While reading the comments to the recent news about Walt Disney World charging for parking, I noticed many readers indicated that this was their tipping point: they were done with WDW. This has been a trend I’ve in comments to stories of this kind the last couple of years. More and more one-time fans seem fed up with what they view as nickel and diming, and practices that don’t value them as customers.
It’s easy to write off these comments as hollow words that won’t be backed up with action when it comes time to book their next vacation. Impassioned initial responses will give way to cooler thinking or ways to adjust behavior and ‘make it work’ to continue feeding the Disney addiction. The internet being what it is, there is no doubt some (a lot) of that.
However, dismissing the chorus of complaints out of hand would be foolish. I’ve been around the fan community a while, and have seen a lot of people move on the last few years; fans with thousands of posts suddenly disappearing or social media accounts changing their focus. These are just the prominent, visible examples. If even the most passionate fans felt alienated, no doubt more casual lurkers have reached their own tipping point. For me, this raises a couple of interesting questions: has Walt Disney World eroded fan goodwill, and if so, will that have negative ramifications down the road?
For those unfamiliar with the term, goodwill is basically the consumer relationship with and perception of the brand “Disney.” What you think when you hear the word, the loyalty you have as a result of past experiences, and how likely you are to be an advocate for the company. (This is all reductionist, but it provides a working understanding of the term, and why it’s a significant intangible asset for Walt Disney World.)
In Walt Disney World fandom, this manifests itself in myriad ways. People accumulate thousands of posts on fan forums, spend their hours discussing the parks on social media, and even descend upon the comments sections of articles critical of the parks. People spread the ‘Disney gospel’ to family and friends. Heck, it even leads the most overzealous fans to start blogs about Disney, documenting every experience, no matter how insignificant.
Historically, the Walt Disney Company as a whole has enjoyed exceptional consumer goodwill. Last year, Forbes ranked it as the #6 most powerful brand in the world (#1 was LEGO). The year before that, Disney claimed the #1 spot in Forbes’ measure of goodwill. Those impressive rankings sort of beg the titular question here. However, I’d argue that there’s a significant difference between goodwill for Disney and goodwill for Walt Disney World, which is a subset of the former.
For Disney as a whole, it’s easy to see why goodwill is so high. The company has a solid reputation as being family-friendly, producing toys and television shows that kids love. Then there are the Disney and Pixar-branded animated films; both studios have enjoyed an impressive streak of films that are well-received by families. (I’m inclined to withhold Star Wars and Marvel from consideration here, as I’m not entirely sure the average consumer associates those with Disney.)
Evaluating the theme parks is a bit trickier. Whereas every first-run movie, regardless of quality, costs the same amount to see, theme parks exist in a world of vacation destinations that are not exactly apples to apples comparisons for a multitude of reasons. Pricing, crowds, nature of the experience, etc., all vary dramatically, making head to head comparisons exceedingly difficult.
It’s entirely possible that Walt Disney World enjoys a similar level of goodwill as the Walt Disney Company as a whole. Given the prevalence of “Disney parks are overpriced, tourist traps” articles and sentiment in the mainstream, I find that a very difficult premise to accept.
Walt Disney World does enjoy its own unique reputation, earned from decades of its–and Disneyland’s–existence. The United States Disney parks are viewed as rite of passage vacation destinations where parents, even the most cynical and Disney-averse, take their children. Hugging Mickey Mouse (and capturing the photo to prove it!), getting that first flight on Dumbo, being tall enough to ride Space Mountain, etc., all are experiences that have become ingrained in our culture. Suffice to say, Walt Disney World is an American institution, and a place many people aspire to visit.
Among the general public–the ones who don’t read blogs like this–experiencing this cultural touchstone is important. In today’s strong economy, it’s also easier to justify. Sure, there will be sticker shock when seeing hotel prices, but they’ve heard brand advocates like us touting Walt Disney World for decades.
As a culturally-important, rite of passage vacation at a time when unemployment is at historic lows and they have record high confidence in the economy, Walt Disney World is very appealing for casual consumers. This is true even if the vacation costs $6,000 to $8,000 and requires going into a bit of debt to fund.
These first-time visitors who will spend big on their vacation, doing everything they can to ensure that their important trip lives up to expectations, are a lucrative audience for Disney. These guests generally don’t know hacks to save cut costs, and generally spend more money than regular guests. (Obviously, there are exceptions to every generalization–we know plenty of Annual Passholders who are merchandise-addicts.)
A compelling argument can be made (one that I’d agree with) that Walt Disney World is tailoring its business strategy towards one and done visitors, eager to score big financial results in the short term. Right now, it’s also quite conceivable that Walt Disney World is not particularly interested in loyal customers. It doesn’t need them to fill hotels, and doesn’t recognize their long-term value.
The first problem with this line of thinking is what happens when another recession hits or an event negatively impacting the tourism industry. Since 2000, this has occurred twice. Even if you think the fundamentals of our economy are sound (I don’t), it does not take a vivid imagination to envision a time in 5 years or less when things are not so rosy.
During both of the past recessions, Walt Disney World discounted heavily and was very much reliant on its ardent fans to pick up the slack. Following the last recession, the argument was made that Walt Disney World is ‘recession-proof’ in light of its healthy performance.
I’d retort that this misses the mark. Historically, Walt Disney World fans have had an ironclad passion/addiction that they would prioritize going to Disney over other discretionary expenditures. More casual middle class families with kids of the ‘right age’ would do likewise since the parks enjoyed such a strong rite of passage reputation. Sound promotional strategies plus these demographics meant that a recession was not enough to discourage robust attendance numbers.
This raises several questions. Are there still just as many fans with that ironclad passion today as there were a decade ago? If not, can those one-time fans be lured back with aggressive discounting? Is Walt Disney World raising new generations of fans in the same number as it raised my generation and those before mine? Does Walt Disney World’s longstanding institutional rite of passage reputation outweigh its newfound “Walt Disney World is a playground for the wealthy” reputation?
I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. I’m guessing Disney does not, either (if they’re questions even being asked within the company). While I can understand Disney’s eagerness to capitalize on short term trends, I’m weary of what some of the company’s decisions mean in the long term. There are obviously still a ton of things I love about Walt Disney World, and I’m incredibly enthusiastic about what’s on the horizon between now and 2021. I also have a bit of trepidation about pricing trends, and find myself a bit disenchanted with a business plan that, in my opinion, does not hold a whole lot of regard for loyal customers.
Has Walt Disney World lost some of the goodwill you once held for the parks? Do you agree or disagree with our analysis? Other thoughts on this topic? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!