Changes at Disney World: The Inevitable Result of Progress?
There’s a new Wall Street Journal article, Disney’s New Pricing Magic: More Profit From Fewer Park Visitors, that has garnered a lot of buzz and backlash from Walt Disney World and Disneyland fans. I’m not entirely sure why, as there’s been approximately one of these per quarter for the last year, and it can best be described as a puff piece aimed at investors.
Most of what’s covered in the article has been discussed during recent corporate earnings calls and Chapek interviews on CNBC. Moreover, these same issues have come up countless times in our commentary on various posts–and via reader comments to everything from Genie+ to Park Pass to Annual Passes.
With that said, there are a few interesting points the article brings up that we haven’t done proper justice here, so it does serve as a good conversation piece from that perspective. Just don’t expect any real news or revelations from the WSJ article (or this ‘article analysis’) as it’s entirely non-news.
First, there’s discussion about how Walt Disney World’s record sales and profits “reflect a major strategic shift on Disney’s part, where the company is focused less on maximizing the quantity of visitors and more on increasing how much money each visitor spends, an approach the company refers to as yield management.”
This is accurate, but also spin. The correct portion is that the parks division’s financials are looking very, very strong. Per guest spending is through the roof, with that number up over 40% since 2019. During the most recent earnings call, Disney also reported significant prior-quarter increases in 2022 as compared to last year.
The spin portion, or at least the TBD aspect is whether this reflects a “major strategic shift” on Disney’s part, or is simply a byproduct of the current environment. Aside from cruise lines, the travel industry is having a banner year. If you listen to corporate earnings calls for major hoteliers, booking engines, and even other theme parks, they all sound similar to Disney’s. Strong numbers resulting from pent-up demand is a common theme.
Another common theme is challenges and constraints caused by staffing shortages. This is something Disney had been addressing on its earnings calls for a while, and the company conceded that it has been an impediment to increasing capacity.
The problem with this is that there’s not an inexhaustible supply of higher spending guests. That’s one reason why Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser has 100 rooms instead of 1,000–it has a more limited audience. As much as some fans would like to believe it, there’s no universe in which Walt Disney World is a viable enterprise targeting the top 1% or even 5%. For the core products of theme parks and Value and Moderate Resorts, Disney needs the middle class.
As hotel and park capacity numbers increase, per guest spending drops. 200 people buying a product at $30 each amounts to more than 100 people spending $40 each. Per guest spending is not the end all, be all of financial results. It’s just the metric Disney is emphasizing at the moment on earnings calls because it’s the most impressive in a capacity-constrained environment.
This very well might end up being Disney’s strategy going forward, but it has been an approach borne of necessity (due to staffing) in the last year-plus. Disney has made similar comments to justify price increases in the past, and they have never once been true. We’ll see if this is different. I would bet against it, but there’s a first time for everything.
While we’re on the topic of per guest spending, now is as good of a time as any to address the “unfavorable attendance mix” at Disneyland mentioned in the earnings call earlier this month. Diehard fans immediately pounced on this, taking both personal offense and brandishing the term as a rallying cry.
Disney’s response to the WSJ: “‘unfavorable mix’ is financial parlance meant for investors, and ‘not a consumer term.'”
Here’s one where I tend to agree with Disney. Fans are not the target or even intended audience for these corporate earnings calls. Don’t listen if you’re averse to this type of straightforward language; if you want communications that are sugar-coated with magical terms, read the Parks Blog. No shortage of that there.
For at least the last year, they’ve used the term “favorable attendance mix” to describe the demo visiting Walt Disney World right now. That has very obviously referred to more regular ticket holders and resort guests. If there’s such a thing as a favorable mix, it should follow that there’s an unfavorable one.
It’s also really odd to me that so many fans view objective per guest spending stats as some kind of personal affront. This is something we see via reader comments here whenever pointing out that, statistically, Annual Passholders spend less per visit than tourists and other demos. Without fail, people mention how much they personally spend at WDW each visit or over their lifetimes.
I truly don’t get why anyone cares. I’m part of the “unfavorable” demo, and this doesn’t bother me in the least. If anything, you should wear the title as a badge of honor–you’re more frugal than the average tourist and more discerning about how much money you give to Disney. Since when is that a bad thing?
Moreover, it’s odd to me that this has been a “wake up call” for some fans now realizing they are not of the utmost importance to the company. That should’ve happened, at the very latest, when Disney laid off tens of thousands of Cast Members in 2020. To be sure, that was a tough time and every company had to make difficult decisions–but I don’t think anyone can claim Disney approached that any differently than any other major corporation.
Multinational media conglomerates are not your friends or family and should be treated as such. Your relationship with them as a consumer is entirely transactional from their perspective, and also should be from yours. This isn’t to say that there aren’t people working at Walt Disney World who care and are passionate about the product, making magic for guests, and so forth. There absolutely are! It’s just healthier when viewing the entity as a whole as a cold and calculating business. (Easier said than done sometimes, I know.)
With all of that said, I do think Disney needs to do better with this type of communications. Even though the intended audience is investors, they very well know that fans are listening. Some of the gaffes made on recent calls would’ve never happened under Iger (that ‘guest waistlines’ comment, oof!); he was a smooth operator who ran a tight ship with meticulously scripted messaging. Even if the substance of what he said was often very similar to Chapek, he had a manner of speaking that simultaneously reassured investors and fans.
I’d stop slightly short of calling Iger a charismatic leader, but he definitely approached that, and grew into an ‘elder statesman’ sort of persona. Aside from Walt himself, the best leader the company has had in that regard was Eisner. For most companies, this wouldn’t matter; as a creative company with so much emotional investment from so many people, it’s immensely important. Chapek just doesn’t have any of that and seems wholly uninterested in growing into the role.
Speaking of charismatic leaders, much of the WSJ piece focuses on Josh D’Amaro, head of the parks division. The article notes that D’Amaro has a “high profile with fans and employees, making frequent appearances at the parks outside of major events and posting about his visits on social media.”
It also mentions that during a recent hour-long visit to the parks, “D’Amaro was stopped more than 20 times by visitors and cast members…who asked to take selfies with him and thanked him for his work.”
We’ve previously discussed the disparate treatment of D’Amaro and Chapek, with the latter viewed as a villain and the former as a savior. Doing this requires a blatant disregard for the purview and authority of each. Without question, D’Amaro is responsible for some unpopular decisions that are below Chapek’s pay grade.
Personally, I think looking at the world in such simplistic and reductionist terms is foolish and naive. The same applies to vilifying and deifying people. There’s a corrosive culture around celebrities–whether they be influencers, executives, or actual movie stars. These are all real people, and there’s more complexity and nuance to motivations and human behavior than a simple good v. evil dichotomy.
Nevertheless, I still want to believe that D’Amaro is a good leader and could bring about positive changes for the parks division–despite recent evidence to the contrary. I’ve heard enough from people who have worked with or for him at Disneyland, and seen enough myself to continue giving him the benefit of the doubt.
In my view, the next two years will be much more telling than the last 2, when he was backed into a corner. I will readily concede if this ends up being a bad take–the easier route would definitely be lumping him together with Chapek. Despite that, D’Amaro has my confidence for now. (Same goes for Jeff Vahle, the president of Walt Disney World.)
D’Amaro is also the source of the most widely-shared quote from the WSJ article on social media: “Mr. D’Amaro said he’s aware of the tension caused by rising prices and other changes, especially for annual passholders, but describes it as the inevitable result of progress, and insists that every change Disney has implemented at the parks is in service of improving visitors’ trips.”
The “inevitable result of progress” line gave me a chuckle. This is where D’Amaro’s skills as a smooth talker get him into trouble, as he thinks he can get away with such blatant BS. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who has visited the parks recently who actually believes this.
At least Chapek has been brutally honest on this point, bluntly calling it a matter of supply and demand and indicating that prices will increase until met with resistance by consumers. The idea that this is anything but that is hogwash. The guest experience hasn’t gotten better, it has gotten worse. This has nothing to do with progress and everything to do with charging what the market will bear.
Speaking of hogwash, the WSJ article included this little gem: “Each park has an operation center with a ‘heat map’ that tracks where Genie+ users are in the parks using GPS technology. Park operators can direct traffic using the app by notifying visitors where the shortest lines are and offering food and merchandise promotions to cajole them to other areas.”
“If I’m seeing too much activity on the west side, I’m able to spread where I direct people to the east side,” Mr. D’Amaro said. “Our attractions will be load-balanced better, and lines will be shorter, and what that means is the experience will be better.”
This is hardly the first time puff pieces about Disney have touted in-park ‘command centers’ and how they’re used to redistribute crowds. These places do exist and theoretically could do that. Past leaders (Phil Holmes, Jay Rasulo, and Tom Staggs, if memory serves me correctly) made similarly suspect claims about deploying characters and impromptu parades to help address crowding.
I assume this persists as a talking point because Disney really wants to be viewed as a tech-savvy company with the means and acumen of controlling congestion and optimizing the guest experience. Again, anyone who has visited the parks recently likely knows this isn’t actually a thing on any meaningful scale. That is, unless you followed the free Genie’s advice to rope drop the carrousel. What park operators can do, in theory, is not the same as what is happening in practice.
Ultimately, that covers just about everything I found interesting about the Wall Street Journal piece. As a general matter, Disney’s approach to these articles has been fascinating. The company was an active participant in this, and offered quotes and statements that they had to know would rile up some fans.
As noted above, it’s best characterized as a puff piece aimed at investors…but that’s not the only demo that reads the Wall Street Journal. Much like the earnings calls, this will also be read by consumers, and it felt like there was little effort made to assuage that audience. It doesn’t have quite the same “deal with it” vibe as recent CNBC interviews, some of which border on hostile to fans, but it’s more blunt than this type of article would’ve been in 2019 or earlier. As an increasing number of articles like this are published in mainstream outlets, it’s hard not to wonder whether the ordinary consumer perception of Disney is changing for the worse.
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What do you think of this article in the Wall Street Journal? Thoughts on our assessment of the various elements? Any questions? We love hearing from readers, so please share any other thoughts or questions you have in the comments below!
We are leaving Fort Wilderness tomorrow after a 17 day trip with 10 park days. Very disappointing trip, much worse than previous trips. Staff at the parks and at the campground were extremely rude, with few exceptions. I would say 3 employees recognized our daughters birthday. Rides down constantly. All the bathrooms needed repairs and cleaning. We watched bus after bus pick up for the deluxe resorts while we would wait 30+ minutes for a bus, at times having to go ask for one. It was just not a very pleasant trip. If we are the demographic Disney wants, middle class repeat visitors, they are really going to have to step up their game. We did not save for years to miss out on rides because they are down all day and be treated poorly by Disney employees. These experiences are why so many are postponing future trips or deciding to never return.
That bit about the crowd control and heat map was close to a blatant lie. Very strange.
To quote a now Disney movie, the line about progress is true “from a certain point to view.” It just requires your definition of progress be maximizing revenue, which is exactly how a global corporation would probably define it.
I’m very interested to see what how this leadership responds when things take a downturn in the next couple of years. They are *definitely* burning goodwill and the money train can’t run forever. I just wonder how hard they will fall and if the current leadership will be able to pivot or if they will be given the boot to try someone else at the helm.
While I’m certainly not hoping for a downturn given the broader economic and human ramifications, a “reality check” for the current leadership team would be nice. The longer it takes to happen, the more difficult the pivot will be to pull off.
Nice piece! Off topic-ish, but how did you get that shot of Legends Plaza from the top of Team Disney in Burbank? Great angle!
I took that from the Rotunda Executive Dining Room a few years ago.
I am a stockholder and also a Disney Vacation Club member and the way the company has been running over the past years has been disgusting. Prices at the park keep on increasing and the quality keeps on dissipating. The Genie is a total ripoff. While the higher ups are making salaries and bonusses up to the hundreds and millions of dollars, the public is getting treated like garbage.
Outside of Magic Kingdom in Florida, the other Florida Resort Parks are terrible, with not enough rides and too many lines. They do not rate with the Universal Parks, or the California Disney Parks.
The Vacation Club members are treated like third-class citizens, where the room availablility is being reduced since the greedy company regularly rents out the rooms to non-Vacation Club people.
The whole company sickens me. There is no positive spin at all with the parks. They do not have enough attractions and the prices are too high.
I regret every having to purchase the Vacation Club.
On top of that, the cruise lines are still demanding vaccinated people, which is a joke compared to the sham that the vaccines have turned out to be.
Disney cares only about its top executives, and treats their shareholders and clients like dirt!!!!
Well said, Tom. In my mind it comes down to missteps of those who are primarily speaking to investors. Disney seems not to recognize that what they say to shareholders will be heard by passholders and vice versa. They say things like managing the parks with ‘surgical precision’ and ‘managing crowds with Genie’ and such to investors who seem to be somewhat, if not entirely, unaware that Genie (not +) doesn’t deliver on its promises of crowd control and financial incentivization. At this point, most of what they say I’m convinced is just fluff for investors. Which, as an investor and a passholder, gives me pause. They market a certain product to both investors and passholders that ends up not being the marketed product. (Think: Genie+ at Disneyland or Magic Key block out dates, etc.) And now we’re seeing the result of Disney guests and fans picking up on this disparity, expressing themselves with critiques and claims of canceling any future trips (at least online). I’m personally quite curious to see if this online sentiment translates to real world Disney attendance or if it’s merely inconsequential ‘online outrage.’
Probably a bit of both but whatever MAY happen, it won’t be felt until after the holiday bookings have come and gone.
As a hotelier we often say “You can’t take ADR (average daily rate) to the bank!”. Which means I need to find the right balance between rate and occupancy. Selling 100 rooms at $100 is the same as selling 50 rooms at $200. (simplified since staffing adjusts). Hotels also look at other revenue streams besides just the room. (food, vending, banquet rooms). Disney needs to find the right balance.
They also need to not just cater to the one and done guests. Families such as mine love Disney and not just the parks, but the movies, Disney +, merchandise, talking about how much we love Disney. I joke that we raised Disney fans.
Sadly after this last trip I haven’t had as many good things to say and we are pulling back on our Disney spending. One thing current leadership is not recognizing is that they are a brand. When they treat their loyal guests as dispensable we reduce what we spend on Disney related items or take our money elsewhere. Not just less trips, but other areas too.
“They also need to not just cater to the one and done guests.”
Great points all around, but especially this.
Not only are fans great brand ambassadors, but they fill the parks and hotels at times when attendance is naturally low, they buy DVC memberships, etc.
Disney may not “need” fans in the short-term while pent-up demand is running hot, but they absolutely do in the long-term.
At this point I know more people who have trashed their Disney credit cards and let their annual passes expire than those going. This includes two doctors and a multi-millionaire who are personal friends. BTW, has anyone noticed the recent frequency of attraction breakdowns. Could there be less being spent on maintenance than there should be?
Great analyis of the article. I have to say that I understand a lot of the business decisions that they are making. I don’t like them as a fan or a consumer, but from a pure business standpoint they make sense. But I have to take exception with the “Progress” quote. I am pretty sure I have heard a very similar quote from Chepak recently and both times I uave thought “BS” Raising prices while cutting services is not a result of progress, it is the result of maximzing profit at any cost (especially long term) and could even be seen as corporate greed.
I don’t doubt Chapek at one point has said something similar. He’s done at least a couple of interviews this month that have been more brutally honest, though.
While I don’t think it’s a wise approach in the long-term, the short-term is a different story–and I also give him some degree of credit for not totally sugarcoating (or flat-out lying) about things.
Just got back from a 10 day stay at pop century and was also my 10th stay. A little disappointed with all the cuts us this the way they celebrate 50 years? No magical express, no dining plan, no shipping of purchases to hotels, many restaurants no longer offering refills, no fast passes, no magic hours except for deluxe hotels.. in fact I felt like a second class guest as the rich who can afford to stay in deluxe resorts or afford lightning lane passes benefit whereas the rest of us dont Will not be going back until things change
I really agree with your points about the flaws of making public figures one dimensional. As much as Chapek is a convenient foil, and D’Amaro makes a good hero…life is just more complex than that. It’s not like Chapek is solely paid based on earnings and D’Amaro is getting paid by the number of kind tweets and high fives he gets. I don’t know if some of the Disney fandom is too wrapped up in the movies they love, but in reality it’s a lot more rare for a human to be all the way bad or all the way good.
Could you imagine if we all got paid on the basis of kind tweets and high fives, though? I’d definitely have to reevaluate my posting style.
Very well states Tom. As someone who works for a publicly traded company, the earnings calls and investor stuff is geared to what “the street” wants to hear, they don’t usually consult anyone but the IR team and executives. If anyone that visits Disney parks, goes on cruises, buys an annual pass, etc. isn’t already aware of this, then they need to take a business class. All that to say, they give the analysts & investors what they want to hear and provide a service that we as consumers pay for. Everyone, including the folks of the “unfavorable mix” have a choice of where to spend their money and until Disney starts posting some regular losses, nobody will care what any of the unfavorables have to say.
Absolutely. Those earnings calls are carefully scripted to emphasize specific points and metrics that look good, while (attempting to) gloss over anything unfavorable–while not running afoul of the SEC. (I wonder if Disney would’ve spent so much chasing unprofitable Disney+ subscriptions in other countries but for Wall Street’s prior desire to hit certain subscriber numbers.)
Off topic, but you mentioned “brand damage” which made me think of this: what do you think will happen when Mickey Mouse goes into the public domain in 2024?
I truly have no idea. I wouldn’t even speculate at this point as to whether it happens, as a lot could change in the political environment between now and then.
It seems like Disney is doing as much as possible to prepare for Mickey entering the public domain, creating alternative protections so it amounts to a non-issue. Beyond that, I’m curious to see how it actually plays out.
Did you see the Don Bluth article in the LA Times last week? He said this about leaving Disney…
“But in 1979, Bluth and several other animators solemnly decided to abandon the studio. Given the direction the operation was taking after its creator’s death in 1966, according to Bluth, they saw no other way to keep the art of animation alive and thriving. At the time the company was working on one of its biggest disappointments, ‘The Black Cauldron.’
‘Someone asked me one time, ‘Why did you leave Walt Disney Studios?’ And I said, ‘Because Walt left Walt Disney Studios.’ I began to see that the magic he had created was crumbling. It became a corporation with lots of stockholders,” Bluth said. “I read that Walt said once, ‘The worst thing I ever did was go public.’ Suddenly you don’t have autonomy anymore. You’re beholden to the stockholders who really only want profits.’ “
I didn’t see that, but I’m not quite that cynical.
Those quotes presuppose that the only “pure” art that exists in the world is free from commercial considerations. I would strongly disagree with that assessment. In a perfect world, companies and consumers have a symbiotic relationship–the better the product, the more successful it is. Everyone wins.
While I don’t think Disney+ is a good example of this (YMMV), look no further than the current streaming war. It’s a golden age for high quality television content–I’d argue that at no prior point in history have there been as many great shows on as wide of a range of topics as today. Consumers are the ultimate winners there.
You missed one important point… It’s not, “the better the product, the better for everyone.” It’s, “the better the product, the more I can charge for said product, and it’s good for us.”, just as the wsj article said. Less people with more profit. The unfortunately puts the importance of the middle class in a lower class.
“The unfortunately puts the importance of the middle class in a lower class.”
If you think it’s anyone other than the middle class booking the Value and Moderate Resorts, I guess we just have to agree to disagree.
Disney absolutely loves the one-and-done whales that stay at Grand Floridian and “spare no expense” for their kids’ rite of passage trips. Still, that is not Disney’s primary demographic. It just isn’t. Walt Disney World needs the middle class–they are just squeezing them more than ever before. (There are also a couple of heartbreaking anecdotes in the WSJ piece about that.)
“It’s also really odd to me that so many fans view objective per guest spending stats as some kind of personal affront.” It does not seem odd at all to me. Sure, I don’t really care if you are paying more than I am, but Disney has made it clear that they expect all of us to pay that 40% more than we did a few years ago.
The line about the Genie+ heat map is comical. As you mention, they have been saying this since the start of the NextGen project 10 years ago. I’m sure they mine the data at least somewhat for staffing purposes, but there are no impromptu parades or food discounts being thrown out.
I get it. They are a business thriving within capitalism. They will charge what the market will bare. But I liked it better when they at least pretended that the parks were an accessible and affordable option for all. Though pixie dust is clearly in short supply under the current leadership, it was fun to live under the impression that it was plentiful and real. It’s not all just about investors is it?
“It’s not all just about investors is it?”
For Chapek and the c-suite, it sure seems like it.
For the tens of thousands of people below them, including the many creatives employed by the Walt Disney Company, definitely not.
I think it’s a balancing act between creativity and commerce, and always has been. When Disney is at its best, both sides of that are winning. Right now, it seems like the scales have tipped too far to the side of commercial considerations. My hope is that we see a “correction” to that in the coming year. The longer Disney goes down the current path, the more painful that correction will be when it inevitably comes. There has already been some degree of irreparable goodwill and brand damage, but much of it can still be fixed.
It feels like the parks are becoming more Six Flags like. They are, generally, dirtier, cast members are less courteous, again not all, and helpful. Rides are down more often than they used to be. Resorts have less services available. I have a trip with family in December and, after that, I think we will sit out for a few years to see how things shake out.
I mostly agree with Tom’s reply. Although, Tom, you said, “The longer Disney goes down the current path, the more painful that correction will be when it inevitably comes.” While I agree with the main point there, I have to ask – is it inevitable that the company will change its path? I hope so, but sometimes I think it is all downhill from here. It grieves me to say that. I am a big fan of The Walt Disney Company, but I am beginning to dream less and be more realistic.
“I have to ask – is it inevitable that the company will change its path?”
When demand drops, absolutely. My only fear is that the initial response might be to make further cuts to reduce operating expenses and maintain margins.
With that said, I think even c-suite leadership realizes that the current spending resulting from pent-up demand cannot be maintained in the long-term. Once that’s gone, things will settle down and normalize.
That doesn’t mean Disney’s Magical Express and free FastPass will suddenly return (they won’t), but the company will have to work a little harder to attract visitors. (More discounts, compelling seasonal offerings, entertainment additions, etc.)
@Tom the way the economy is headed, Disney may have a correction by force in the no-too-distant future. We can complain that they are just interested in serving their investors, but the truth is, Disney already had to make up for a lot of loss during the pandemic when travel was low. It seems like just yesterday, the good people of the tourism industry were begging tourists to come out of quarantine and support the theme parks, and slowly but surely, the crowds have returned. I can’t imagine a scenario in which any company would not capitalize on that.
From a purely economic perspective, we can’t expect them to rebound without making changes. Do I think some changes are overboard, or even greedy? Yes. However, in times of economic instability, there will ALWAYS be those who see opportunity and profit from it. As that middle class family who is getting squeezed, we hate to pay the higher prices at Disney, but it’s still our choice to vacation there. We could instead put our dollars toward a very overpriced RV and premium prices at private campgrounds. It’s expensive to go just about anywhere right now, and that’s not the fault of the Disney corporation.
I always love reading your articles! This was such an articulate and insightful commentary on WSJ’s piece and I loved the extra perspective you provided. We are 11 days from our trip and hope we see you in the parks again!
Thanks, Tom! I have the same fears, which is part of why I feel that it is all downhill from here. But, your confidence in a change of course is encouraging! I appreciate you and this blog! You are my favorite blogger.
“It’s not all just about investors is it?”
I wonder how much of DISNEY stock is spread amongst small holders/fans. Heck, even big holders might be fans. Meaning that even though they are happy with returns they are still disappointed with the product. Perhaps Disney will end up disappointing the fans and stockholders alike because they are not mutually exclusive. I guess what I’m leading to is that in order to see the growth Disney is chasing doesn’t have to be an either or proposition. Disney might realize greater gains by giving a better product and making all parties happy.
Excellent analysis as usual, Tom. But you know, with a company that overtly claims to be selling “magic,” I understand why some fans want to imagine they’re dealing with the Fairy Godmother, not Ursula. At least nobody said “You can’t get something for nothing, can you? Life’s full of tough choices, ain’t it?”
I mean ultimately there are too many people visiting hence the price hikes , genie, lightning , etc.
They should really cap the amount of people allowed in parks – I know they say they do but there are times it is beyond ridiculously packed IMO. If that means charging more and reserving your spot way in advance then it is what it is. I feel like people will spend if there is a value- but if we spend and its just bigger crowds and lines then it is a fail.
thank you for this. i wanted to read the original but alas, do not subscribe to WSJ.
You can also read it for free on Apple News (or at least could as of yesterday). I’ll add that link to the article in a bit if I can find it…
Right on, Tom. I read the WSJ article. Your response and analysis is very well articulated. Spot on!