I am one of the many devoted Disney fans around the world. We spend hundreds of dollars on annual passes that let us go to the theme parks as often as we want, and many of us proudly wear Disney-inspired clothes while visiting them. The hard-core among us debate whether a ride based on the “Frozen” movies is appropriate for Epcot, which was envisioned as a nonfiction theme park. My masters thesis in computer science created new efficient algorithms for one of math’s fundamental optimization problems. I applied it to minimizing waits in line at Disney World.
On Nov. 20, I was relieved to hear the news that Disney’s chief executive, Bob Chapek, had been fired and replaced with the former chief executive Robert Iger. The news was also met with near-unanimous celebration among my community of super fans.
While his ouster shocked investors and Hollywood, many in our community had been actively campaigning for Mr. Chapek’s firing for the past two years. A Change.org petition to fire Mr. Chapek that started in 2020 garnered over 117,000 signatures. (It now reads “Victory.”) Online forums teemed with complaints about Mr. Chapek’s management style and strategy.
There were many factors that could have factored into Mr. Chapek’s fall: a $1.5 billion loss in its streaming service, poor handling of a pay dispute with the actress Scarlett Johansson and his admittedly flubbed response to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act. We also pushed to have Mr. Chapek fired because he didn’t believe in Disney magic. Disney is so much more than just another big business. Understanding that is crucial to its success.
When Walt Disney opened Disneyland, he referred to his theme park customers as “guests,” an understanding that is explicitly reinforced in Disney employee training to this day, and by which Disney’s theme park community refers to itself. That vision was shared by Mr. Iger in his first turn as C.E.O. It was apparent that he cared about our expectations, our level of satisfaction and our interests. What customers thought mattered.
In contrast, Mr. Chapek and his executives dehumanized Disney’s most loyal customers.
In his August 2022 earnings call, Mr. Chapek reported that Disney’s theme park, experiences and products division had generated $7.4 billion in revenue in the third quarter, up 72 percent from the same time a year prior. He could have acknowledged Disney’s theme park guests for the stunning results.
Instead a news release suggested that earnings would have been greater but for an “unfavorable attendance mix” at Disneyland. The company was essentially saying that too many annual pass holders were visiting from nearby instead of out-of-towners, who stay at Disney hotels and eat at Disney restaurants more often. Some fans responded by creating T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Unfavorable attendance mix” and wearing them in the parks as in-jokes to other fans.
It was just before the call that Mr. Chapek used the phrase “synergy machine” to refer to the company. He came up with the phrase to encompass Disney’s ability to share a story across several platforms, but the jargony business-speak left us cold. Fans mocked the term with, naturally, more T-shirts, placing Mr. Chapek’s face at the wheel of a Scooby Doo-like van called “The Synergy Machine.”
What Mr. Chapek doesn’t understand is the role we fans play in creating the Disney magic. It is our Instagram accounts, our blogs and our websites that those out-of-towners refer to in order to prepare for that revenue-generating Disneyland trip. I get paid to do it, but many others do this work just because they love it. Mr. Chapek disregarded us.
Worse was the way Mr. Chapek treated “cast members,” as Disney’s park employees are known. The people who greet you at the park entrance, serve you food and get you safely on and off the rides have an enormous influence on the quality of your visit. I’ve talked to many cast members, from young people to older adults, about why they’re willing to wear polyester costumes in Florida’s summer heat for relatively low wages. To a person, they say something like, “I want to make people happy, and Disney is the best place to do that.”
So it was disheartening when, in September 2020, Mr. Chapek announced that the company was laying off 28,000 workers, most of them cast members. While many other businesses were laying off workers during that time, Mr. Chapek was also committing Disney to spending billions to ramp up content production for its Disney+ streaming service. As we saw it, Mr. Chapek viewed the incomes and health care of thousands of people — the people who make the magic — as less important than another season of “The Mandalorian.” Many cast members decided not to return to Disney’s parks when they reopened.
Mr. Chapek also decided that Disney could charge for faster access to its theme park lines, replacing the parks’ free FastPass ride reservation system with a complicated, two-tiered process in which access to most popular rides cost up to $29 per person, per day. And for fastest access to the one or two most popular rides in each park, guests would have to pay an additional fee of up to $25 per person, per ride, per day. For a family of four, that could add over $200 a day. Fans were in disbelief.
There was more. During the pandemic, Disney instituted a mandatory reservation system for visiting its parks, where guests must specify in advance the park they’ll visit every day of their trip.
Covid restrictions are mostly a thing of the past, yet Disney still mandates these reservations. As the author of several unofficial Disney guides and the owner of an unofficial Disney planning website, I know from scores of guests that the reservation system adds only more stress and confusion to an often already challenging process. Josh D’Amaro, a Disney executive, said the reservation system allowed Disney to allocate labor more efficiently.
Mr. Iger is not perfect — he approved Mr. Chapek as his successor, after all — but there’s a reason a senior Disney executive summarized Mr. Iger’s return with the words “Daddy’s back!”
Mr. Iger is reportedly already scrutinizing the reservation system and is alarmed by the price increases his predecessor instituted. To further mend the relationship with our community, Mr. Iger should explain how Disney is going to use the revenue from upcharge programs to improve the guest experience.
If he wants to learn more, I sincerely suggest Mr. Iger try to plan, book and take a Disney World vacation on a middle-class budget, relying only on Disney’s website and app. When he’s overwhelmed by the cost and complexity, I know many fans who’d be happy to talk him through it. No charge.
Len Testa is a computer scientist who is also the co-author of “The Unofficial Guides” theme park books and the owner of the theme park website touringplans.com.
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