disney World, its operational decisions, its policies, and its maintenance is done not because I dislike the place, but because I wish for the park and its managers to live up its potential and its reputation.

The critique here should not be interpreted to mean that visitors should cancel their plans to visit Disney World. The message is more for Disney management, to alert them that we notice when maintenance and other policies are less customer-friendly than they had been in the past.

I've coined the term "Declining by Degrees" to capture the essence of the problem: little touches are being ignored, maintenance is being deferred, and details are being skipped over. There is a decline, in other words, but it's happening in such small degrees at a time that most visitors don't notice them individually. My idea is that they build up, perhaps subconsciously, and the "magic" of what makes Disney different is endangered… perhaps even removed… when the decline reaches a tipping point. Some may say that tipping point has been met or even surpassed.

Declining by Degrees: Scorecard

Rather than start with the nitty-gritty, let's take a really long view today, and start with the really big ways that the Walt Disney World vacation experience has declined in recent years. As the list progresses, we'll start to come to the more trivial stuff. Remember that the small stuff, these details, are not insignificant! In some ways, they make up the heart of the declining by degrees concept, since the decline is slow and persistent, and invisible when seen individually.

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 from 2000-2008? And it's not just the big stuff. Consider pressed pennies, which cost 51 cents (two quarters, plus your own penny). These days, you'll find pressed quarters machines. You'd think that would cost 75 cents (two quarters, plus your own quarter). But no; it costs $1.25. They seized the change from pennies to quarters as an excuse to raise prices.

This kind of fleecing on merchandise happens across the board. Why in the world wouldn't you want every single visitor buying a park map or cheap park book to take home and leave on the coffee table? It's free advertising! The maximizing of profits on souvenirs is short-sighted and stupid. And I can't leave this section without mentioning how much a child-sized milk carton costs at the counter-service window of Yak and Yeti. You can find the double-sized milk bottles at 7-11 for $1.49, yet the small-sized 2% white milk at Yak and Yeti costs you $1.99; it would cost $4 to buy as much milk as you can get for $1.49 at 7-11.

Look, I understand the concept of a captive audience. I still think people would return for a vacation every year if the prices were reasonable, but if you must charge a premium and rip them off, surely there's a line in the sand somewhere in terms of how much to rip them off and still be within the bounds of propriety? I'm sorry, but this milk crosses the line. And it's only one example among hundreds. (and no, I won't accept any argument about Yak and Yeti being run by an outside company. It's in Disney's park, which makes it Disney's problem.)

I know costs are rising, but this is ridiculous.

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 genius 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.

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. Dress up as a pirate or princess! 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, and pay 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 skyway buildings, the Odyssey building in Epcot, the upstairs zone of Imagination, 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.

Cartoonization now extends to us, the visitors.

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 more 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 theme park. Blackjack tables would make millions! Doesn't mean they should rip out Peter Pan's Flight and replace it with a casino.

Blanding of menus. The relatively new 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?

Bland 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 dumbing-down of the menu to more populist choices. People who in the past might have had hot dogs at fast food now want hot dogs at the table service places, and as a result, the menus are becoming increasingly bland. 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, and 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, 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 as every other shop. 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. The play area on a Viking ship at Norway is perhaps the most visible special area that's now gone, but 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. And it's unacceptable in a Disney park. Here are just a few current examples:

  • The mural at the climax of Maelstrom has a big rip in it, utterly destroying the illusion of being outdoors in the North Sea. Horrible show.
  • Outdoor signs are left to rot for a long time before they are replaced. The Richard Petty Driving Experience vinyl banner was recently replaced (yay!) but the banners at the entrance tunnel to DHS are old and faded. And they still claim Bear in the Big Blue House is somehow at this park, which is no longer true. There are old and faded outdoor banners all over WDW.

Hey! Where is Bear in the park!?

  • 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?

  • Things are dusty that shouldn't be. Only the Haunted Mansion is allowed to look dusty. Everything else is laziness. Look at the scrims on Carousel of Progress, or the mural on the loading dock of Maelstrom, or the cobwebs that are still on every lantern around World Showcase for simple examples of how dust builds up. These problems have to be detected on the most local level. Managers have to ride their own rides and walk their beats with a critical eye. And I hope someone lowers the boom if the job isn't being done right. Again, this problem is all but universal at every ride.

In person, those scrims are awfully dusty.

  • Water fountains are being left off. They finally fixed the one by MK's first aid (yay!), but there's the one by Pirates which is full of potted plants, as is one by the Italy pavilion. This is not water conservation. They run two water parks and evaporate millions of gallons via the artificial lakes and bays! This is pretending that the public doesn't notice. Well, the general public may not notice, not consciously. But subconsciously, these things add up.
  • Mechanical breakdowns seem more common. Do I really have the bad luck that every day I visit, the retracting shark in the Nemo ride breaks, even though it was fixed that morning? Do they fix the waterfalls above Rainforest Cafe at DAK's entrance every night, only to have it break again the next day? Or is it more likely that these are problems not getting quickly addressed? I have a lot of understanding for things that break. I don't complain that the yeti on Everest is in so-called B mode up to half the time for me. But when something is broken for months on end, that's a problem. That's someone now doing his job.
  • Lastly, 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 looks rude.

Diminished detail. Have you looked lately at the trashcans outside of DAK? They are plain green, with no decoration or logo at all. And what happened to the gas pump with the key bubbling inside it, at Pete's Garage in Mickey's Toontown Fair? There's just a nondescript metal box there now. Um, executives? The details are not expensive wastes of money. They are the reason we come to your parks. Fix this or risk losing your audience.

It's just a trashcan, right? Wrong.

Lawyer-ing of the parks. Heard for some years on Spaceship Earth: "you are now rotating backwards." Can you imagine this with a coaster! "Warning! You are now going through a loop upside down. Remain seated please." Ludicrous. Put this on the screen now that you have one.

Bland park promotions. It's the year of a million dreams, now lasting 2.5 years. There's nothing inventive about this promotion. Vague and bland words about magic and sentimentality don't really work. At least for the anniversary celebrations, you could capitalize on nostalgia for the park attractions, and you'd have a real reason to clean things up, and create new parades rather than rehashes. The million dreams logo is bland and boring, and if you plaster 300 of them in close proximity to each other in the parking lot, all you're doing is strengthening the idea that your parks are bland and boring. Not good.

Cuts for Disney's Dining Experience. The DDE delivers 20% discounts, but this year you only get one card for free, not two. And restaurants are now assessing an automatic 18% gratuity on DDE purchases, which means you are getting a 2% discount, not 20%. Sounds like it's worth your $75 annual fee, doesn't it? It gets worse. The receipts print up with a blank line labeled for the TIP, and if you don't look closely, you won't see that you've already been assessed 18%. Misleading is right. Only a few servers cross that off for you; the others must be hoping you'll tip them twice.

External intrusions. I've seen the local blimp hovering over the parks more often lately, giving ads on the side. For some reason, the helicopter tours have become more brazen in recent months, some of them buzzing only two hundred feet overhead. And they occur every 20 minutes now; it's quite annoying. Seagulls descend in droves at certain times of the year. And while all of those are external factors, they are still Disney's problem, since the real world is intruding. Worse, Disney is adding to the problem. They're selling 25 acres along 192 near the DAK DVC lodge, and the Kingdom Tower DVC might well interfere with sightlines from inside the MK. I thought the point of a Disney World vacation was to escape the everyday world?

Even the CMs have declined. It used to be that you'd be
sent home for wearing sunglasses that hide your eyes.

As a conclusion, I should point out that I'm not angling for a free or even a cheap vacation. In fact, I'd probably be happiest if a Disney vacation were expensive. If you put me in charge, I might even raise admission costs. But I would also radically change the experience once you're inside. Keep it awesome and incredible.

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.

Inclining by Degrees

Fair is fair; if I'm going to catalog the ways the parks have chipped away at the experience, I'll need to stay balanced by also mentioning how the experience has been plussed in recent years. This list is unfortunately shorter.

Finally Fixing Things That Should Have Been Fixed Right Away. These are items that were long-term eyesores, and frankly shouldn't be considered "inclines" at all, since the parks should be fixing these things anyway, and in fact shouldn't have taken so long to fix them. Some items on this list took literally years before they were fixed.

  • One glass panel at the loading area of Nemo had been shattered and is finally replaced.
  • "Pepe Churros" is covered up now at the Churro cart outside the Great Movie Ride.
  • After more than three years, they finally fixed the broken windmill blade on Tom Sawyer's Island.

It looks great! But what took so long?

  • It took years to replace the sign at the TTC with black paint covering up a no-longer-available transportation option. They replaced the signs once, and then again a few months later when DHS changed its name.
  • The neon lights at DHS are now usually well-lit, as are the lightbulbs on Main Street. Usually. I think they didn't return to the policy of replacing bulbs before life expectancy was reached, but at least they appear better now about reporting the dead bulbs when they occur.

Special Events that Don't Skimp. Epcot special events requires building and rebuilding things fresh every year, such as the butterfly house and a large amount of infrastructure. This costs a good deal of money, and it's impressive that they are willing to spend that much.

ESPN the Weekend opens up a parking lot with lots of free games.

New Initiatives that are Customer-Friendly. I count PhotoPass as a customer-friendly service that I'm glad exists, though others say it's pretty expensive and not that friendly. Certainly Disney's Magical Express, the free bus service from the airport, qualifies as nice. Despite predictions from curmudgeons such as myself, this has so far stayed free, so I stand corrected on this service.

Infrastructure Investments. The argument could be made that Disney is SUPPOSED to upgrade its infrastructure every so often, but I like to give praise where praise is due.

  • The United Kingdom bathrooms finally got electric-eye faucets, after many years of lagging behind other facilities.
  • A quick construction job later, there are no more curbs at the Central Plaza or Town Square, which is very much appreciated by users of wheelchairs, ECVs, and strollers.
  • New drinking fountains have been added to the TTC, a traditionally hot and unfriendly facility.
  • Monorails converted to a stroller friendly format. That was money Disney didn't have to spend, but spent it anyway.

Attraction Updates. There have been lots of these over the years, but the most recent ones provide an example of how Disney really does try to keep things fresh inside the rides. The Haunted Mansion enhancements hit the spot, and the articulated character heads (Mickey moves his mouth in the stage shows!) is a nice, if slightly creepy, addition. But it's little stuff too. Have you seen the attraction signs that sport tiny characters, like the Barnstormer or Cinderella's Golden Carousel? It's a nice touch.

A nice touch, and probably hard to paint on an ongoing basis.

Overall Verdict: As noted at the start, I'm not anti-Disney in the least. If anything, I'm highly pro-Disney, and am just trying to keep current management's feet to the fire, to hold them to the standards we've come to expect over the decades. The above lists should not be construed as saying that you should cancel or avoid a trip to Orlando. I still love the parks and I think you'll love them too. But yes, the parks could be better still.

Orlando management could learn a thing or two from the Oriental Land Company, which runs the incredible Tokyo Disney Resort. Which leads to the next topic. . .

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More


© 2008 Kevin Yee

A Different look at Disney...
    Web www.MiceAge.com