If you are an avid Disney vacation fan, a newbie starting to research Disney vacations, or anything in between, you have no doubt seen or heard of all the sweeping changes at Disney parks and resorts over the past several years. During this time, we have seen steady price increases, constant rumors of price increase, new premium services/experiences offered, a growing list of simultaneous cuts in already established experiences or services, as well as a general drop in overall service standards.
To put it bluntly: A large segment of die-hard, lifelong Disney fans who vacation at Disneyland and/or Walt Disney World are genuinely upset with Disney right now. Most of these people feel they are losing ground financially trying to keep up with their previous Disney vacation experiences, while at the same time feeling disheartened by the ever-growing list of confirmed and rumored ”premium” add-ons (some of which had previously been ”free” as part of their vacation package. Yes, I’m looking squarely at you, spotty wifi and slightly closer than average parking). Many feel a growing amount of tension in today’s increasingly uncertain and ever changing economy: What memories do you want to make with your family? And just as important: What can you afford? Perhaps even more disheartening for many is the simultaneous, proverbial ”slap in the face”: Experiencing major cutbacks in the parks on the one hand, while feeling a white gloved hand dipping deeper into your pockets with the other. And all of this, while both action and lip service to classic Disney traditions, attention to detail, and the historic Disney business model appear to be disappearing into the sunset…
But wait a second. Isn’t it easy to sit back and whine about everything I don’t like as a self-labeled Disney fanatic? Sure. But do I really want to bottle up all of that negativity, let alone become that person that always complains about everything under the sun? And what good does complaining without contemplation or action ever do for anyone?
So instead of just getting upset, I choose to do something productive with my frustrations. First, I’m going to tell you why I (and many others) are frustrated: True lies, (Mis)marketing to the masses, and Less is more. Thereafter, I’m going to tell you my personal thoughts on where to go from here as a Disney fan.
Patronizing lies and half-truths
Do you like being lied to? How does it make you feel when you are constantly told one thing by someone, all the while knowing that it’s all a convenient lie? Even worse, a true lie: You know. One of those lies that you have to almost try to believe…because even though there is a hint of truth mixed in, you know deep down it’s a load of…bull? I don’t know about you, but I don’t appreciate being patronized. There, I said it. Who wants to be treated like a smart-mouthed, rebellious toddler, only to be told half-truths or stretches thereof to placate them?
Are there lines at Disney? Increasingly, yes. Is Disney experiencing some all-time economic highs across most of their portfolio? Definitely. Are they in it for the money? You bet. They’re a business in the biggest capitalist society in the world. I may not know all the behind-the-scenes goings on inside of the company, but I see and hear Disney announce their record successes and profits each quarter. But it’s puzzling. How can they experience all of this success, and then try to keep a straight face when they:
-Try to tell the public that by charging them more money, it will help them experience the parks in a better way by reducing crowd numbers?
-Or tell guests they have to pay more for their park experiences because they are reportedly siphoning the profits to cover another part of their company’s losses for the time being? (Mind you, all the while depositing huge profits due to their ever-expanding ventures.)
-Or even tell you, your friends, your neighbors, and everyone else on planet earth that they are wanted and welcome to be a part of the big, magical Disney experience?
I think people are getting frustrated because they feel unheard. That their emotional investments spanning many years has been suddenly exposed as being based on a lie. Many feel they are only seen as potential dollar signs, being given mixed messages and patronizing, cookie-cutter answers that don’t necessarily take into account questions or concerns? (I refer you to various posts on the DIS boards which talk of canned responses from Disney to the concerns of their customers. Sometimes, it doesn’t even seem that the responding Cast Member has even read the original email before they sent a generic response.)
To quote Walt Disney:
“Adults are interested if you don’t play down to the little 2 or 3 year-olds or talk down. I don’t believe in talking down to children. I don’t believe in talking down to any certain segment. I like to kind of just talk in a general way to the audience.”
Which brings me to point number 2…
(Mis)marketing to the masses
I get it. Disney is a business. Their main goal is to make their investors money. And…no matter how highly we like to think their main goal is to entertain anyone who wants it, reality and a little common sense tells us that they don’t owe us anything (Well, until they take our money and enter into a legal contract. But I digress…)
But how do they do that? How did they build their brand? And what is this supposed “Disney” brand? Since the inception of Disneyland and Disney branded products, this unique brand was clear: Quality, family-centric entertainment for a slight to moderately inflated price. All this, while providing painstaking attention to detail. (If you don’t believe me, go on youtube and find interviews of the people who worked with Walt Disney. Ever seen the definition of detail oriented?)
Ever since the first Disney merchandising was first released to the general public, this concept of quality and attention to detail was what built the Disney brand, setting it apart from anything the American general public had experienced before. The development, construction and execution of both Disneyland and Disney World took these standards to new levels never before seen to the general public. During the 20th century, one could say that, just as Ford and McDonald’s brought cars and fast food to the mainstream, Disney introduced unparalleled, quality entertainment with painstaking attention to detail…For the rich and influential? Well, them too. But this brings me to my key point here: Disney has always previously been a brand for the masses. The common person who needed something to awaken their inner childhood and shake the stress and realities of life out of them, even for just a short while. According to Walt, at the entrance to Disneyland:
“To all that come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America… with hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”
And this is precisely why I believe people get angry. For the most part, people are not angry that some can buy experiences which they cannot. Disappointed and jealous, perhaps But that’s not why they’re upset. They are upset because they feel they have been misled. They have been listening to years of Disney marketing which has targeted middle-class families, and now these same middle class families are wondering where they fit into the new Disney vacation experience. For those that would try to tell these people they cannot be upset with the changes, I respectfully disagree because of this very reason. You see, it’s different from buying a Porsche sportscar, a Gulfstream jet, or a Gucci purse. That’s comparing apples to oranges. The average man or woman never expected to buy Porsche, Gulfstream, or Gucci, because they were never sought out by those brands. Those companies have never pursued or marketed to the masses. But Disney has. And that is part of what I believe made Disney so special to so many: No matter who you were, it made you part of the Disney experience, or “Disney magic”. So much so, in fact, that Disney entertainment and vacations became a common find among first American households, and thereafter international ones as well. And now, long-time customers are wondering: Disney marketing hasn’t changed. But is there a place for them at Disneyland and Disney World any more?
Less is not more
When Disneyland originally opened in the summer of 1955, the admission ticket price was minimal. Visitors to the park paid for individual ride tickets or “Value books”, which was essentially a book of tickets to varying levels of attractions, graded A through C (D and E grades added later). Because of competition with other competing amusement parks, Disneyland dropped the payment for individual rides in favor of a general admission fee only, with unlimited rides now included with the purchase of a ticket to the park.
What may have started with rides gradually increased over time with other areas of Disneyland and Disney World. In the fight to attract customers and distinguish themselves from the competition, Disney employed careful marketing and sales techniques, which led to company policies. These policies created by the Disney company then led to setting the bar for consumer expectations concerning what a Disney product or experience would include.
Fast forward to today. Now, even the most casual of Disney parks customers are starting to notice the changes around them in the parks. Standards of cleanliness, attitudes, attention to detail, and overall service have increasingly dipped in recent years. Prices continue to rise, while already established free services and perks for resort guests are seemingly being phased out gradually. Traditions training, previously aimed at solidifying both excellence upkeep of the traditional, lofty Disney standards, has increasingly been phased out. In its place, temporary employment by college students as well as an increasing willingness to outsource has replaced many previous full-time, long-term Cast Members. Not only this, but a recent string of resort greeters, street performers, and a long list of other Cast Members have been cut, or reassigned, or are in the process of being evaluated in further cost cutting measures. (Yes, all while the prices continue to rise, and record profits are being raked in across much of the company portfolio.)
With Disney showing an increased willingness to abandon the traditional standards of both products and services which enabled the growth of their company to its prominent place in world culture today, is it any wonder that people get upset with a growing list of cuts and simultaneous price increases?
Am I ready to give up my Disney vacations…yet? No, not yet. But I have also started exercising my right to make other vacation plans during my stays in Orlando. And with the emergence and expansion of Universal Studios Orlando over the past few years, I am already starting to incorporate them and other off-property excursions (and even hotel stays) into otherwise previous “Disney World property only” trips. Though it is sad to seemingly say goodbye to an era, it is even more sad to be “that guy” or “that gal” who insists on refusing to adapt to change, all the while complaining about how much better things were in the past. Nope, not me. I choose to avoid being “that guy”. So for the time being, I’ll pick the vacation experiences that best suit our family and our budget. And I will choose to continue Walt’s legacy of quality, imagination and dreams into the future: With or without this new iteration of “Disney’s” services. But I’m hoping for the former.
Bibliography Note: Quotes from justdisney.com