Sunday, January 27, 2008

Let Them Eat Mickey-Shaped Cake

There they go again.

In 2007, The Walt Disney Company's Theme Parks & Resorts division raked in $10.6 billion in revenue, with operating income of $1.7 billion ... but they want us to think they're doing us a favor by farming out fan celebrations to a small, rag-tag group of fans.

Please don't get me wrong. I love that a group of fans cares enough about Disney's theme parks to do what Disney itself won't. It's great to know that at least someone cares.

But take a look at the website, and you'll see something disturbing:

The Celebration 25 event was officially embraced by Disney management and was given the rare privilege of working closely with the management and staff of Epcot® to provide in-park event check-in, group history walks, a press conference, and a private dessert party for their more than 1200 registrants.

They're referring, of course, to the last-ditch effort to find a way to mark EPCOT Center's 25th anniversary last Oct. 1. After announcing major, marketing-driven pushes for Disneyland Paris, the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland, and even the Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World, Disney refused for many months to even acknowledge that the groundbreaking EPCOT Center was going to mark a milestone anniversary.

Whether or not EPCOT Central had anything to do with the ultimate decision to host a hastily arranged 25th anniversary "day," with a handful of limited merchandise (yay! Disney's allowing us to spend more money!), ultimately on Oct. 1, 2007, Disney caved and held a small ceremony. Small? Am I complaining? Well, considering what went into the 50th anniversary of Disneyland or the 15th anniversary (since when is 15 a milestone?) of Disneyland Paris, yes, I suppose I am.

You know me. Nothing's ever good enough for my little theme park.

Well, anyway, it happened, and it's over. And The Walt Disney Company, as usual, learned no lesson.

What they've done is the Disney equivalent of Marie Antoinette's famously apocyrphal "Let them eat cake" edict. They've completely ignored that their fans (well, technically, we're mostly their owners, albeit in a tiny way) felt they were being ignored. Feed 'em some Mickey-shaped cake and they'll be happy. They'll even consider it a "rare privelege" to work with you!

And instead of actively learning about them, trying to figure out where the fan base could be leveraged for greater success long-term, they've deigned to allow a few fans "access" to Disney's over-paid, under-informed management. has all good intentions, of that I am sure. But this is what Disney is supposed to do, not a group of fans. It's Disney's role and responsibility to balance its future growth with its past success, to not just take money from the wallets of fans, but to perhaps give them a tiny bit in return. And by that, I don't mean another "merchandise event," where "commemmoration" means putting more on your MasterCard. Perhaps -- dare I say it? -- to court the fan base.

There's another company I know with a rabid fan base, a worldwide legion of fans who are active, vocal, supportive and critical of everything the company does. It's Lucasfilm, whose founder created the Star Wars movies. Sometimes the fans aren't too nice (Jar-Jar Binks, anyone?), sometimes they are a little weird, but always they are passionate. And Lucasfilm doesn't just pay them lip service -- it employs a full-time "Fan Relations Director" and once every few years holds an event called Star Wars Celebration.

I went to Celebration IV last year, and I saw tens of thousands of fans interacting with Star Wars and showcasing their appreciation for everything George Lucas does. And, more importantly, I saw Lucasfilm caring -- they had employees scattered throughout the event, people who weren't there just to figure out ways to open wallets (though there was a lot of business being done there), but who spent time talking to the fans, getting to know them. A friend of mine met Steve Sansweet, the fan relations director of Lucasfilm, and I think he's still trying to come down from his excitement, nearly a year later.

An event like this happens because the people in charge really care. It's not about pretending to be concerned about what fans think, but actively and aggressively getting them to engage -- and engaging with them.

I'm not sure that will ever happen at Disney. When I used to work at Disney in Burbank, I was once at a meeting in which a rather senior executive responded to a comment about Disney fans by saying, "They're freaks." The room laughed. I was embarrassed.

That's the way Disney views its most ardent fans. Trying to put a happy face on a sad occasion like Disney's lack of concern about EPCOT Center's 25th anniversary is like putting the proverbial lipstick on the proverbial pig. It's still a pig.

And Disney, despite the best intentions of the fans behind, still doesn't give a Ratatouille's behind about the fans who love it the most. Rather than be "officially embraced," I'd rather by genuinely embraced. Not ridiculed.

They've got $1.7 billion. They can afford it.

By the way, I just want to make this perfectly clear: I really do love that the guys behind WDW Celebrations care so much and want to do such a great thing. Congratulations on starting your outfit, folks. But shame on Disney for farming out the "hard work" of loving and caring about their own theme parks.


Anonymous said...

There are many reasons why the 25th anniversary wasn't celebrated the right way. From what I know, much of the problem was Brad Rex...once he left, we got Jim MacPhee as VP of Epcot and things began to improve.

IMO, Jim, having been at EPCOT Center (in the parking lot) on opening day in 1982, KNEW what should be done, and did an admirable job at making, in a very short time frame, a celebration for the fans.

I shook Jim Macphee's hand. He visited our smaller group on the Sunday tour before the anniversary and gave us a sneak map preview. He also checked on us all morning, througout the day and through to the end of the night, past 10:00PM to make sure our day was as special as it could be.

While Disney as a company didn't choose to celebrate the way they should have, I have no complaints from what Jim Macphee could do in a short time. It was not a massive party, but a lot of smaller things that were special to us true fans, the maps, the original music, the insane Illuminations tag, and even more original music.

Blog said...

Well, the t-shirt was pretty cool. I'd certainly like one for myself.