Is Disney Ruining Its Reputation?
It’s been a rough few years for the Walt Disney Company and fans. It’s pretty wild to now think of 2019 as the halcyon days of Walt Disney World and Disneyland, but with the benefit of hindsight, they were. This post takes a look at what’s happened since, negative views of the brand as captured by surveys, and how returning CEO Bob Iger feels about all of that. Plus, our commentary about causes and solutions, and how dire the brand damage actually is for Disney.
It probably goes without saying, but the most controversial issue this year has been the company’s public standoff with Walt Disney World’s home state, resulting in a “battle” between former CEO Bob Chapek and Governor DeSantis. That made headlines for months, and culminated in Florida passing bills to dissolve Walt Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District. Books (plural) will someday be written about this saga.
On the media side, Disney has had plenty of problems in the last few years. The biggest of those revolved around the live-action Mulan, which was mired in multiple issues. That resulted in Disney becoming a symbol of Hollywood hypocrisy and willingness to sacrifice values to do business in China. Subsequently, there have been lower profile content-controversies of varying degrees, at least some of which have been driven by a Disney being under the microscope.
All of that is before we even get to changes at the parks. Go ahead and watch this great ad from 2015, which underscores just how much has changed about the guest experience. Disney’s Magical Express, free FastPass, reservation-free visits, unlimited Park Hopping, Annual Pass sales, and the Disney Dining Plan are all things of the past.
And that’s just a partial list! Health safety protocol was contentious in 2020 and 2021, but those issues have largely faded away. There have also been the countless price increases, resulting in an over 40% increase in guest spending. If you want a rundown or refresher, see this list of the biggest Walt Disney World fan complaints and that post’s most recent comments for insight into why so many fans are disgruntled.
While things have started to ‘settle down,’ there was a stretch during which it seemed like a week didn’t go by without Disney embroiling itself in embarrassment. To be sure, several of these so-called scandals were no-win situations, where Disney was backed into a corner with no good way out. Plenty of others were unforced errors that could’ve been avoided had the company been more deliberate and careful with its decisions and PR.
None of this is any big secret to those who follow the Walt Disney Company. Regardless of where you fall on the ideological or political spectrum, you no doubt are cognizant of the controversies swirling around the company.
Reflecting all of this is the Axios Harris Poll 100 and 2022 Corporate Reputation Rankings. Reputation rankings in Forbes, Financial Times, Fortune, US News & World Report, and other business publications have proliferated in recent years–likely because these lists are an easy way to grab headlines on social media and generate ‘news’ about companies that rise and fall in the rankings.
Quite often, there’s considerable inconsistency among the lists. Rankings vary depending on the criteria and methodology used, as well as the sources of information and the sample size. As such, I was skeptical when the Axois Harris Poll 100 first came out, and contained what could be described as disturbing results for Disney.
My skepticism changed when reading the recent Wall Street Journal article that summarized the saga (thus far) of Disney’s Bob Swap/Battle of the Bobs. We’ve already covered some of that here, but another interesting tidbit was Bob Iger’s views on external and internal sentiment towards the company. According to WSJ, Iger believed that Chapek was a failure in the most important measures of success for a CEO: internal satisfaction, investor relations and consumer support.
An internal survey of Disney found low morale among Cast Members, which should hardly be a surprise given that they were on the frontline enforcing rules, explaining unpopular policies, and more. Wall Street Journal also pointed specifically to the Harris Poll, which Bob Iger follows closely, showing that fans were “falling out of love” with the Disney brand.
Knowing the Axios Harris Poll is important to the company and its CEO (Disney touted being one of the highest-ranking companies on the poll as recently as 2019) prompted me to take a fresh look at the results. There’s no way to spin this or paint it in a positive light: the results are bad for Disney.
Below is a look at the 2022 Corporate Reputation Rankings from the Axios Harris Poll 100. This is based on a survey of 33,096 Americans in a nationally representative sample, and uses a two-step process to determine the rankings:
The Walt Disney Company had a score of 73.4 and ranked 65th on the list, which was a drop of 28 spots as compared to last year. This puts Disney into the “Good” tier of the list, which is the worst it has ever done in the history of the Harris Poll.
For the duration of Bob Iger’s first tenure as CEO, Disney had scored above 80, falling near the top of the list in the “Excellent” tier.
Above is Disney’s breakdown in the individual category scores of Trust, Ethics, Growth, Products/services, Citizenship, Vision, and Culture. On the plus side, at least the core products and services are still performing well.
To put this into perspective, Disney scored almost 10 points behind the #1 ranking Trader Joe’s, and had falls on par with Chick-fil-A, PepsiCo and Pfizer. The only company that performed significantly worse year-to-year was Spectrum, which dropped 71 slots. Conversely, Home Depot, Stellantis, Sony, IBM, Google, and Samsung all shot up the rankings.
I was dismissive of this list when it was first released because of the inconsistency in the rankings. In isolation, it makes sense that Disney would’ve dropped. However, the wild swings for Home Depot, Sony, IBM, Google, Samsung, etc. are all less obvious.
Even Chick-fil-A’s drop is difficult to reconcile; while it’s a polarizing company, its scandals and boycotts occurred a few years ago. That 24 spot fall would’ve made sense in 2019 or 2020, but not so much this year. Same goes for PepsiCo; it faced some major issues back around 2017, but not much since. (A bit off topic, but PepsiCo actually has great corporate culture. There’s no good explanation for its decline.)
Moreover, of the top 4, only Patagonia even made the list in 2021. In reviewing the rankings for the past several years (see 2019, 2020, and 2021), these inconsistencies become even more evident. In-N-Out Burger dropped out of the rankings entirely after ranking #17 last year (another company with great culture) and the beloved Buc-ee’s, another regional institution, was also shut out of the list.
With that said, I’m willing to allow for the possibility that the Harris Poll is a flawed way to rank certain high profile companies and a good way to rank other ones. I would hazard a guess that most Americans are both aware of and like their local grocery store chains, automobiles, and consumer electronics. I would also guess the average American doesn’t know much about those corporations; they’re aware of the brand, but clueless about its business machinations. Those companies likely benefit favorably from that dynamic on rankings like this.
For example, we got a new Samsung television this year, and I’m very pleased with it. If I had to list 100 visible companies, Samsung would make my list as a result. I know literally nothing about the Samsung corporation, and would thus make wild guesses if I had to score it on those 7 key reputation factors. (Some of which are very similar to one another and almost impossible to assess from the outside.)
By contrast, there are companies like Disney where the reputation is part and parcel of the brand itself. There are several lifestyle brands like this, that have actual enthusiasts and a wider degree of awareness among the general public. Aside from Disney, companies that come to mind here include Apple, Starbucks, Nike, Tesla, Patagonia, and Trader Joe’s. There are undoubtedly others, as well.
For these companies, movement in the rankings might be much more meaningful. It’s less likely at random, and more likely reflective of how the core audience views the company’s recent actions. (Even then, some of those brands have enjoyed teflon-like reputations in spite of scandals one might think their demos would dislike.)
For its part, Axios attributes Disney’s drop to its political (mis)calculations and controversy in Florida and being “caught between their employees, consumers and politics.” (This poll was conducted right after the Reedy Creek fallout, when it would’ve been freshest in minds. That was a major story beyond the Disney sphere, making national headlines for a while.)
“Disney’s about face shows the reputational hit that comes when the public perceives you as being calculating rather than clear in what you believe in and stand for,” said John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll. Axios’ color commentary suggests Disney’s fall was less about taking a position, and more about the approach that alienated just about everyone in the process.
Given the current politicization of everything and hyper partisanship, some people will no doubt use these survey results to vindicate their preexisting beliefs about Disney’s forays into social issues. That is undermined at least to some extent by the rankings of countless companies that have likewise taken stances on social and political issues.
Patagonia, which ranks #4 on the list, is among America’s most activist corporations, loudly proclaiming its political labels (literally). On the other end of the spectrum is the #28 ranking Chick-fil-A. As noted above, it fell considerably, but not for any recent issues–it still scores incredibly highly for trust and ethics. Other high ranking companies have been embroiled in social and political problems, including Amazon, Kroger, Publix, Netflix, Nike, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and Hobby Lobby all rank highly.
With that said, what is possible is that Disney going back and forth on saying/not saying something, and then publicly injecting itself into Florida politics, and then Chapek getting into a high-profile fight with Governor DeSantis, and then the squabble over Reedy Creek took a toll and tarnished Disney’s reputation. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that it did.
That whole saga started in mid-February and dragged on until late April, with major headlines on a weekly basis. It was a major news story for two-plus months, and one that definitely refuted the notion that any publicity is good publicity. Disney’s hamfisted approach managed to alienate and aggravate virtually everyone regardless of their allegiances in the culture war. Perhaps Chapek should be praised for managing the rare feat of bringing unity…in disliking him!
Jokes about Chapek aside, other companies are better at playing one side. Consequently, their losses with one group are offset by gains with the other. Disney seems to have found the rare “sweet spot” of pissing off both. Nike, Chick-fil-A, Starbucks, Hobby Lobby, Patagonia, and others have not done this. In fact, I cannot think of any major company that has–especially not one as universally beloved as Disney.
Critically, these brands run the political gamut. It’s not as if one viewpoint is doing poorly while the other is excelling. There are popular catchphrases suggesting companies fail as a result of their political or social stances, there is zero data to support that. Only a handful of outliers when brands have become proxies for political identities, and none of the aforementioned companies qualify as having done that.
To that point, it seems like every time a new movie is released, one end of the spectrum calls for its boycott. This has even happened with two of this year’s billion-dollar box office darlings, Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water. Despite hundreds of thousands of “likes” on social media expressing solidarity with these boycotts, there was a negligible (at best) impact on their success. When movies actually do bomb–like Lightyear or Strange World–it’s viewed as vindication. The boycott worked! (Nevermind decades of experience demonstrating that boycotts are seldom successful at impacting revenue.)
The same thing happens when certain stocks drop on days when the broader market or that segment is also down. Rather than looking at the bigger picture, many people view that as evidence to support their preconceptions. There couldn’t possibly be any other explanation aside from the boycott bearing fruit and investors jumping ship. (Institutional investors do not care; they are not influenced by emotion.)
The reality is that most Americans are not hyper partisans and will not give up something they’d otherwise enjoy for the sake of political sport. That might work with the terminally online or those who watch cable “news” for 8 hours per day, but not with ordinary Americans.
The number of people who wanted to see Tom Cruise do cool jet stuff but refrained because it supports the military industrial complex (lol) or because the Na’vi are culturally appropriating (from the historically oppressed…blue alien cats?) numbers in the dozens, not hundreds of thousands. Most of the outraged were upset about something they never had any intention of seeing.
Suffice to say, boycotts from those at both extremes of the political spectrum are nothing new, and have yet to be any major corporation’s undoing. That’s because they occur at the fringes, among a vocal minority–much louder in voice than they are large in numbers. The overwhelming majority of Americans simply do not care, and instead consume products they enjoy and value, without regard for their purported positions. The bottom line is that if a movie or television show is fun and good, that’s all that matters for most people.
When it comes to Disney’s box office bombs, the real issue could be that one of those movies looked like a Toy Story knock-off, replaced the beloved Tim Allen-voiced version of an iconic character, and couldn’t even justify its own existence. No one was begging for a contrived ‘real life’ origin story about a toy.
The other follows in a long-line of science fiction flops for Disney, and received lower-than-normal audience scores even from those who chose to see it. (With Strange World, the ‘other side’ will argue that it flopped because Disney failed to market it–but is it instead possible that Disney made the business decision not to market it because audience tracking was anemic, and they knew the movie was destined to flop regardless? Throwing good money after bad and all that?)
This is not to say people don’t boycott things. It’s also not to say boycotts are pointless. As a consumer, there is no more powerful voice you have than your dollars; “voting with your wallet” sends a more powerful message than simply shouting about boycotts. There’s also something to be said for supporting businesses that align with your own values, and not doing business with those that do not.
This is simply to say that boycotts typically do not happen in sufficiently significant numbers to impact financials in a material way. Movies with messages succeeding is proof positive of this, as is the failure of movies without messages. When in doubt, employ Occam’s razor. Morbius didn’t flop because it offended the highly-influential vampire lobby. It flopped because it sucked (figuratively). Or so I’ve heard. As with Lightyear and Strange World, I haven’t seen it due to a lack of interest. (Apologies for the rant, but this has been coming up way too often on social media and it’s utterly exhausting.)
The data backs this up. Even as Disney has sustained undeniable reputational and brand damage, the company continues to outperform in consumer-facing ways. Disney+ has beat subscriber growth expectations each of the last several quarters, including the one encompassing the Reedy Creek controversy. This has happened even as its competitors, like Netflix, have stumbled at maintaining growth and avoiding churn.
The real issue for Disney+ has been how much money the nascent streaming service has burned through to achieve that growth, resulting in losses of roughly $1.5 billion in the most recent quarter and around $1 billion in the quarters prior to that. But that has absolutely nothing to do with boycotts–it’s largely due to out of control spending on content. (The company knew from the outset that Disney+ wouldn’t be profitable until 2024, but the staggering expenses and shifting Wall Street expectations have shifted the dynamic.)
Then there are the theme parks. I don’t think anyone who has spent any amount of time in the parks the last couple of years would say there are any signs of a fruitful boycott. Prices are up (considerably), but the parks are still packed. For all of the changes that have negatively impacted the guest experience, people are still visiting in droves.
This is not intended as “proof” that Disney is on the right track or doesn’t have underlying issues–just that the assorted real-world controversies have not meaningfully impacted the parks’ financials in the last few years. With that said, we’ve repeatedly harped on the company prioritizing short-term success over cultivating an audience of loyal, long-term fans. From our perspective, this is the crux of the actual issue for the Walt Disney Company.
Back in 2018 we published Is Walt Disney World Eroding Fan Goodwill? That four year old assessment could’ve been written yesterday–but would be twice as long if it were! The nickel and diming has become more egregious, fans are increasingly disillusioned, and guest satisfaction has decreased significantly as a result.
In fact, we’ve written about the long-term reputational damage on several occasions resulting from these practices. Variations of the following are from posts in 2019, 2020, and 2022: At this point, it would seem that price increases will continue unabated until the next economic downturn. Given the staggering number of “Most Expensive Day Ever” and “#BROKE” shirts (among hundreds of other similar Etsy designs) visible in the parks right now, we think Walt Disney World has a serious pricing reputation and perception problem.
However, as long as consumer confidence remains high, people will pay the prices…and then spend even more to wear shirts complaining about said prices. The serious issue will come down the road when people are not feeling so hot about their economic circumstances and future.
At that point, it’s a question of whether discounting will be enough to incentivize guests to return, or if irreparable brand damage will have been done during the last decade or so of increases. We don’t have an answer to that–no one does–but it’s definitely something about which we’re curious.
Those are the things that really have me worried when it comes to Disney’s reputation. If I were an executive walking around the parks seeing all of those Etsy shirts, I would be very concerned about public perception–and would want to make efforts to undo that. That’s not to say prices should be lowered or Disney should cease to be a profit-minded business. But some of the cash grabs are so blatant, unnecessary, and–ultimately–counterproductive.
As much as I like the concept of Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, I think it has done more harm than good. So many headlines (rightfully) focus on its cost, with the “hotel” receiving outsized attention for what’s ultimately a niche offering that won’t do much for Disney’s bottom line. Same goes for the $100,000 private jet Disney Parks worldwide “adventure” that garnered a ton of attention despite having only 75 slots. Ditto the new subdivision Disney is attaching its brand to on the outskirts of Palm Springs.
All of this will make money, to be sure, but even the upside is incredibly limited due to the limited market or capacity for all of these things. More importantly, there’s a non-monetary cost to all of this in terms of brand damage. It reinforces the erroneous-but-widespread belief among many fans that Disney now only caters to the wealthy.
I’m not alone in being more concerned about all of this. There have been recent reports that Bob Iger was “alarmed” by Walt Disney World and Disneyland price increases. “He’s killing the soul of the company,” said Iger about Chapek on more than one occasion. This refrain might as well have come from Walt Disney World and Disneyland fans, as it echoes so much sentiment shared here over the last couple of years.
This is not to absolve Iger from blame. Again, our article questioning whether Walt Disney World was eroding fan goodwill was written in 2018, during the first Iger regime. Unpopular decisions were made under Iger then, more likely would’ve continued in the last few years, and more are probably on the horizon. The key distinction is that Chapek did an unprecedented amount of damage in a short span, and did so without much regard for the guest experience or perception of fans.
This much should be fairly self-evident when comparing consumer sentiment polls and the past Harris surveys from the Iger days to the Chapek era. For all of our collective complaints during those years, the Walt Disney Company enjoyed a sterling reputation–ranking near the top of every reputational list–before Iger stepped down as CEO.
There’s a reason so many fans are happy to have Bob Iger back, and it’s not because we have the memories of gnats. It’s because he was generally a good leader–warts and all–who cared about the company, its history, future, and fans. Not all of his decisions were beloved, but he also seemed to be building up the company, rather than burning a 100-year old empire to the ground as expeditiously as possible. But I digress–we’ve discussed this to death in countless other posts.
The good news is that, as intimated above, Chapek is gone and Iger is back. Already, there are signs that Disney and Florida are going to reconcile, and Reedy Creek will not be dissolved. The lawmaker who drafted the law to dissolve RCID said that “Chapek screwed up, but Bob Iger doesn’t have to own that screw-up.”
His personal politics aside, Iger has a defter touch and is more diplomatic than Chapek. As a whole, the company likely learned the limits of its influence, and what to avoid. To whatever extent that controversy hurt the Disney brand this year, the worst is almost certainly in the rearview mirror.
On top of that, the general public does have short memories when it comes to brand controversies. In spending way too much time studying the Harris 100 lists between 2019 and 2022, one thing that became clear to me was that most damage is not fatal. Negative headlines are most impactful the closer they coincide with the survey window, and become increasingly irrelevant as time passes.
Multiple companies have bounced back the year after big scandals, forgotten from memories as the outrage du jour long since moved on to something else. Unless a company is out there regularly spilling oil on baby seals, reputational recovery typically occurs. Long-standing image and general business practices matter a lot more than temporary mistakes. As should be the case–ethics and missteps are not the same.
However, this also means that ongoing issues that have soured consumers on Walt Disney World and Disneyland will continue to take a reputational toll. Given that Iger is aware of this–and extended an olive branch of sorts with his letter to fans and the Cast Member Town Hall–it’s likely he will make efforts to undo some of Chapek’s damage. As we’ve written before, Bob Iger believes in the ‘magic’ of Disney and understands what fans and employees need and crave from the company’s leader.
What Iger will do to repair tensions between the company and consumers is unclear. As covered in this List of Positive Changes CEO Bob Iger Could Make to “Fix” Walt Disney World, there’s some low-hanging fruit. However, there are also changes that Iger will be hard-pressed to make given how the company’s streaming services are hemorrhaging money.
What Iger could do is work to improve the guest experience, so we’re not hit with price increases and corner-cutting simultaneously. People can generally handle one or the other, but not both. At least, not without feeling ripped off. If the company wants to actually “exceed the highest expectations” of fans (in Iger’s words) and maintain its status as a premium brand and industry leader in theme parks, hopefully it will improve the experience and offer an unparalleled experience commensurate with the high price points. Avoiding unnecessary controversies, alienating everyone, and being openly antagonistic to consumers seem like other obvious and good ways to start raising Disney’s brand ranking. Here’s hoping for more of that, and a less outrage-inducing 2023 for Disney!
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What’s your take on Disney’s declining reputation? Think the company can bounce back with a less controversial leader? Will the price increases, nickel & diming, and other unpopular decisions result in continued decline? Think Iger’s superior diplomacy with Cast Members, fans, politicians, etc. will yield better results?
Regardless of your perspective on the reasons for Disney’s brand damage, please keep the comments civil. This is not the place for politically-charged arguing, antagonism, personal attacks, or perpetuating pointless culture wars. There’s a way to tactfully convey points touching on politics and social issues without being disrespectful or disparaging. We will be heavy-handed in deleting comments that cross the line or are lacking in decorum, without regard for their viewpoint. If you wish to rudely shout your anger into the internet abyss, that’s why Facebook was invented.
I have to say Tom, maybe you have more insight on this than me, I think I’ve seen other commenters mention that you’re a lawyer?
Re: the Reedy Creek issues. I understand that people have differing opinions on the bill. As a gay person it’s hard for me to understand the “other side” but I acknowledge that they exist, fine.
What I’m not understanding is, on all the Disney Parks blogs, how the overarching narrative isn’t that…Bob Chapek, whether anyone likes him or not, or how they feel about this bill, is an American who has a right to freedom of speech without government retaliation.
I don’t understand how Desantis using the levers of government to attack his business for his personal statements is even remotely constitutional. And I would think that would go above and beyond anything ideological or identity-based — That this is just something that’s not supposed to happen in the USA, because of the first amendment, no matter your beliefs.
Like…you’re supposed to be allowed to disagree with a politician. What is happening here?
Tom, I just have to compliment you on the brilliant photo of each member of the crowd facing away from Cinderella Castle.
Dystopian, Hitchcock, or each guest frozen and not knowing which way to go. It is actually cryptic and open to discussion. Thanks !!
I can only speak for myself my families to go to Disneyland for Christmas every year but this last year because of the terrible ticket price increases and things we had seen in the news. We were concerned that we wouldn’t get the same experience so I’m actually bought passes to universal Hollywood and the for these passes I can go for a whole year for it it would be for a one day ticket at Disneyland with my kids and I went for Christmas and we absolutely loved it. We had a great time and now we have four trips planned universal this year and I think it’s unfortunate that Disney is taking the direction it has but you know with inflation my rent going up I can’t afford these tickets and if universals gonna offer me a day where I just I just wanna be with my kids you know I just wanna be with my kids and a theme park it doesn’t have to be Disney.
Enjoyed your insights (and always fascinated by humans in the comments). In this moment, though, the Shades of Green Mickey picture took me back to my “Disney home”. Happy New Year!
It all boils down to value. Many are perfectly fine with spending 3k to upwards of 15k for an awesome vacation. We spent about 10k each trip total with flights. It is all about expectations about the Disney vacation and what it was. We are not getting anywhere near an awesome vacation now. It is a grind and we are getting milked out of thousands of hard earned dollars. I don’t care about politics when I go on vacation. I just want value and to have a great vacation.
Yes, Disney better get it together quick or I’ll just keep my $25,000 it takes to go to Disney for a week for 4 of us., it’s so simple! Do a fast pass like every other park in Florida, bring back the all inclusive plans for one price, bring back the magical express. Airport luggage check in from the resorts. All those simple perks is what made it so fun to spend that crazy amount of money.
One point, in line with your comment about the private jet or the Star Wars experience. Disney has alway had upgrades and exclusives, maybe they were just more judicious in whom they marketed and where. I had to dig for some of the upgraded events, such as exclusive safaris, wine tastings, pic-nics, and tours or call a cast member/vacation planner in the know. Today, the information seems more readily available and seen which might give the appearance that Disney is courting more exclusive dollars at the expense of the middle class.
Disney has never been cheap but value has always ben important. Middle class Americans don’t mind spending they just don’t want to be seen as being suckers. We want value.
Longer story, I returned from a deployment in 2010. After being separated from my family for 5 months, I was determined to do something special. A friend, told me of the nice things Disney did for the military and I ran with it. I was no fanboy by any means. However, after a fabulous trip where Disney Service and Value shined, I(we) was hooked. It wasn’t IP or exclusives that captured our hearts and wallets. It was something we thought we couldn’t find anywhere else, Disney Magic. That magic materialize in several forms, Magic in how Disney treated my family, Magic in theming, service and consistency. Each trip, we upgraded, invested more: 1st Coronado, then French Quarter, Animal Kingdom Lodge (twice), Polynesian, Old Key West, 2 Bedroom Villa, Wilderness Lodge, 2 bedroom lock-off, (during covid), last trip we stayed at a rental off-site (huge group). However, it seems that what we held important: theming, service and consistency was diminishing. Not only that but visiting was becoming more complicated. Genie+ while not impossible, it is certainly more difficult than the paper passes of 2010. Getting reservations seems more difficult. I’ve had more luck as a walk-up than with the resi system. We’re talking usually 6 or more people. Same with many rides. While the paper system was imperfect, I am sure no-one was clamoring for the current system that relies on cell-phone batteries and signal.
Last thing, I’m not sure who green lit Strange World or why but they need to be grounded in the Disney Vault. That story has been told, retold, and resold so many times that any number of such stories could have re-released in the theater with much better results and less financial ramifications than Strange World. Unless of course Disney needed a tax write-off. It could be a fine movie. (I haven’t seen it but based on plot summaries I have seen many like it.) However, hard to imagine this project would drive the Disney brand or bottom line in any impactful way.
I actually wish Disney would do more cash grabs like the $100,000 jet adventure. That’s something that makes them money, it doesn’t effect me at all, and rich people get to feel special and exclusive. I would much rather they do things like that than charge for Fastpass+ and parking at the resorts or take away things like free transportation to and from the airport.
The magic is not calling it’s fading. Disney seems to have lost its ability for great storytelling and imagination which is at the very heart of the magic they purport to sell. Most of the new content on Disney plus is not great. I can see why it’s failing. The experience in the parks feels lessened as well. More cost with less availability and more rigidity. The masses feel this. It’s not just alcohol fueling fights and guest rudeness to cast members. It’s the feeling of paying for something extraordinary only to receive something mediocre. That makes tensions high, especially in our current economy. The parks are dirty, cast members unfriendly(and I understand why). I understand the need for raises, new attractions have to be built etc… but Disney has navigated these waters more efficiently in the past without alienating the very people that have made the brand such a success. The political embroilments need to go also… Disney has the ability to provide the same experience for everyone without all the public political skirmishes. Disney has been a place to escape for many of us. A place to visit without the harsh realities of life being shoved in your face.
My first family trip was in 2015. It was amazing. We bought DVC. On our last trip this year I did not have a single magical day. It was a high cost with little substance. I felt tired. Tired of spending money and navigating genie plus all day. I have done a lot of complaining and have little advice to offer Disney except that they must find balance. They have to give consumers substance. If they don’t replace what people feel is being taken from them by the parks or the quality of the entertainment/products they are producing, the Disney bubble will burst for many. This is a beloved company. I hope this is just a phase and Iger and co. figure out the answer before all sentimental nostalgia is gone and the “Disney Experience” no longer means anything.
When comparing how other corporations have been affected by political/headline issues, it should be remembered that Disney is a very different animal from the typical product manufacturer or marketer. Disney’s product is pure emotion not ketchup. For decades the word “Disney” has meant to consumers an escape from real world issues to a faraway childlike place of reassurance, fantasy and nostalgia. The brand is based in Walt’s own works and passions and optimistic outlook. By bringing the brand “down to Earth” by addressing current cultural issues instead of timeless, universal themes – the rebrand message creates a disconnect from generations of consistent messaging. That makes consumers feel insecure – and when adding financial exploitation to the mix – creates a push-back response. Just like Coke, executives need to rediscover what the world has always seen as “classic Disney” — and the only way to do that is through creative people who truly believe in bringing dreams to life. Then the money follows. As the company’s history shows, “relevance” is overrated.
I disagree the brand damage is over, you can’t walk back price hikes that have been implemented and raises to cast members to in-turn reduce prices the guest pay quickly or maybe ever. These costs to the company are now here to stay and must be passed on to the consumer via increases or cutting of services. Many people like us remember the 2017-2019 days of getting hotel discounts, meal plan, package shipping to resorts and the overall magic, these are now gone and probably not coming back. Iger’s hands are tied like never before, and has only so many levers to pull. IMO they need employees who care about Walt’s vision of family values and entertainment and escaping the current world/environment for a few days, not be hit over the head with activism (either way) and just feel the magic. If you are in the parks you are on vacation to a point and everyone is there to be entertained or spend time with people they care for, the focus should be on people wanting to come back and not fleecing them for one time and then tossing them aside.
Entertainment wise Yellowstone, Maverick, terminal list, etc. all performed amazingly, maybe Disney should remember people want to be entertained and not told how to approach life, leave that to twitter.
I must be losing my marbles. How is Disney telling people how to live or being political at the parks? Having some rainbow tshirts for sale? Is that it? Nonsense.
Great article and thoughts. No question Disney’s reputation has taken a hit but I don’t completely agree with the reasons:
First, in terms of the theme parks: I think the on-property perk cutbacks are slightly exaggerated. Yes, EMH is gone. But you have early entry at every park, every day, plus Deluxe guests get extended hours weekly at MK and Epcot. On-site transportation has added the skyliner, really increasing the value of a stay at CBR and the connected values. And while there has been some disappointments in recent Disney renovations (Carousel Coffee, Contemporary rooms), there have been successes as well (Riviera reviews may be mixed but it is certainly a gorgeous resort, the Contemporary lobby was very well done).
The BIG problem with on-site stays in the MASSIVE increase in pricing. When I started taking my family of 4 to Disney 10 years ago, an entire week in a deluxe property + tickets was about $3500-$4500. That price has increased MUCH faster than inflation. Just 1-week park hopper tickets for a family of 4 are now over $3,000. With park hopper tickets, not even counting food and transportation, a Disney deluxe weeklong trip for a family of 4 is now easily $8,000 to $10,000. Add in food and transportation, you may easily be at $15,000. That’s not really a middle class family trip anymore.
So where a middle class family could get a “deluxe” Disney trip 10 years ago, maybe now they can afford a non-park hopper, non-Genie, value/mod trip. So they are taking a lesser trip than a middle class family would have gotten a decade ago.
Losing Magic Express is bad. But having to step down from a stay at the Polynesian to a stay at Pop is even worse.
The other thing “ruining Disney” is the increased divisiveness of our culture. Even almost 10 years ago when Frozen was released… everyone could enjoy it as wholesome family entertainment, regardless of your cultural politics. Now, every such movie is ripped apart as “too woke” for some, “lacking enough inclusion” for others. If Beauty and the Beast was re-released today, it would be criticized for the lack of diversity. If Princess and the Frog was released today, it would be slammed by the right for giving in to wokeness. No matter what they do, they will face significant cultural backlash from a significant portion of the population.
For decades, Disney was proficient at “pleasing everyone” with their entertainment offerings. But now, they are starting to move to not being able to please anyone. That’s not really Disney’s fault. It’s about culture. But Chapek was really especially bad at navigating this worsening path.
So the “full” Disney theme park experience is starting to price out the middle class. Culture divide has made it harder and harder to please everyone. To me, those are the biggest (but not only) drivers to Disney’s reputation problems.
“The other thing ‘ruining Disney’ is the increased divisiveness of our culture.”
I agree with most of your comment, as well as this sentence. I think that has dialed up the temperature on social media, and it certainly doesn’t help that there’s a cottage industry for manufactured outrage. You’re also right about the aforementioned movies being “controversial” in today’s age.
Where I disagree is that it actually matters to most people. There was “controversy” around Encanto and the live action Beauty and the Beast, among several others that performed well. I don’t doubt that Frozen and other films would somehow be “controversial” to some.
If released today for the first time, despite the purported controversies, all would perform well at the box office (whatever that means right now for animated films). Sure, there would be anger on social media…but that’s never going to stop. People looking to find reason for outrage in everything will no doubt continue to succeed at that task.
I would argue that there’s a growing “exhausted majority” who are fed up with that on both sides, and are ignoring it more and more. (Perhaps I’m just an optimist, but I also think divisiveness has peaked and is trending downward. It’s certainly not “good” by historical standards, but I don’t think it’s as bad today as it was even 6 months ago.)
The Princess and the Frog would not be slammed for giving Into the woke. It’s topics in movies that the majority of parents do not feel is appropriate for the age related audience.
“First, in terms of the theme parks: I think the on-property perk cutbacks are slightly exaggerated. Yes, EMH is gone. But you have early entry at every park, every day, plus Deluxe guests get extended hours weekly at MK and Epcot. On-site transportation has added the skyliner, really increasing the value of a stay at CBR and the connected values. ”
This is an important point. Obviously I’d love to have magical express back, but the benefits of staying on property are still plenty. In addition to the Disney theming (some of which could use some work, admittedly—looking at some of the blandness we are seeing lately) you get the free transportation and the early entry which is NOT nothing.
It’s tragic that the mere presence of POC or LGBTQ+ people is deemed “political” in any way. The right to equal representation and fair treatment for minorities who’ve historically AND presently been discriminated against should not be positioned as a political football. And I’m particularly dismayed by the misconception that if a gay teen is included or a same-sex couple is portrayed in a Disney movie the same way a straight teen or heterosexual couple is, it is inherently “sexualized” and thus not “family-friendly”. Reading the comments here has been really depressing as a LGBTQ+ POC. Never been more disillusioned with the Disney fandom. If Iger’s fix is to pander to those opposed to POC and LGBTQ+ folks, then I am out.
Several years ago, Disneyland did market research to determine how to broaden its appeal among local demographics it was not capturing to the same degree as others. The result of that was Viva Navidad and Lunar New Year, among other things. While initially aimed at one audience, they’ve grown into big draws in general (especially Lunar New Year, which is a standalone event and not part of the larger holiday season).
I would hazard a guess something similar occurred with movie and television audiences, which explains a lot of the studio output since ~2016. Between that and corporate culture, I cannot imagine that changing because a vocal minority shout about it on the internet. Certain movies underperforming is no doubt concerning, but as covered in the post, there are much more plausible explanations for that than boycotts.
I am disappointed by the theme of many comments here regarding sexual orientation and whether it should be included in certain movies. If parents want to hide their children away from the realities of the world, then go for it. On the other hand, there are many parents who welcome the diversity as it leads to wonderful, non-threatening, and brave conversations with their children. They can grow up and develop as who they are and strive to be, as opposed to some ideal their parents have for them. So for me the movie stuff is not even an issue for the Disney image. It’s all about the parks and how they’ve cluster$%&*÷# over thr past 5 years.
Jay, I am in exactly the same boat as you (gay POC), and some of the comments on this blog are depressing. But then I’ll see others that give me hope, and I honestly believe the actual majority of people (especially younger generations) support the inclusion or honesty don’t care either way as long as the movie is entertaining. Let’s not forget, Iger made his stance on the Florida bill *very* clear basically from the get go and the overwhelming majority of Disney fans are glad to have him back in charge.
Throwing in my support here. I don’t see any issue with Disney having representation in their movies. Folks who call it indoctrination, or see it as Disney telling them how to raise their kids (or the weirdest of all call it sexualization) probably didn’t watch the movies they are judging. A lot of the rhetoric is likely passed along through various channels (news, social media, social circles) rather than watching and judging for themselves.
I may get ripped up for this but perhaps the reason some parents take issue with the inclusion of gay characters is due to situations like the Disney producer who said on a leaked video that she was putting in as much gay content as she could to push her “agenda” (her word not mine). This is very different from just organically having gay characters. Now it’s an agenda. Our household has no issue with inclusive characters but if we did, having someone else’s “agenda” inserted into a cartoon would be very off putting.
I’m not sure why an “agenda” of inclusiveness is bad if you have “no issue” with inclusiveness.
@Leslie: actually what I said was our household has no issues but IF WE DID…. I’m simply wondering if being pushed as an agenda is what might upset those who do have issues.
Also very disillusioned with some of my fellow fans lately. It’s like they didn’t even watch the movies. Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Lion King, Pocahontas, Beauty & the Beast, Toy Story, Hunchback, Hercules, Mulan, Tarzan, Emperor’s New Groove, Monsters Inc, Zootopia, Luca, Princess Diaries, Lilo & Stitch, Frozen, Frozen 2, WALL-E, High School Musical, Tangled, Big Hero 6, the Star Wars movies, Moana, Encanto, all these movies been about inclusiveness, non judgement, not judging a book by it’s cover, standing up against bullies, fighting against oppression, fascist dictators are bad, be yourself, let people be themselves, it’s OK to be different, togetherness is better than division, be guided by positivity instead of hate, take care of the environment, difference is good — Why do people think there are so many gay fans in the first place?? I don’t know how you could love these movies AND feel the way some of them do about their fellow humans.
Politics aside, value is really the main stumbling block at the WDW and DL. Yes, in the past they have been able to not offend both side of the aisle but we both know this is not the problem, Disney has taken the first steps by ridding themselves of their biggest problem (stumbling block): Mr. Chapek! Is Mr. Iger the answer? Yet to be seen but perception can go a long way to smooth the road a bit. Will WDW prices go down? Probably not. Will quality and perks erode more? That, I think, is what will “turn the tide” or “sink the ship” for guests and potential guests. “Muse” means “to think”, “a” means “not” or “not to”. I work a stressful career and when I want to get away from the stress I want “amuse”ment and so I go to WDW. May the ship be righted and so I can take “the second star to the right and straight on til morning!” I’m never gonna grow up!
I think my biggest complaint is really the in park experience. I enjoy planning a trip to WDW – mapping out the general plans for each day (within reason) – which even in the halcyon days was required. I don’t like all the price increases but I can rationalize the cost if I have a great time on the trip. But once I get to WDW, and especially once I walk through the front gate of a theme park – I don’t want to plan anymore – I’m there to enjoy myself. On that front, Genie + is a disaster. It intrudes into the heart of the trip. It’s the very worst iteration of queue management systems by a significant margin and also con$tantly remind$ you of extra add-on co$T$. The restrictions on park hopping really hurts too – it’s one of the few ways to have some spontaneity within the day. Biggest of all though is the in-park experience. If a trip is going to require ever more planning, cost more and be more restrictive – well, it had better be a great experience. If it’s not (and our main day in the MK on a short trip was definitely not) then it’s quite reasonable to question the effort and cost involved to have a mediocre time.
Agree completely! The ‘work’ should not begin when you get there. That defeats the purpose. By the end of a 7-day trip, and getting up at 7am each & every day for genie+, I was a walking zombie by week end. Definitely not doing that again. Until I can plan most of the big items beforehand (like we all once could) it’s just not worth it. When you pay more $$ for an experience that’s more exhausting & more stressful…..it’s a lesser quality experience & an unfulfilled expensive vacation. Now that my kids are getting older, I’ll only go back when they fix this.
And the experience at Epcot in the evening feels honestly…seedy? I’m there with my kids (and I am no puritan we enjoy our adult fun) and drunken bands of 20-somethings are roaming around screaming “Epcot is dead tonight let’s get litty titty” and behaving exactly as if they were in a bar? Like, have your fun, but it’s pretty at-odds with Epcot which I recall was supposed to be a mini-cultural exploration. I didn’t feel like my kids—who aren’t babies, belonged there. And this was a Thursday.
Encouraging the bar culture at Epcot is ruining a favorite park.
Disney should focus on quality, family friendly entertainment, not activist political agendas. And what happened to originality & creativity? Why all the unimpressive remakes and sequels? If Disney stuck to it’s age-old winning formula & family friendly non-sexualized content, it could continue to excel.
Staying neutral regarding politics would definitely help them. No matter what side a company takes, they risk alienating half of their customer base. Wise companies just focus on providing a quality service/ product, not pushing their personal activist agenda. I believe Disney will continue it’s decline with Iger, but perhaps since he’s more diplomatic, the decline will be more gradual instead of the implosion brought on under Chapek.
Ruth, I agree with everything you’ve said. My husband and I would always opt for a Disney vacation over pretty much any other destination, but now the ‘magic’ and inclusiveness that was Disney has gone. It use to feel like we were part of one big, happy family. Now we feel more like the uninvited guests. We want to get away from politics, not be reminded of it. Disney use to be an escape from reality, a place of good, clean, family fun. It’s now lost that innocence. We’ll be taking our vacations and money elsewhere from now on.
I think the “politics” you think Disney is shoving in your face is probably really coming from the “news” and social media sites you frequent. The parks themselves do not put forward any political agenda unless you’re bringing your own biases.
Unfortunately, In the nostalgic times of the past when you felt welcomed and included, a great many of us were feeling unwelcome and excluded. Diversity is not an activist agenda – it’s a timeless value that countless Disney movies have taught us that we are stronger with – whatever the color of our skin or the color of our souls. I am not a fad – I’m a person, and the love I have for my partner is not sexualized content (especially since I’m Ace). This is what family friendly looks like now, has looked like for years, and will continue to look like in the future.
Just a thought…companies often bring in a “cut and slash” man when tough decisions need to be made for the bottom line. Then the hero comes in to “save the day”and bring the company back to its former glory…all, however, part of the master plan. Not to sound bitter and jaded but this is exactly what seems to have happened here. Disney did what it needed to do for its bottom line. When have you ever seen so many extremely unpopular changes made in such a short period of time. Now, all of a sudden, like magic, Chapek is gone and Iger is back to bring everyone back to the “brand”. Disney does not seem to have taken such a financial hit yet based upon crowds but if its anything like us, we are going in May for our last trip with the money we already had saved for our 2019 trip that was cancelled due to COVID. I wonder if a lot of people are doing the same, still riding the “revenge travel” wave with already saved Disney money. I must say I am heading there with a certain amount if dread with all the changes and am worried that our last trip will be our worst.
Wow…that Disney promotional video you posted really hit home. Just wow.