A Different look at Disney...

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And then something went terribly wrong...

If the preceding sounds familiar, it's because just about every recent attraction at Disney parks uses that plot point in its script. From Capt. Rex veering off course in Star Tours, to never being able to choose your path wisely in the Indiana Jones Adventure, this well worn dramatic device gives the folks at Walt Disney Imagineering a chance to literally shake up the audience.

Now while all this can make for a fun ride at Disneyland, it's not exactly something you want happening with a major media launch of a new corporate initiative, much less one aimed at your most loyal and demanding customers.

Today we focus on one subject, D23 Disney's new fan offering. We'll see if it's a club for you and me, and discuss how it impacted the happiest place on earth.

Got that bagel schmeered yet? Have that coffee regular delivered? Well then let's get going shall we? - Al

Last week, after an extensive teaser campaign, the Walt Disney Company introduced D23, an ambitious information and merchandising program aimed at the Disney fan community. From Bob Iger's appearances at the stockholders meeting and on the View TV show, to handouts at the theme parks and a consumer e-mail blitz no stone was left unturned in trying to get the message out. There was even a conference call scheduled that not only the regular media was invited to, but many people in the online community were also asked to participate in.

To say I was surprised I received an invite to join in on the call would be an understatement, so I figured this would be a one-way presentation in which we would just get to listen in. Even if they did allow questions they most likely would not choose mine. As we waited for the call to begin, an e-mail arrived with links to press information, which I began to read.

D23's teaser campaign made for a lot of speculation online, with a few leaks indicating that it would include a glossy magazine and some kind of merchandising program aimed at the high end Disney collector. The Disney Company has a long history with fans in this area, much of it mixed to put it kindly. Exclusive merchandise turns out not to be so exclusive, video releases sold as complete aren't and series begun many times are never completed.

Reading through the press release all I could think was ‘here we go again.’ Then I saw the price, $75 a year, and began to think everyone involved with this project came from another planet – because how else could you come up with a membership fee that high during these trying economic times. Just as the call began my inbox began flooding with e-mails, many of them furious with the price points of collector’s items offered in the new D23 online shopping area. Besides building interest, the teaser campaign also built expectations, with many hoping it would be different this time, but the merchandise site only seemed to confirm that it was business as usual.

The call began, the principles involved gave their spiel and then the floor was opened to questions. Imagine my surprise when I got to ask question number two, "Have you considered a lower entry price point?" Steven Clark (VP in charge of D23) to his credit gamely took on the question and answered it, explaining the web site was free, that there were high costs involved in producing the magazine, and promising there would be much more to come. A few other questions were answered, then Marty Sklar former Imagineering head, jumped in to again to emphasize that this wasn't a merchandising effort, it genuinely was an attempt to work with and reach the fans. (Yeah sure, I thought to myself as I hung up the line, I'm going to trust the man who gave us California Adventure.)

Werner Weiss, the publisher of Yesterland.com, was also following the day's events. He was kind enough to allow the observations he made with me later that day to be shared with you now, as I simply couldn't improve on them.

I was disappointed that D23 appeared to be little more than a subscription to an expensive quarterly magazine, for more money than buying the same magazine at a bookstore. The other benefits of D23 membership -- such as a 'suitable-for-framing charter member certificate,' opportunities to buy 'exclusive' merchandise, and some sort of unknown collectable that I probably wouldn't want anyway -- all appeared to be of little or no value to me.

The folks at DisneyShopping.com certainly didn't do the folks at D23 any favors by putting the D23 memberships and expensive Disney collectables together, effectively sending the message that the real purpose of D23 is identify Disney collectors with a lot of money who would fill their homes with even more Disney collectables. It seemed that the purpose of D23 was to monetize the treasures of the Disney Archives.

In search of a coffee table...
Not the annual stockholder report; it's Disney twenty-three magazine

Werner continued:

How about access to downloadable Walt Disney television episodes? How about lounges in the Florida and California parks for D23 members, with original artifacts from the Disney Archives? How about park events that don't involve the release of ‘exclusive’ merchandise? How about D23-branded books that each deal with a single subject, instead of a magazine that tries to cover all facets of Disney?

D23 bills itself as 'The Official Community for Disney Fans,' but there are many different kinds of Disney fans who have wildly different interests in Disney. The collector of Disney collectables, the obsessive Walt Disney World trip planner, the 'armchair Imagineer,' the Walt Disney scholar, the animation buff, the theme park rumor-monger, the avid Disney Channel watcher, and other subcategories of Disney fans are all looking for different things.

With the $75 price tag, Disney fans are going to want magazine content that matches their own definition of 'Disney fan.' Some Disney fans fit more than one subcategory, but D23 may need to define their primary target audience better and to cater to it. While there are undoubtedly some Disney fans who want to see pictures of High School Musical actors dressed up as animated Disney characters and photographed by a famous photographer, my guess is that Disney fans who were attracted to D23 by its connection to the Archives and Imagineering would prefer other content.

Don't get me wrong. I genuinely appreciate that Disney is willing to "pull back the curtains" on Disney's past, present, and future. It's terrific that there will be articles based on the Disney Archives. And Disney insiders should be able to provide great inside stories and insight. I just hope there's not too much PR filtering to cast everything that ever happened at Disney in a glowing light. The creative process involves stumbling, mistakes, and failures, along with the triumphs and brilliance. It should all be part of the story. So the $75 price tag was a bit of a shock. However, I'd be willing to pay $75 per year if I saw the value. So far, I have not signed up for D23. I hope my perception changes.

One last thing... Did you take a look at the "D23 Terms and Conditions" on the sign-up page? Who else but The Walt Disney Company of today would require a 2,847-word legal agreement for a glorified magazine subscription?

Now you see why I admire Werner's writing so much?

D23 was as big a surprise to Disneyland managers and most Team Disney Anaheim (TDA) planners as it was to the fans. With the exception of select TDA executives who were let in on the concept early to help strategize the multi-million dollar budget for the D23 Expo in September, most salaried folks in Anaheim had no idea what D23 was or what it meant to the park. The Disneyland Stores managers in charge of the Disneyana Shop on Main Street USA had only been told this past Tuesday, after D23 was announced up in Oakland, that a David Pacheco "artist signing" would be taking place on Saturday, March 14th. The Special Events team only had a few days notice to pull together a group of CM’s to help with crowd control for the artist signing, as they are used to doing for crowds of hundreds for big artist events.

Up (can be) Yours

They needn’t have bothered with the crowd control however, as only a few dozen mellow collectors showed up on Saturday morning to purchase the signed prints or the pin. Disneyana was still selling the leftover signed artwork and signed copies of the magazine on Sunday, while the throngs of Annual Passholders ran past Disneyana on their way to Tomorrowland to secure one of the 1,000 new pins being released that day that have a chip of wood from an original Tom Sawyer Island raft in it. The new "Pieces of History" raft pins were gone within an hour with the long queue for the cash registers held underground in the old Rocket Rods queue, while the signed D23 stuff sat quietly on the shelves.

While the first batch of D23 artwork may have languished on the shelves, the bigger hit that Saturday morning however were the free D23 buttons being handed out on the sidewalks of Main Street by perky hostesses pulled from the Emporium. There were thousands of buttons to hand out, and as you can imagine, the tourists streaming up Main Street that morning all jumped at the chance for something free from a smiling Cast Member. There was no explanation being given as to what the buttons were for, but the tourists were happy to grab a free button of Dopey or Mickey as they hustled on towards Indiana Jones or Autopia.

Now that the Stores management team has been quickly brought up to speed on just what D23 entails, they are trying to get the word out to their Cast Members on how to explain the concept to customers and what the "talking points" are behind the assorted D23 benefits. You have to give it to Disney’s corporate communications department and the D23 leadership in Burbank, they were very successful at keeping this one tightly under wraps.

The other TDA group that was caught by surprise by the D23 announcement was the Cast Activities department. Cast Activities are the folks who manage the far flung assortment of discounts, sports leagues, package tours, employee parties and random events that are all marketed under the "Disney Difference" brand of perks and benefits to Anaheim Cast Members. Like the other Anaheim departments, D23 was a total surprise to Cast Activities. Surprisingly, there is no Cast Member discount being offered for D23 membership, and there is no current plan to offer Cast Member discounts on the tickets to the four day D23 Expo in Anaheim this September.

While the D23 Expo, the self-described "fan mega event" being held at the Anaheim Convention Center, will prove to be a massive company-wide undertaking, there appears to be no accommodations being made to include Cast Members in the event aside from expecting them to buy a full-fare ticket and go in with the general public on their own time. But the Expo is just one of the issues causing Cast Activities to scratch their heads on whether or not D23 really should be marketed to the Cast Members.

I see rich people.
The D23 handout, scan by Andy Castro

Late last week stacks of D23 brochures and piles of those free buttons were dumped in the gritty backstage break rooms and dingy cafeterias around the parks and at the hotels. But the $75 price tag for this fan club, not to mention the D23 website touted on the brochures selling $850 pens, seems rather inappropriate to market to hourly Cast Members who are making 9 to 12 dollars an hour and who struggle to make rent each month. The stacks of brochures and buttons left in the cleaner and more lavish TDA break rooms also struck a nerve with the salaried folks who have been recently watching their coworkers laid-off and walked to their cars carrying cardboard boxes full of personal effects.

Now is not the time for any Anaheim Cast Member, whether hourly or salaried, to be spending big bucks on a fan club of questionable value. And since no accommodation or discount is being extended to Cast Members, the folks at Cast Activities are wishing D23 planners hadn’t tried to include nervous Anaheim Cast Members in their launch day membership drive last week. You can expect D23 to disappear quickly from backstage mention, until the planners up in Burbank agree to come up with some sort of a discounted Cast Member rate. If ticket sales are weak this summer, there could also be a last minute change to the plan to not offer Cast Member discounts to the D23 Expo as well.

Between the extremely light turn out for the Saturday artist signing, the break room brochures, and even the thousands of buttons handed out, the first few days of D23 at Disneyland seemed to be a comedy of errors. The decision to host the first official D23 event on a Saturday morning, when the majority of the 700,000 Annual Passholders are blocked out from Disneyland entry, was the first big mistake. All of those buttons handed out on Saturday were a nice little souvenir, but their key marketing message was wasted on the casual tourists and day visitors that visit on a Saturday.

Disneyland had a final attendance of 55,000 visitors this past Saturday, and less than 5% of that was from Premium Annual Passholders who have no blockout dates. Contrast that to a Sunday, when up to 70% of park attendance can be from Passholders, and this past Sunday’s attendance of 58,000 would have provided a perfect slice of the exact demographic of Disney fans who might be interested in D23 membership. A line of smiling Cast Members on Main Street passing out D23 buttons on a Sunday morning to arriving Annual Passholders would have been a perfect introduction to the exact slice of Disney demographic that D23 is aimed at.

Psst, hey you! Yes, you! I've got something to show you!
The D23 website is well worth a visit.

So, what went so terribly wrong? Asking around, two words kept popping up: herding cats. Apparently this is a favorite catchphrase at the Disney Company as well as with anyone else involved in any type of big corporation, especially those that encourage autonomous business units. While many people think there's one giant Dr. Strangelove-style strategic planning room at Disney where everything is perfectly coordinated and decided; the reality is quite different. As in any huge business there are fiefdoms to be conquered, egos to be massaged, scores to be settled, and sometimes just plain incompetence to get past.

One way to overcome, if not just simply avoid these problems is to plan far enough ahead to work the kinks out, which in the Walt Disney Company of today is a minimum two-year time frame. While the original concept for D23 was hatched two years ago, the final approvals needed to begin work (including Iger’s vetting) and setting of price points weren't started until about a year or so ago.

This made everyone’s job all the more difficult and may have allowed for blind spots, including the steep $75 membership fee, plus the now infamous pen and $90 frame for your certificate that most likely would have never been approved had they been seen in advance. Add to what appears to be a lack of marketing oversight, which allowed shrink-wrapped magazines to ship to retail without even the most basic descriptions of what they contained somewhere on the packaging, and you have a tough sell made even tougher in what already is a very difficult fiscal environment.

My suggestion to those of you who may be considering a membership purchase? You should probably wait, and see what develops with this club. As I was told they do hear what the problems are, but may be locked in to the current pricing point and feature set until the first of the year. They appear to understand that a lower entry-level price point is necessary, and they may have confused prospective customers by introducing too much of the program at one time.

What do I think of the other offerings? The website is successful in what it does and for the most part is free to all; you can't beat that. The magazine, while beautiful to look at, is still a work in progress. I found it lacking warmth and heart, especially ironic considering those two traits are what help build the Walt Disney Company into what it is today, it’s a supermodel trying to be Snow White. The merchandise offerings are too sparse to judge yet, and the Expo planned for later this year is still under wraps.

While the total secrecy of D23 prior to its launch was extremely successful and most impressive in this online era, it seems to have been all downhill from there when it comes to timing, planning, and simply knowing where to find their audience. That's a shame because the Walt Disney Company really needs to do something for their most loyal customers.

Let's hope they keep trying.


Oh-kay - that should do it for today. Remember your support is vital. Since Amazon ended their Honor System and the ad market is soft, your donations to PayPal help keep the bills paid. We're only here due to all of your kind efforts.

Keep in mind updates only get posted when there is something to report on, and not before. It takes time to confirm things, and even then we can only offer a snapshot of a continually evolving story. Just like the happiest place on earth, patience is a virtue; the queue may take a while before you can enjoy the attraction. ;)

See you at Disneyland!

Al Lutz may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally.

© 2009 Al Lutz

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