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Bob Iger’s Retirement

The news does not stop out of Burbank, does it? Recently we had the Avatar announcement, and then late last week came word that Bob Iger would step down as Disney CEO in 2015. The news came on Friday, as such big announcements often do, so that they get buried by the time stock markets open up again on Monday. Steve Jobs passing was also in the spotlight.

Warning: Speculation ahead! With Jobs declining health in mind, could it be that Iger looked at the corpus of his work with Disney and ruminated about his legacy? Did he think that the Marvel acquisition might not be enough? Is it possible that Bob looked about for something else he could announce before his retirement notice … and came up with the James Cameron package to bring Avatar to the parks? If so, that would explain why the deal was made so quickly, and in such secrecy. It makes me wonder if we’ll see a second shoe drop in the form of a mini Lucas-land at Hollywood Studios in the coming months. Disney’s reportedly been trying to hammer out those contracts for some time.

Jobs (left) and Iger at an Apple keynote event. Photo: Apple

Who will be Bob’s successor? The obvious candidates for many theme park observers are Tom Staggs (head of parks and resorts) and Jay Rasulo (CFO), if for no other reason than they recently switched jobs with each other—a standard technique for grooming new leaders by giving them a taste of more parts of the company. This conventional wisdom could well turn out to be correct. Or a more creative individual, like John Lasseter, could be the choice, though that seems a long shot, since John’s experiences do not encompass the financial and strategic background a position like the CEO of Disney would require.

In fact, I kind of think it won’t be Jay or Tom, either. Their recent training might just be a way to provide a “deep bench” of experience to help out the person who DOES come in to the top spot. I think this because Disney is not a theme park company, as much as it pains me to admit it. Disney is a content media company. The four Pirates movies, for example, have made $3.7 billion worldwide. But forget the movies. It’s really the media networks, including powerhouse ESPN, that give Disney the pep in its performance. In the last several years, the operating income of the media segment has always outperformed parks and resorts by a factor of four.

Financials from the 2010 Annual Report

“Operating Income” can be thought of as the profit statement for the year: gross income minus expenses (and minus depreciation). The parks do not compare well to the media networks on operating income. When it comes to revenues (overall income), the segments are less far apart, but if you think about it, that’s actually bad news for the parks segment. It means the company loses way more of THAT income to expenses than is true of the media networks. Bottom line: if you’re the CEO, you see a lot more bang for the buck out of the media networks than the parks and resorts. And if you’re the Board of Directors, you’d be looking for someone who can helm THAT part of your operations with the most skill and panache.

Bob was actually ideal, if you think about it. He came from ABC, the consummate media network. And Eisner, his predecessor, came from Paramount, where he headed up the studio. So I think it’s possible we’ll see a studio or television executive step into the top job.

Read what you're missing...

Food and Wine Classic

Last year, the Swan and Dolphin hotels (which are owned by hotel operator Tishman, not Disney) tried something new: a food and wine festival of their own, in the shadow of Epcot’s larger Food and Wine Festival. It would even be held on a weekend right in the middle of the Epcot festival, the better to attract foodies who were already in Orlando.

The causeway between hotels is the main venue.

The first year went well enough to offer a second, and this time around I had the opportunity to experience it as an invited guest (meaning I did not pay for the wristband). The verdict: it’s not for the budget conscious—wristbands cost $65 per person—but it’s actually a pretty good deal, especially when compared to Disney’s equivalent offerings. And the unlimited food and unlimited wines are of very high quality.

One side “wing” of the Swan hotel also has booths.

You could try to build your own eat-all-day experience by just moving around World Showcase at Epcot, paying $3, $4, and $5 per booth for a few bites each. Let’s assume a $3 average for a small food dish or a sample of wine (and that price is too generous; the real average is probably closer to $4). You could have 21 samples of wine or food before you hit $65. So if saving money is the goal, you could stop at, say, 10 samples divided evenly between food and wine, and only spend $30 per person. Not too bad. But those five food samples may not really fill you up (depending on which items you bought), and with the small pour-size of the wine, the five wine samples are not really going to give you much of a buzz, either. Conclusion: it’s not that outrageous to imagine spending $65 per person when traveling around World Showcase for a full day of gluttony.

Shrimp shooters

Or you could buy the upcharge Party for the Senses, which is held in the World Showplace (millennium tent) near the UK pavilion. At this event, you move around tables to get unlimited food and unlimited wine/beer, but it’s a whopping $145 per person. I’ve not done it myself, but I’ve been told the quality is high, though perhaps not any higher than the Swan/Dolphin food. The wines at Epcot are more international in selection, while the wines at Swan/Dolphin are more regional within the US (there are exceptions, of course).

You’re given a neat disposable tray to hold food and, in the corner, hold your plastic wine glass too.

That brings us back to the Swan/Dolphin Classic. Seen in comparison to Epcot’s Party for the Senses, the Classic is a bargain. At the Swan, you pay $65 versus $145 with Disney for basically the same thing. The Classic takes place outdoors on the bridge between the Swan and Dolphin hotels (they have an indoor plan in case of rain, which they used on Saturday night), and seems to be slightly smaller than the Party for the Senses in terms of scale. There were 26 beverage stations and ten food stations, many of them named after restaurants at the Swan and Dolphin. Here was the Friday menu for food (Saturday was different):

  • Shula’s Steakhouse - carved New York strip steak
  • Cib’s Smoke Shop – pulled pork sandwich
  • Bluezoo – shrimp cocktail steamroller (you suck it through a test tube type glass all at once)
  • Cabana Bar – pork carnitas
  • Laurent Branlard – several desserts
  • Fountain – falafel
  • Il Mulino – meatball sandwich
  • Todd English – butter based lobster roll
  • Garden Grove – lump crab cake sliders
  • Kimonos – dragon roll

Shula’s steak - $10 individual, or unlimited with wristband

The food quality was uniformly high. The pork carnitas were a bit ethereal, but there was piquant uniqueness to be found in the meatball sandwich. I liked the healthy serving of lobster, and the dragon roll was simply divine. I don’t know that I’ve had sashimi that good since leaving Los Angeles almost a decade ago. For all that, though, the crab cake sliders still took my top spot. All four quadrants of the tasting tongue found something to rejoice at with the crab cake, and the symphony of flavors was anything but cacophonous.

Lobster, anyone?

Most of those 26 stations had both a red and a white wine, so wine lovers were in paradise. But a few also had beer, and there was a premium sake as well (where you’ll be reminded that warm/hot sake is only served that way to disguise impurities; good sake can and should be served cold). The standout star for us was the corn whiskey "Moonshine" that came in watermelon cooler flavor, or iced tea.

Celebrity chef Todd English was on hand; in fact, he placed the lobster roll directly on my tray. He was eager to meet fans, pose for photos, and sign autographs.

Todd English is happy to meet you!

The event runs only one weekend, from 5:30pm-9:00pm on both Friday and Saturday. Your wristband only works on one of those days, obviously. It’s possible to pay per dish using a ticket system, but the $4 for each wine pour or $6-$10 per food item would quickly make you wish you bought the wristband instead. Almost everyone we saw had wristbands. It’s worth mentioning that they limit wristband sales to about 8,000 people per night, but they do allow for a few walkups each night using individual ticket sales. The Friday night is much less crowded than the Saturday night. There are also separate seminars on topics such as wine blending, Riesling, Spanish wines, modern mixology, sake, champagne, and beer. Each seminar cost $35 as a separate ticket.

The event is still a bargain compared to Disney, though the prices apparently went up quite a bit from the inaugural year.

Weekly Walt Disney World

We’ve finished the 40x40 celebration in the Magic Kingdom, but we are continuing to offer weekly meets—except now, the meets will be at all sorts of different parks (and soon, resort hotels too).

All are welcome to join our Facebook group dedicated to meetups every weekend in Walt Disney World. We announce the weekly destination from that Facebook group. If you’re local, or even if you are willing to take a brief break in your upcoming vacation, plan to hook up with us! Newcomers are very welcome! The meet lasts an hour (always starting Sundays at 2pm), but a great many folks just hang out the rest of the day, so you are welcome to drift in and out as your schedule allows.

Kevin Yee may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally. FTC-Mandated Disclosure: As of December 2009, bloggers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose payments and freebies. Kevin Yee was given complimentary admission to the event he describes above..

2011 Kevin Yee

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Find Kevin on Social Media

Readers are invited to join Kevin on Facebook, where he offers regular "Where in Walt Disney World" photo quizzes.

On his public Facebook page, Twitter feed, and Google+ account, he also offers regular smaller updates on the parks.

Kevin's Disney Books

Kevin is the author of many books on Disney theme parks, including:

The Unofficial Walt Disney World ‘Earbook 2010 is a photo-rich volume of 70 pages that park fans will find especially useful if they want to know what’s changed at WDW since their last visit.

History was on my mind as I composed this book. As you might expect, there is a section on additions, another on removals, and a third on events. But I wanted to make sure to include some prices from January 2010 in the book, the better to capture in future years (and future generations?) exactly what it costs to buy admission, parking, a night at each level of hotel, or such food items as a turkey leg. I also wanted to provide a bit more specificity to the unfolding of events, so the various additions and removals, as well as smaller alterations and debuts, are laid out in a timeline broken down month-by-month.

In short, the book is designed to appeal to those folks who are similarly history-minded, as well as those who are hungry to know what changed at Disney World since their last visit. Or perhaps it’s a worthwhile keepsake for anyone who DID visit in 2010—it captures what was new, after all.

Also recently issued...

Walt Disney World Hidden History: Remnants of Former Attractions and Other Tributes:

As the title implies, this is all about those little things in the parks that have significance to insiders and long-timers, but are never explained or highlighted. When a ride closes, sometimes pieces or props from that ride are folded into the replacement attraction (think of the World of Motion car seen in the queue of Test Track). Other times, designers intentionally craft a tribute to the previous ride—an example of that might be the carving of a submarine in the cement tree created for Pooh’s Playful Spot where the 20,000 Leagues subs used to be.

The other kind of homage in the parks concerns not rides, but individuals. The designers, artists, engineers, executives, and people important to Disney’s history often provide the inspiration for names and titles used at the attractions. Sadly, these are almost always unheralded. All of these remnants and tributes are normally left for the truly obsessed to spot piecemeal. They are usually not even discussed in the official Disney books and tours. This book sets out to change that, and catalog all such remnants and tributes in one spot.

The final result is 225 pages of hyper-detailed historical factoids. Broadly speaking this is a “trivia” book, but remember that it’s a particular kind of trivia. You’ve known before that the Walt Disney World theme parks wove a thick tapestry of details and backstory into a seamless (and peerless) experience. But armed with the specifics of homages and tributes, you’ll become aware that the parks are even more alive, and layered with meaning, that you could have ever imagined.

Might this be an ideal present for the Disney fan on your shopping list? If so, please have a look.

Also written by Kevin...

  • Your Day at the Magic Kingdom is a full-color, hardcover interactive children's book, where readers decide which attraction to ride next (and thus which page to turn to) - but watch out for some unexpected surprises!
  • Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Member provides the first authentic glimpse of what it's like to work at Disneyland.
  • The Walt Disney World Menu Book lists restaurants, their menus, and prices for entrees, all in one handy pocket-sized guide.
  • Tokyo Disney Made Easy is a travel guide to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySeas, written to make the entire trip stress-free for non-speakers of Japanese.
  • Magic Quizdom offers an exhaustive trivia quiz on Disneyland park, with expansive paragraph-length answers that flesh out the fuller story on this place rich with details.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland is a list-oriented book that covers ground left intentionally unexposed in the trivia book, namely the tributes and homages around Disneyland, especially to past rides and attractions.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Walt Disney World follows the example of the Disneyland book, detailing tributes and homages in the four Disney World parks.

More information on the above titles, along with ordering options are at this link.