Disney CEO Bob Chapek spoke today at the Wall Street Journal’s signature technology conference in Laguna Beach, California. The event is billed as the most exclusive technology “where headlines and deals are made.”
Chapek did exactly that during his interview with Matt Murray, Editor in Chief of the WSJ. During that, Chapek explained how the world’s largest entertainment company is doubling down on its streaming, film and theme park businesses. Chapek also outlined his vision for the future, including what to expect from Disney+ and the company’s film pipeline at the box office.
Most notable for our Walt Disney World and Disneyland-centric audience, Chapek discussed “how innovations inside its theme parks have enhanced the customer experience.” (Wall Street Journal’s words, not mine.) You can watch the full interview for yourself below–we’ll be covering the “highlights” that follow…
Most of the session focused on Disney+ and the company’s intellectual property, so not much of relevance there. (Chapek did seem to suggest that Disney will refocus on creating content in-house rather than leaning on acquisitions, so that’s good!)
One of the big non-parks things that has overlapping relevance with Walt Disney World came when Chapek was asked about controversial content that was banned in some markets. He noted that “We live in a world now where everything seems to be polarized, but we want Disney to stand for bringing people together.”
Chapek pushed back on the notion that Disney is ‘too woke’ by saying that “Disney is a company that has survived 100 years by catering to its audience, and it will survive another 100 years by catering to its audience.”
Turning to Walt Disney World and Disneyland, there were questions about how the company has successfully navigated reopening. When asked about high demand for the theme parks, and whether that meant Disney would build more parks, Chapek said that “parks were very successful before the pandemic, as you know, and we shut them down for a year or two years in some parts of the world.
Chapek said the company was “very pleased” by how consumers came back to its theme parks, attributing that to “trust” people had in the brand–consumers knew Disney would open in a responsible way. “Things like the NBA bubble…brought us a lot of confidence in people’s minds.” He indicated that since then, “business has been strong,” and that as long as Disney continues to do things the way it does, it will have robust demand.
When it comes to price increases, the interviewer noted that there were online debates among “passionate” Disney fans about price increases, with some that love them and some who hate the ever-increasing costs. The interviewer asked how to balance this without alienating Disney’s passionate fans.
Chapek answered, “we want to guarantee a great guest experience no matter when people come. If they come the second week of September, we want them to have a great experience. Maybe that’s not so hard then, but it is [during the week of] Thanksgiving.” He further said that the primary goal is ensuring guests have a magical experience and memories that last a lifetime.
“In a world where we don’t control demand, we’re left with one of two situations. You either let way too many people into the park, where they don’t have a great experience, or you manage it by turning people away at the gate.”
With that in mind, Chapek explained that the the reservation system was developed to make things predictable for “families from Seattle” that might have previously come to Disneyland around Thanksgiving at 10 am and previously been turned away. He indicated that this was done in a way similar to other businesses around the world, including airlines. (Note: airlines still overbook and bump people from flights, and do not require a separate airline reservation to be booked after airfare is purchased. Probably a bad example.)
Chapek struck a defiant tone, which is pretty consistent with past interviews I’ve seen where this comes up. He noted that the reservation system is “heresy” to some Walt Disney World and Disneyland fans, but not unlike anything other businesses do. He also stated that yield management is something all good businesses do, and it’s something analysts and investors expect. Chapek indicated that, essentially, pricing is a reflection of demand–a good business practice and good for the guest experience.
Moreover, he reiterated that it’s done to protect the guest experience to guarantee admission on busy days and ensure that the parks are not too crowded. He steadfastly stuck to the script that would sound familiar to anyone who read our recent post, Disney Doesn’t Want Lower Crowds.In fact, much of the commentary there could serve as a direct rebuttal to Chapek’s contentions throughout the WSJ interview.
Towards the end of the interview, Chapek was asked to reflect upon the Reedy Creek controversy and fallout between the company and the State of Florida “with a little time and distance” about what he did right and wrong, whether he’d do anything differently in retrospect, and what lessons he learned.
Presumably not wanting to stick his head back into that particular hornet’s nest, Chapek gave a relatively diplomatic non-answer. He did not say the governor’s name nor did he mention the piece of legislation. There were a lot of specific “red flag” words–and he didn’t utter any of them. So at the very least, his new corporate comms team has coached him on what not to say.
Instead, Chapek said that “the lesson, and what we always should’ve known, is that Disney is all about the Cast.” He noted that people might remember the castle and churros, but the reason people have magical memories that last a lifetime is the guest-cast interactions. He called Cast Members the “secret sauce” and the key to a great guest experience at Walt Disney World.
He said that the vast majority–around 99%–of the positive guest feedback he received when running Parks & Resorts was about Cast Members. Chapek said that he was “reminded” about the sentiment of Cast Members and the importance of them feeling valued and as if they could relate to the company. “You have to make sure the Cast is at the center of everything you do,” Chapek concluded.
Chapek was also asked about the personal criticism and attacks he’s received from outraged fans, with the interviewer mentioning forums and the online community. Chapek mostly brushing this off, saying that he ran parks for about a decade, and knew just how “passionate” Walt Disney World and Disneyland fans can be. He mentioned decisions that were unpopular with fans, saying “if we move a churro cart 10 feet, it’s a big deal.”
Chapek also mentioned the reimagining Tower of Terror into Mission Breakout, “while the lines went from 30 minutes long to 6 hours long.” (He was interrupted at this point by the interviewer, but the implication was that it was an unpopular decision with fans, but vindicated by the general park-going public.)
Either way, Chapek previously had this to say about long lines when Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge opened: “The deep secret is that we don’t intend to have lines. If you build in enough capacity, the rides don’t go down and it operates at 99% efficiency, you shouldn’t have 10-hour lines…So, 10-hour lines are not a sign of success,” he said. “It should be seen as a sign of, frankly, failure.”
It’s also a bit amusing that earlier in the same interview, Chapek talked up the importance of a guaranteeing a good experience for guests who are “actually inside the parks.” It’s like he forgot all about that when boasting about the decision to transform Tower of Terror into Mission Breakout. To his credit, that reimagining was the right call–and I can admit being wrong about it in hindsight. But I’m not sure how 6-hour long lines and a good experience experience are consistent messaging.
One of the things I find interesting about hearing Chapek speak is how he oscillates between sticking to the script and candid comments. When it comes to Disney’s “passionate” fans, he often has a glib and almost defensive tone with an “I’m right, you’re wrong…and here’s why” subtext. With other more mainstream topics and controversies, he’s much more diplomatic and deferential, carefully choosing his words in a way that’s (wisely) evasive.
I can’t say I necessarily blame him, and honestly, I appreciate Chapek speaking his mind even when he has something negative to say about fans like us. It’s just such a stark contrast to Iger, who was meticulous and purposeful with each word he chose–even though he probably thought a lot of the same things as Chapek. (Even though I’m personally fine with this, I don’t think this standoffish tone is savvy or plays well with most fans.)
To his credit, Chapek also indicated that he can shoulder the criticism if it meant doing the right thing for the Walt Disney Company and its long-term reputation. “We all want to make everyone happy all the time. I’m not sure that’s possible in this world. So again, we have to distill this down and say, ‘Who do we want to be? Who do we want the company to be?’ By the way, my own persona feelings aren’t really important. What’s important is how people feel about the company.”
Chapek closed by saying that “he takes himself out of it, and that sort of surprises…Everyone wants to be loved and to like them, but in this world, that’s not always necessary. I wash all of that away and say, ‘what do we want the capital ‘D’ Disney company to stand for?’ If we’re doing right by the company and can sleep at night, then…I can be teflon and know we’re doing the right thing.”
Did you watch Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s interview during the Wall Street Journal technology conference? Thoughts on anything he said–or didn’t say? Thoughts on his comments about crowds, price increases, high demand, reservations, Cast Members, or anything else? Are you worried about the future of Walt Disney World, Disneyland, or the company in general? Think things will improve or get worse throughout this year? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!