Friday, March 24, 2006

Investing in the Future

As of today, Disney's family comedy The Shaggy Dog has grossed about $35 million in the U.S. When all's said and done, the movie will probably wind up making about $80 million worldwide. Add in DVD sales, and it's likely the Tim Allen remake will pull in about $120 million. Not bad, but once you factor in the costs to produce, market and distribute the movie, Disney will make a razor-thin margin.

I'm not a business major nor an economics guru, but it seems odd to me that Disney would make a business decision like producing The Shaggy Dog less than a year after it closed Epcot's Wonders of Life pavilion.

Disney shuttered this massive pavilion less than 20 years after opening it because there was no sponsor. Essentially, Disney wasn't willing to make the financial investment into its own theme park ... yet it's constantly willing to make movies that don't turn a profit and produce TV shows that are canceled after just a few weeks.

Where are Disney's priorities?

The Wonders of Life was originally sponsored by MetLife, and was designed with a motif that would best be branded "late-80s pastel." Just a few years after big hair and Miami Vice fell out of fashion, it's undeniable that the Wonders of Life was horribly outdated. Yet, it contained two undeniably solid attractions: Body Wars and Cranium Command. Each of these embodied the ideals that Epcot was supposed to espouse: They gently educated viewers while entertaining them. (I still imagine my hypothalamus having a sad, drowsy voice.)

Disney basically said, "We don't care about Epcot" when it closed Wonders of Life. Unwilling to spend its own money on its own theme park, Disney instead closed off a major part of Epcot instead of opening its corporate wallet to take control of its own property.

Twenty-five years after Epcot opened, it's undoubtedly harder than ever to find major corporate sponsors. Yet, is the answer simply to shut down those parts of Epcot (or any theme park) that don't have a major financial backer?

With the caveat again that most corporate economics are beyond my understanding, let's not forget that Disney doesn't need corporate sponsorships. The company has spent nearly $40 billion on acquisitions in the past ten years, most of which have proven financially questionable (Fox Family, DIC Entertainment, E!).

So, why is it -- particularly when it comes to Epcot out of all of Disney's theme parks -- the company is so unwilling to invest in attractions that generate higher numbers of visitors and display a commitment to the very businesses upon which it is founded?

Disney seems run by MBAs, and they're hardly the ones to understand or appreciate a park like Epcot. More likely, they are the very audience who thinks it's "boring" and "old-fashioned." So, take it out of their hands. Do the right thing with Epcot -- invest in its optimistic vision of the future.

Don't let Epcot drift further into becoming a sad, sorry shadow of its once-grand and unique presentation of a world of opportunity and excitement. "Sorry, closed for refurbishment" is not the sign of the times we'd all like to see.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Until recently, I had always been a bit put off by the sponsorhips at the Disney parks. I did not want my fun ride to be sullied with ads for whatever big company was putting up money to keep it running. When Star Tours opened at Disneyland in the '80s, part of the fun and attention to detail were the cleverly-designed faux travel posters in the exit hall for places like Yavin, Bespin, and Hoth. When I finally got to re-visit Disneyland shortly after starting work at Disney in '94, those posters had been replaced with very poorly executed posters for Energizer, with the bink bunny traveling through planetscapes and past creatures that had nothing to do with Star Wars.

I spent this past Christmas, as usual, with my parents and my sister. This year, my dad had pulled out our old slides. We hadn't watched these for decades. (That makes me sound old. Yikes!) Some of the slide were taken before my sister and I were even born. One series of slides was from a trip my very young-looking parents took to California in the mid '60s.

There, amongst those slides, were a few of my folks at Disneyland. It was definitely interesting to see what the park looked like back then. I coudl not recognize some locations because they no longer exist. The thing that most interested me was a shot of one of the TWO clipper ships that was on the Rivers of America. (Yep, two. I had no idea!) One of the ships was Chicken of the Sea and had the mermaid mascot of same perched on the front of the boat. You know, those ladies that are at the prow of a ship and must have some name that I can't think of right now?

I realize the Disney has always taken sponsors for its theme park attractions. I saw a very cool book at the Studio about the design of Disneyland, and from the first day, there have been sponsors. It made the concept more palatable to me, and made me realize Walt Disney himself was no dumb guy when it came to corporate strategy and partnerships.

Yet the fact that Disney can't spend its own money to keep attractions alive is pathetic to me. I was at Epcot last year and can't remember if the Wonders of Life pavilion was closed yet or not.

One happy note in all of this: The newly refurbished Space Mountain at Dinseyland has no more sponsorship! The FedEx crap that had marred it since it's previous refurbishment in the '90s is all gone, and Space Mountain is simply a fun ride without ads. Hooray.