Sunday, February 25, 2007

Defining Disney

On one hand, it’s the most profitable strategic move that The Walt Disney Company has made in the last 10 years. On the other, it’s one of the most disturbing to longtime fans:

It's the decision to narrowly define the “Disney brand” as something primarily for kids, emphasizing Disney’s animated characters and focusing on the ideas of “dreams” and “magic.”

Disney has, inarguably, one of the most valuable and instantly recognizable brand names in the world. It’s strange, then, that its management team would be spending so much time doing exactly the opposite of what’s being done with most entertainment brands: Instead of expanding and re-defining “Disney” for many audiences, the company has been making its audience smaller, honing in on a specific age group that, increasingly, is its focus above all else.

EPCOT Center is one of the most visible examples of what has happened with Disney’s “brand” identity.

But today’s Disney has no room for a concept like EPCOT Center, which isn’t about pixie dust, fairies, princesses or computer-generated characters. Of course, that doesn’t mean Disney’s not trying to shoehorn those things into EPCOT ... they are, and quite emphatically.

The strange thing is, Disney’s management represents the increasingly limited definition of “Disney” as an advancement, trumpeting itself as the role model that the entire entertainment industry should follow when developing a “brand management” strategy. It’s strange because it represents such a retreat from two or three decades ago, when the name “Disney” wasn’t limited by images of saucer-eyed princesses and happy fish.

In the late 1970s, 10 years or so after the death of Walt Disney, the company realized it had painted itself into a corner. If it wasn’t G-rated and filled with pixie dust, it wasn’t “Disney” – and, wisely, management decided that wasn’t good enough.

Walt himself had long moved past animated movies and children’s entertainment (though, truth be told, it was never made just for kids) as the core of his business. In his final years, he was looking to the revenue that would be generated by Walt Disney World to fund some pretty amazing ideas, things like the PeopleMover, the Monorail and EPCOT.

Of course, they had their roots in Walt’s fascination with futurism, and it’s anyone’s guess how they would have fared. The point is that they weren’t “traditional” Disney efforts. Nor were such groundbreaking offerings as the Animatronics-filed rides that were being built at Disneyland.

These were revolutionary ideas that moved far beyond simple entertainment, and in the process they moved the “Disney brand” far beyond its roots. By the time Walt died, “Disney” could define itself any way it wanted to. And, perhaps surprisingly, that concept didn’t die out when Walt did.

One need look no further than EPCOT Center to see that. Not only were the themes of EPCOT Center different than anything Disney had ever attempted, but the mere idea of finally expanding Walt Disney World was, in effect, the most visible effort of Disney to define itself whatever way it wanted. The non-character-based resorts, the creation of the Disney-MGM Studios and the Animal Kingdom parks, the subsequent design of DisneySea (first in California, then in Tokyo). Not even considering the non-park advancements made in the 1970s, 1980s and very early 1990s, Disney did something pretty remarkable:It made clear to every single person who experienced these creations that “Disney” simply meant quality, integrity, excitement, creativity and inspiration. It didn’t need to rely on Mickey and the Gang for its future – Disney would decide how it would be seen by the public.

The theme-park creations of the 1980s and 1990s were particularly notable for their focus on “non-Disney” theming. Granted, the movie-based park used the “Disney” name, but anyone who visited the park through the late 1990s could tell you that what made it truly remarkable and memorable was how “non-Disney” it was.

The same went for EPCOT Center. I’ve noted time and again how remarkable EPCOT was for not taking the easy way out – it had a theme, a difficult one to explain, and it carried out that theme in everything it offered. True, within a few years of EPCOT’s opening, Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Donald could be found roaming the park; but that was really “lip service” to those guests who wanted something Disney in it. By and large, and much to its credit, EPCOT Center refused to be defined by “Disney” … quite the contrary: “Disney” was being defined by how far beyond its traditional boundaries it would allow itself to stretch.

All that has changed. Whether it was a result of the 1995 acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC Inc., whether it was a result of Disney’s near single-minded determination to hire its managers only from top-tier MBA schools, whether it was caused simply by a growing American tendency to define concepts in the broadest possible strokes, I don’t know. But something changed.

Disney no longer tries to perpetually redefine and grow the “Disney” name. Anything with the Disney brand has to make room for Mickey and Pals, for lots of smiles and happiness, for families and wholesomeness.

On its own, this wouldn’t be terrible – except that this crazy notion that anything without mouse ears somehow isn’t Disney creeps in to everything at the parks, including EPCOT. Every shop in World Showcase is filled with basic Disney merchandise, rather than wares from the home country. New rides and attractions must have a “Disney” component to them. (Though, blessedly, Mission: Space didn’t get Mickey-ized.) It’s as if Disney doesn’t trust its guests to understand that the true spirit of Disney has nothing to do with characters or “magic” (despite what the marketing materials insist), it has to do with a unique spirit of adventure, discovery and optimism.

Twenty-five years ago, EPCOT Center represented what Disney was: a company that, despite some creative struggles, was attempting to re-define itself and bring to the public creations that would withstand the test of time, that would allow the company to grow in bold new directions, even while honoring its past; a company that could design new experiences that would stand along side the tried-and-true classics, resulting in a creative arsenal unprecedented in the entertainment industry.

Twenty-five years later, Epcot represents what Disney has become: a company that, despite financial success, has little interest in being innovative and exciting, that wants simply to trade off of its past successes and turn creative efforts into merchandising opportunities.

It’s too bad we’ve come so far that we’ve started to go backward.


Anonymous said...

Stuck in the past? The Epcot you fondly remember cannot happen today. Our world changes more in one week in 2006 than it did the entire year of 1982. The attractions would always be down for rehab.

Caddy Wumpus said...

Not necessarily tomorrow's child. We see tons of incremental differences in consumer products every day, sure. But there is still a 5-10 year R&D lag on new technologies. Look at e-paper. It was first introduced in the mid nineties as a concept, but only coming into use now. From e-paper, try to imagine how the world will look when such technology becomes ubiquitous. How will it effect newspapers? How people surf the Internet? What are some crazy applications, like a collapsable screen for your computer watch?

Now think of all the other technologies in development...consumer-grade fuel cells, solar power satellites, space elevators, Branson's Virgin Glactic, nanotechnology (which includes materials science, medicine and electronics), robotics, car design, material keeps going.

When EPCOT opened 25 years ago, think of the technologies that were forshadowed but hadn't come into their prime yet, like biotechnology and home computing.

There is plenty out there for a perpetual World's Fair of technological innovation.

Yes, you're correct, the rate of change has accelerated, but that seems more like a challenge for the Imagineers to design a modifiable showcase for such things and to think in broad strokes.

J Gall. said...

To say that Mission:Space has not been "mickeyized" is correct. To say that it isn't a movie tie in is a lie. I would like to present the 2000 movie "Mission to Mars" "based" on the old Tomorrowland attraction, and the basis for Mission:Space. A film that stars, Gary Sinise.

Caddy Wumpus said...

Jason, I think "lie" is a bit strong here. For one thing, our host here didn't bring it up. But now that you did, the only thing this movie had in common with the ride is the title, it would seem. Disney (Buena Vista pics) didn't even make the connection themselves in promoting the movie. So when is a tie-in not a tie-in? When the creators don't actually tie them in!

(Here's the big trivia connection -- Brian De Palma (M2M's director) had a brother Bruce De Palma who was very big into the "free energy" community, which has a close connection, conspiracy-wise to the Richard Hoagland-type "Face on Mars" people. But, by pointing that out I sound like the conspiracist!)

But now my work e-mail is functioning again, so back to the grind!

Anonymous said...

Tomorrow's Child, EPCOT's theme of a "permanent World's Fair" is not the problem; Disney's understanding of it and obligation to it is the big issue. Twenty-five years ago, Disney built EPCOT, but today's managers don't want to deal with it. They want to dumb it down partly to appeal to the masses and partly to reduce capital expenditures (i.e., make more money). To draw a comparison, when you buy a performance vehicle, you have to accept that you are going to pay a lot of money to maintain it. Likewise, when you create something as unique as EPCOT, you have to be committed to keeping it up to date, to ensuring the theme doesn't grow stale. Instead of being willing to spend the time and effort to constantly update EPCOT, Disney wants to turn it into something that requires less "maintenance." That's not acceptable, because it turns EPCOT into something it never was: a basic amusement park, one lacking a strong theme that is carried out in everything it does. EPCOT does require a lot of money and effort; if Disney's management doesn't believe in that, they really need to question why they are in the theme-park business in the first place, and whether they are the right managers to carry Disney's theme parks into the future. At this point, the parks still generate a huge amount of income, but ultimately it's likely that the public will catch on and realize that they can get roughly the same experience at roughly the same cost from Disney's competitors. Those things that make Disney parks unique -- particuarly the heavy theming -- are slowly eroding, and nowere is that more visible than EPCOT.

Anonymous said...

I think we tie ourselves up in pretzels trying to figure out WHY Disney makes each decision, and what it means for the future of the parks. Let’s look at the Nemo Seas rehab. We know what has happened, but we don’t know what the decision makers are thinking. Let me explain how the same rehab/redo could have two entirely different effects on the rest of the park.

Worst case: The suits decided that Seabase Alpha and the Living Seas concepts have no value and saw this simply as a vehicle to sell more Nemo merchandise. With the success of the Nemo and Dory being projected into the tank, they now wonder how much money they could save if they projected all the fish. They make plans to drain the tank and replace it with a tank only 3 feet wide (just enough to project fish into water). Lesson: Characters and kids = money, Epcot 83 attractions are inefficient. What it means for the future: Goofy gives preflight briefing in Mission space and The Land’s greenhouse gets cut in half.

Best Case?: The imagineers agonized over the removal of the Seabase Alpha and the Living Seas concepts. In the end they decide that they can get the most attendance by hooking into the number 1 movie of 2003(?) a movie that the critics said “Pixar now consistently makes a better Disney movie, than Disney”. The movie was for kids and adults and they hope this rehab will do the same. Lesson 1: a costly and sparsely attended attraction gets some Imagineering attention and quality (the technology of turtle talk and projecting into water) and suddenly it is an attendance draw. Lesson 2: “come for the clownfish, stay for the wonder of marine biology”. What it means for the future: The tank survives another decade, suits cut Imagineering some slack and a submarine exhibit gets added to the pavilion. Suits pony up some money to invest in Wonders of life pavilion and give Imagineering more free reign.

I have no idea what the decision makers think about this rehab. On the record, they of course think it’s a great addition and everyone should buy a $67 ticket and go see it. E82 and the rest of us can only speculate on whether the parks see this as a reason to add Mickey to Spaceship Earth, or to reinvest in the pavilions with new attractions.

Captain Schnemo said...

e83, I think your "best case" is pretty horrible. You're falling into the trap that so many people often do when discussing Disney.

Every time some new abomination rears its head in a Disney park, there is a chorus of "well, at least they didn't completely destroy X" or "it could have been much worse".

Guys, this is Disney, previously the world benchmark for all forms of family entertainment, and now the best its fans can hope to celebrate is the destruction of a hated addition or the lack of total destruction of a beloved classic. I don't really have the patience for that kind of talk any more. Enough with the apologists.

As for the common "the future is here" argument, that's also complete bunk. If you build an attraction about the future and 20 years later it's outdated, then...that's a damn good run!

How long are they expecting these things to last anyway? Every Future World pavilion has either been closed/replaced or received a major upgrade after 20 years of service. If it's a given that the money is going to be spent anyway, why not take a bold look into the future, particularly if you're calling your park "Future World"?

These "the world is moving too fast" arguments are complete nonsense. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the world has been on a tear. People who think there's something special about the here and now have no sense of perspective. In the future, our society will look slow and quaint. There is nothing special about today that wasn't true in 1982 or 1955.

I can believe that Disney doesn't have the interest, the will, or maybe even the skill to present an optimistic, compelling view of the future, but to suggest that it simply cannot be done because the public is too savvy or society is too advanced is to ignore history and ask far too little of humanity itself.

Epcot82 said...

As Greg pointed out earlier, Richard Branson is one of those who doesn't let the limited imagination of society dictate what he can do. Virgin Galactic probably will be the first "spaceline," because no one else has the guts to do it.

Even when it was a publicly held company, Disney used to refuse to let anyone tell it something couldn't be done. Now, sadly, its management ranks are filled with people who tell it just that on a daily basis.

Where are the dreamers? Let 'em dream, then pair 'em up with the finance guys and let 'em duke it out ... but don't quash their visions.

Like so many people I know, Disney has become what it used to hate most.

Personally, I fight that very tendency in myself every single day, but I do fight it -- and fortunately have found myself surrounded by people who want me to think big first and worry about how to execute later. Too bad I didn't find any of those at Disney.

Anonymous said...

... such groundbreaking offerings as the Animatronics-filed rides that were being built at Disneyland.

"Pirates" and "Haunted Mansion" are STILL the defining "rides" at the theme parks for the general public.

Haven't been to Epcot in awhile -- you mean to say that the World Showcase pavilions are no longer mini-shopping galas of goodies from the host nations??? A very great part of Epcot's charm for many, many consumers has been its exciting assemblage of shopping venues put together unlike anywhere else on earth.

Epcot82 said...

Re: those last two comments --

1) Yes, they are still the defining rides ... 40-some years later. Odd that Disney has never been able to top those attractions! (Though, I must say, in their own ways Spaceship Earth, Horizons and World of Motion came very close, which is one of the reasons the destruction of two of them continues to be lamented.)

2) The shops are still there, but now they're in large part filled with generic Disney stuff. I remember going into the Germany pavilion years ago, when I was studying the language, and buying maps and books and small items that made me feel I was "taking part" in the culture. Now, the store called "Der Buecherwurm" (the bookworm) has few books in it at all -- just one example. Now, for you literalists, that does not mean EVERY shop ONLY has Disney merchandise, just that it has become the norm, not imported items. Future World is even worse, if you ask me: Mouse Gear is basically World of Disney in Epcot, and there's increasingly little Epcot merchandise in Epcot!

Kevin Carter said...

The last time I was at Epcot I had to search for over an hour to just find a t-shirt that said Epcot and had SSE on it. I finally found one, that I do like, but sadly there's some mickey ears silhouetted in the background even. I still bought it because it was the best I could find, but it was sad to know that even Epcot's merchandies had been squandered.

Ivonne R. said...

I agree with you kcnole. That's why I had to resort to making my own shirts! :p

Joey V said...

Any 30+ non-parents out there feel the way I do, that eventually Disney will want nothing to do with us b/c we don't have children?

Every year, I feel we're getting closer to that reality.

Epcot82 said...

Absolutely, Joe! The ironic thing, of course, is that we probably have a greater non-disposable income, are more likely to be enamored of things that remind us of our youth, and want high-end vacation experiences. Disney used to provide it all when I was in my 20s and early 30s ... I felt that they were right on the money (so to speak) when I went into The Disney Store and could find items that were great for me (ties, watches, wine glasses, etc.) that were subtle but clearly Disney. Yeah, there was kids' stuff, but I didn't bother with that and they didn't bother with what I liked.

From a vacation standpoint, I could go to WDW with a significant other or some friends and spend a lot of money and also have a great time, enjoying things that intersted and appealed to me. If I didn't want to be surrounded by kids at all times, there were SO many things I could do!

While every other company is obsessed with getting our money, the one company we like most doesn't seem interested in us anymore! Ah, well, their loss. If I'm not going to spend $3,000 to go see WDW and World Showcase ... I'll just spend it on seeing the "real" world! If they're not going to make merchandise that appeals to me anymore, there's always eBay!

It's a shame, though, because Disney is missing out on a huge (I'd argue core) market of deeply committed fans ... who, I think, may be growing less committed by the day.