In November, the proverbial wishing star really came through for Disney fans. The company's boardroom power struggles culminated in the abrupt firing of former CEO Bob Chapek. Many Disney fans cheered, believing their dearest dreams had come true and their beloved Disney theme parks would soon be restored to their former glory.
For a while now, we've been telling you about the slow deterioration of the Disney vacation product, chronicling reports about the declining pleasures, fading "magic," and dwindling value of a trip to Disney's American theme park resorts.
The New York Times reported that Bob Iger was reinstalled as CEO in an emergency measure after the company's board determined Chapek had done "irreparable damage to his ability to lead." Many Disney devotees thought Chapek was to blame for irreparable damage to the Disney product, too.
The stormy backstory of Chapek's hasty disposal was covered in lurid soap opera detail by the big financial publications, but a close examination of the current state of Disney parks suggests that a forced changing of the guard won't soon fix much of what's ailing Disney as a vacation choice.
The factors that are flattening the formerly fizzy Disney vacation experience have origins that predate the ravages of Covid-19 closures or any one executive's personality. The warning signs of coming decline have systemic origins—and those warning signs could affect the quality of a future vacation spent at a Disney resort in the United States.
Problem: No attractions of substance are being built.
As of this spring, there will be no major new attractions on the horizon at any of the Disney resorts in the United States.
Meanwhile, Disney's main competitor, Universal, is set for a February debut of a major park expansion, Super Nintendo World, in Hollywood. In Orlando, Universal will finish construction on a cutting-edge new theme park, Epic Universe, in two years.
As detailed by author James B. Stewart in 2005's DisneyWar, the first years of this century were a notoriously troubled period at the Walt Disney Company that saw a hostile takeover attempt by Universal parent Comcast and the ouster of Disney CEO Michael Eisner by Roy E. Disney. But despite the uncertainty, the company still managed to pump out major new projects at an exciting clip: Disney's California Adventure park (2001), Mission: Space (2003), Florida's Soarin' (2005), Expedition Everest (2006), Toy Story Midway Mania (2008), a major expansion of Fantasyland in Florida (2012), and Cars Land at Disney California Adventure (2012) all marched into place with thrilling regularity.
But in 2023, once Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway opens at Disneyland this month and Tron Lightcycle Run (pictured below) opens at Magic Kingdom this spring, there's nothing big in the publicly announced pipeline. And even those rides are clones of ones that already existed elsewhere.
Considering how long it takes Disney to build things, that lag should be a huge factor for vacationers trying to decide whether to favor Universal instead. Disney took half a decade to build Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, a roller coaster that opened at Florida's Epcot last year, and Tron Lightcycle Run, amazingly, will have taken nearly six years.
For the past three years, the heart of Orlando's Epcot theme park has been reduced to a massive, unsightly construction crater, while the company has spent the last half decade changing its mind about what ought to go there.
Even if Disney sinks shovels in the ground for a big new ride tomorrow, at the current productivity pace that attraction wouldn't be ready for the market until 2028—handing Universal a three-year head start at gobbling up attendance share with fresher appeal.
Instead of making important capital investments, Disney is using its platforms of ABC and Disney+ to flog a series of promotional periods like the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the company. But heavy promotion can't mask the lack of substance.
Instead of getting new rides or expansions, vacationers will mostly get puffery about inexpensive Band-Aids like temporary decorations for the castles, new costumes for Mickey and other characters, minor embellishments like a Moana-themed walk-through area at Epcot, and revised or revived parades and fireworks shows that come and go.
Why has Disney grown so stagnant? Blame a recent corporate shopping spree. Disney became bloated with debt after purchasing 21st Century Fox for more than $50 billion in 2017, and a large portion of company resources is going to servicing that debt. Instead of folding investment back into its theme parks as it had always done, Disney is paying down its Fox acquisition and using the rest of its funds to grind out new shows to help get the Disney+ streaming service off the ground.
Disney Parks routinely pull in billions in revenue, but other parts of the corporation are sucking up the benefits. The parks are being used as a cash cow to pay for other obligations, and the cow is being drained of milk.
Unless Iger decides to liberate the company balance sheet by selling off a crucial asset (ESPN or Hulu come to mind), money will probably continue to be diverted from the parks and the Disney vacation experience will continue to atrophy.(Photo credit: Disney Parks)
Problem: The parks are in bad shape.
Disney's dramatic reduction of parks investment is showing up in the product. The Mouse may have made its reputation on meticulous, industry-leading maintenance, but that seems to be in decay.
Last month, WDWNT.com published a series of images showing apparently filthy ride vehicles (including the "It's a Small World" boat pictured at the top of this post), documenting just how bad upkeep has gotten. The embarrassing coverage seems to have spurred Disney management into action in select cases; after the photos hit the web, some of the grime was cleaned up.
Other signs of neglect are manifesting through lagging services. Despite promises to the contrary, two of Walt Disney World's four theme parks have not brought back parking trams following their Covid closures. Job cuts and upcoming hiring freezes are widely reported, food portion sizes continue to be reduced despite price hikes, and some entertainment that had been in place for half a century has not been reinstated after pandemic suspensions.
Worse, the customer experience is declining. In November, the Wall Street Journal crunched numbers indicating that ride stoppages and wait times are both on the rise in Disney parks.
Disney objected to that conclusion, but the Journal's discovery matches my own observations. Even though admission and related charges like parking can push the cost of a one-day ticket to Disneyland to $300, on one recent day (October 12), six of the most popular rides at Disneyland Resort were inoperable for all or part of the day, and key features on the newest marquee attraction were broken.
Disney, in its growing cynicism, figured out a way to convert rising customer dissatisfaction over long lines into a new profit center. Last year, the company launched the confusing Genie+ ride reservation system that costs as much as $30 a day to use. But even that optional add-on has metastasized into a negative necessity.
So many customers at Disneyland are using Genie+ as a fail-safe to combat overcrowding that during the holiday season the system's availability sold out by lunchtime.
When your lifeboats fill up, maybe it's a sign your ship is sinking.
Disney's parks have been through tough economic times before. The energy crises of the 1970s slowed Walt Disney World's planned development timeline to a decade-long crawl, yet they still didn’t compromise the parks’ upkeep and day-to-day experience the way modern money crunches seem to be doing.
Problem: Disney is "un-theming" its resorts.
The ranks of Disney's Imagineers, the world-famous brain trust that historically powered the company's best innovations, have been gutted in recent years by brutal layoffs, cost-cutting, and resignations.
As Disney's most creative insiders fled or got fired, they have been replaced by newcomers from other companies who don't seem to understand the specific cultural heritage that has made Disney products so special.
Rather than expanding on the meticulously designed, richly themed hotels that set Disney apart from its competitors—and allowed the company to charge several times more than hotel rooms offered by rivals—the new masters of the company are churning out bland, cheap-looking designs.
Walt Disney World's now-legendary Polynesian Village Resort, an atmospheric collection of low-slung longhouses in the South Pacific style, is about to receive a gleaming new addition that looks more like a cookie-cutter chain hotel's tower than an extension of the property's 51-year-old architectural theme.
This trend of generic-looking modernist décor, which is inflicting blandness on the Disney resorts everywhere from in-park shopping to luxury hotels that are advertised as having more transporting theming, is something Disney reporter Brayden Holness, host of the Mickey Views YouTube channel, has termed "un-theming"—and it illustrates a core misunderstanding of the Disney product from within the company's own ranks.
"Am I right here when I say Disney's creatives have lost the plot?" Holness asked viewers in a video posted December 29. "As they gut the theming from these resorts, we'll reach a point when all that will make Disney Disney is the name—and a printed-out character sticker on an otherwise industry-standard modern room."
When it opened in 1971, Disney's Contemporary Resort was the ne plus ultra of Disney's architectural and design sophistication, and even though it was the Walt Disney World hotel most worth a premium splurge, the rate peaked at $44, or about $324 today.
But a recent "reimagining" slapped a cursory The Incredibles theme on the guest rooms, which in style and form now look as simple, as spare, and as easy to hose down as a motel's.
Does the quality of this room seem worth $988 to you? That's how much it costs for a single night this week.
(Photo credit: Disney Parks)
Problem: Disney is putting families into debt.
Modern Disney apparently thinks it can charge whatever it wants for the cheapest quality possible—and it has good reason to think so.
In December, LendingTree, a financial website, announced the results of an analysis that determined that 18% of families that bought a Disney vacation went into debt to do so.
When nearly 1 in 5 of your customers is racking up debt to buy your product, that might temporarily excite accountants, but it's a troubling sign for longevity in tough times.
This week, the International Monetary Fund warned that in 2023, the economies of a third of the world's nations will be in recession. And in an economic downturn, debt-dependent customers will vanish, as will many international tourists who normally visit the parks.
Once Disney loses the favor of the families who can't afford to go, it will be left with customers who can afford luxury products but will judge Disney accordingly when it falls short. Goodwill can run out, and customers can follow it.
Don't get me wrong: Disney can still do a lot of things very well. It's just that those things are getting much smaller, and they're increasingly not worth the price you pay.
With scanty capital investment, a frustrating park experience, and uninspired storytelling, Disney may soon find it no longer measures up to its own legend. And once that happens, it will become just another empty status symbol. Older generations may mourn what the brand used to represent, but younger ones who don't know any different will accept the shadow as the genuine article.
It happened first to spacious airline travel and to movie palaces. Now Disney's once-iconic, above-and-beyond product is being substituted by a factory-made imitation.
I've been going to Disney parks since the 1970s, and the difference in quality between then and now is stark. The Disney Company now invokes Walt Disney's values for marketing purposes far more often than it actually embodies them.
Rest on your laurels for too long, Disney, and they’ll wilt away to nothing.
In fact, in the eyes of many vacationers, that may have already happened.