Declining by Degrees

In my most recent article, I mentioned that my wife was about to have another baby. Thanks to those who sent well-wishes. Our family welcomed our second son on November 10th, and everyone is healthy and happy, if a bit sleep-deprived. It's been a busy time around here, as you can imagine. I assure you that any petulant attitude creeping into today's article is purely coincidental! - Kevin

Declining by Degrees

Al's recent article on his visit to Walt Disney World sparked a lot of discussion on MiceChat and in emails. I did some soul-searching as a result. Have I been too "easy" on Disney World? Not really—I shared pretty much all of Al's beliefs in the staleness of parts of Disney World, and have said so from time to time. But I don't point them out week after week. My first mental protestations were that it would make for boring reading online to read the same thing over and over. What I've realized is that I was missing a metaphor, a way to symbolically capture what's been going wrong at parts of Disney World, even while other things are progressing swimmingly.

Then it hit me. There was a PBS special on higher education in 2005 called "Declining by Degrees." The pun about diplomas aside, the point was that expectations from professors were decreasing steadily over time, as a consumer-mentality begins to dominate the entire educational spectrum, and "grade inflation" becomes increasingly common. I see a lot of parallels to the modern era at Disney World. Tourists, by far the largest type of visitor to the Orlando parks, have been subjected to a steadily decreasing emphasis on excellence from Disney for some time.

On the one hand, maybe this isn't surprising. A publicly-traded company, Disney is supposed to maximize shareholder value. One school of thought holds that an effective way to do that is to cut costs. It may make sense to curb profligate and unnecessary spending. Thus, some managers opt to cut spending until the customer notices. Why not just take away what the market can bear? It's the ultimate application of the free market thought process.

Problem is, it doesn't work that way at Disney. These aren't automobiles or digital cameras or frozen turkeys—what Disney is selling is much less tangible: experiences. What constitutes the magic? Who decides exactly which spending is "unnecessary"? What focus group can really, truly, honestly discover which details the guests are noticing? Walt Disney knew that the accumulation of thousands of minute details, most of them registered only subconsciously, is what generates the Immersion Toward Interesting Illusion (a tenet I've made reference to many times over the years). If you take away the details until the guests start noticing, then you've moved several orders of magnitude below the level of experience that USED to be de rigeur at Disney.

Even the hotels contribute to Immersion Toward Interesting Illusion.
Even the hotels contribute to Immersion Toward Interesting Illusion.

The idea that a publicly-traded company must cut all costs is a red herring. It doesn't have to be this way. Is it not a viable business strategy to maximize customer experience so that they'll come back next year? Maybe tell their friends to go visit, also? If this happens without cutting every last cost of doing business, isn't that a win-win? It's the management, from Iger on down to the park managers, who decides what level of customer service to offer. Current thinking seems to imply a belief that the tourists, the primary visitors to Disney World, won't notice the missing details because they don't come all the time. But they do notice. Walt knew that the magic is in those annoying, expensive details. And by "details," I include the issues of upkeep.

For Disney to metaphorically sweep problems under the rug is to contribute to a "declining by degrees" of their own. The implicit contract with the consumer is being subtly altered, and guests are being guided to expect less from Disney. Taken individually, these issues are minor. But seen in aggregate, we're looking at a seismic shift. Each decline may be small, but they add up.

Calling attention to the "declining by degrees" at Disney is not the same as being a perfectionist, and it's not just me (a frequent visitor) starting to notice things that others do not. Think of it this way: perfectionism is what sets the Walt Disney Company apart, or at least it used to. My complaints about the Disney Cruise Line experience (just slightly shy of perfect, despite truly premium pricing) were made with the same thought process: we as customers have come to expect perfection from Disney, especially when we're paying the highest prices. I realize that perfection is a "reach" goal (something you reach for, but not actually achieve), but that shouldn't stop our expectations for perfection. Especially since that's what Disney delivered for so many decades. We've come to expect it. It's part of the brand now. To settle for less than perfection is to erode the brand.

All that said, I've realized I need to offer a weekly update on Disney's Decline by Degrees. There needs to be a place to list (and show visually, when possible) just how Disney is allowing the perfection to decline. There are four parks here (and two water parks), so I can't pretend to see everything the instant it needs addressing, and things I list in this space may not be "new" problems, but that doesn't mean they deserve to be ignored.

Without further ado, here's the list of ways in which Disney World is declining by degrees. Each week I'll try to create a list like this:

Greeters and valet workers at Disney hotels will soon be non-Disney employees. The Magical Express folks are already not Disney, as are many of the third-shift custodial workers. Outsourcing may save money in the short term, but this is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Only by hiring and training workers themselves can Disney maximize the chances that visitors will get a true "Disney" experience. Just how is it a good idea to have guests' first interaction be with someone who hasn't been fully inculcated into the Disney thought process?

This year, the family photo at Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party was not free, despite the specially-purchased ticket to even attend this event. Talk about chintzy.

Speaking of special events, the cap (maximum attendance) is now 25,000. It used to be closer to 15,000. Thus, Disney is packing more people in, making more money, and diluting the experience in the meantime. This is a prime example of baby steps toward mediocrity (which is itself a pretty good one-sentence definition of "declining by degrees").

You no longer can receive a second card for free in the Disney Dining Experience program (a $85/year card that gives you 20% discounts on most table-service locations). Having a second card now costs $25. This will only encourage my family to simply avoid going to Disney sometimes, if only one of us can have the card permanently stored in the wallet at a time. I can only imagine other couples experience the same problem. It might even be a prelude to the cutting back of other programs currently free or considered value-added, like Magical Express bus service from the airport, or PhotoPass. After all, Pal Mickey is no longer available as a rental from the parks—you have to pay the full purchase price (which has itself gone up; it's now $65, no longer merely $50). See how that works? Baby steps. Declining by degrees.

The torches of gas-fueled flames around the World Showcase lagoon have, for some time now, only turned on ten minutes before show time. It used to be a full half-hour, when the preshow music began. It's a subtle difference, but does much to build up suspense to the show, and create an atmosphere that's now missing.

The rise of Outdoor Foods (ODF) carts at Disney World is nearing Disneyland levels. Worse yet, many of the carts are essentially unthemed. Since when has it been acceptable to house Churros in a heater that uses garish colors and font to proclaim CHURROS in a fashion reminiscent of a high-school athletic field concession stand?

Churro display near the Great Movie Ride is not themed.
Churro display near the Great Movie Ride is not themed.

During a recent showing of Fantasmic! Jafar the snake sat immobile on the island, rather than chasing Mickey around. It's possible that this was a one-time problem. I haven't been back to confirm it's a recurrent thing—there's only so much of the East coast version I can take. But if it's a permanent change, we've lost that little bit of magic there. Even if it's not a permanent change, they need to do more so that each show is as magical as the best one.

A few weeks ago, they removed the free cheese sauce at Pecos Bill's Café and Cosmic Ray's Starlight Café. Formerly, this heated cheese could be dumped liberally on fries or burgers, but is now just not offered. Tourists, one assumes, won't even notice, and a bit of money has been saved. Sigh.

Innoventions used to offer maps of the exhibits in this one attraction. I guess the ever-changing exhibits made it cost-prohibitive to offer maps years later? At the very least, they should take away the map stands instead of placing generic Epcot maps there. But I'd rather have the Innoventions maps back.

Whither the Innoventions maps?
Whither the Innoventions maps?

Both preshow projectors at Dinosaur are in sad, desperate, deplorable need of new projector bulbs. I cringe each time I witness how dark and dull the image is on the big screen, especially since the television monitor version off to the side, which shows the same thing plus subtitles, is so incredibly bright by comparison. This is one bit of upkeep I think every tourist notices.

Speaking of upkeep, the Braille map at Epcot, just outside Electric Umbrella, needs some TLC of its own. Sections are gouged out, and others are broken off. Its utility as a Braille device is dubious, in this present condition.

Maybe execs just don't look at the Braille maps that often?
Maybe execs just don't look at the Braille maps that often?

A smaller issue (though remember, this is all about declining by DEGREES) is the recent edict that children must now wear shoes in the Dinoland sandbox (a faux archeological dig of a mammoth). I asked why and was told a child had gotten hurt without shoes—there are sharp fake bones below the sand. Besides, she said, those wearing socks slip on the fake bones with regularity. The lawyers decreed that everyone had to wear shoes now.

The advent many months ago of Extra Magic Hours (EMH) was heralded as a bonus to visitors staying at Disney hotels. In some ways, it is. During the off-season, parks used to close early. But they are doing EMH all the time now. Thanksgiving weekend saw the continuation of EMH.

Line up for your wristband… if you're one of the "chosen."
Line up for your wristband… if you're one of the "chosen."

This error is grievous and one of the worst Declines by Degrees, because it represents a major erosion of the admission ticket. It used to be that your ticket bought you an entire day's worth of activity at the theme parks, which stayed open very late: midnight (or even 1:00 am) for the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Disney-MGM Studios were the usual mode of business during summer. The de facto operating hours now, with closings at 7:00 or 9:00, represent a CUT in how much ride time the usual tourist receives. That this is disguised and marketed as a "bonus" to visitors is sickening. Effective marketing, but sickening nonetheless.

In one fell swoop, Disney saves money by closing the non-EMH parks early, reaps higher hotel occupancy by advertising the EMH, and makes visitors think they are getting a bargain. Amazing. I don't begrudge Disney the high hotel occupancy (for instance, I'd be in favor of allowing FastPass only for those staying at Disney hotels), but to cut costs and jilt the other visitors, while pretending to service them, is not kosher.

Inclining by Degrees (aka, Baby Steps away from Mediocrity)

Turnabout is fair play: if I'm going to catalog the ways Disney is falling down on the job, it's only right to also list the things that have recently been fixed, and work in harmony toward the principle of Immersion Toward Interesting Illusion. This list is almost always sure to be shorter than the list of problematic elements, alas, but here's hoping that reverses itself:

The "charging" carnotaurus in Dinosaur was, for several weeks, reduced to merely crouching immobile next to our time rover. He again charges and chases after us, always one of the more impressive effects in the show.

The neon sign advertising the Great Movie Ride has had its neon replaced.

Several months ago, decorative railings were added atop the thick walls on the bridge to Mexico in the World Showcase – these prevent people from thinking they can sit atop this wall for Illuminations (absent the railings, people would "camp" here and only learn a few minutes before showtime that they cannot sit on the wall).

The chuff of steam has re-appeared on the trains as they enter and depart the station in Expedition Everest.

Disappointing Spectacle of Dancing Lights

Out of previews and into regular performances (starting at 6:00 pm nightly), the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights features snowfall that stops only for the lights to perform their dance every fifteen minutes, and is otherwise the same static show. The lights are great as always, but the dancing element was somewhat disappointing. There are two songs by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, with a third coming in December (the artist or song has not yet been announced).

The "Happy New Year" sign has been replaced by the event's name.
The "Happy New Year" sign has been replaced by the event's name.

Though I applaud the effort to do something different with the lights, I found the result underwhelming. No doubt the entire enterprise was inspired by amateur videos of home lights set to music, courtesy of YouTube. But that invites comparisons, and it pains me to say that the amateur performance was better than Disney's professional one. There was more charm, and less intent to inspire awe by sheer magnitude, the way that Disney's does. I'm not sure how to fix this. There weren't obvious problems on the technical side; the syncopation with music seemed to be on cue. But something in the way it was choreographed just felt routine. Perhaps different songs would help?

Holiday Tag Begins at Illuminations

The arrival of the holiday season means that my favorite fireworks presentation is once again exploding nightly: the Holiday Tag at the end of Illuminations. The deafening roar of the finale, with thousands of shells exploding microseconds apart, would amaze me even if I saw it every day for the next ten years.

But Illuminations itself has undergone a slight change, courtesy of a new voiceover introduction. It's the same words, more or less, with different intonation. Clearly it's the same vocal artist, but at the same time, something in this new performance allowed me to realize what more perceptive people have probably known for years: this voiceover is done by the "movie trailer guy," Don LaFontaine. Imagine his voice saying "In a world…" and you'll know what I mean.

There's another change in the announcement between the regular show and the Holiday Tag. Previously, a female voice would thank the audience and encourage safe driving on the way home, and plenty of tourists would pack up, thinking that was it. Now, a new voiceover makes explicit that there's a finale to come. The result is that there's less confusion (and angry tourists), so this is a positive change.

Innoventions Exhibit #1 - Nanoscience

On November 19th, Innoventions West opened "Too Small to See," an exhibit dedicated to nanoscience by the National Science Institute (with consulting on design from Cornell University).

I yawned just reading the titles.
I yawned just reading the titles.

Visitors can construct carbon molecules using pegs and round wooden balls, and there are a couple of other displays with minimal interactivity, such as a darkened room that lets visitors touch giant screens and disrupt the carbon structures.

It's nifty, for 2.5 nanoseconds, to move the atoms around by inserting my hand.
It's nifty, for 2.5 nanoseconds, to move the atoms around by inserting my hand.


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