Tuesday, March 25, 2008

'Tween Greatness and Mediocrity

There are healthy obsessions, and then there are just plain ol' obsessions. Sometimes, fixating on one thing too long can reap rewards, though not in the right way. Think of the jilted lover who can't stop himself from trying to get back his lost flame. Sometimes, he wins -- but at what price? The relationship is usually doomed to fail.

The Walt Disney Company isn't too-dissimilar. For more than five decades, Disney did one thing and did it better than anyone else ever has or possibly ever will: It created entertainment suitable for the entire family. Yes, in today's world, that sounds boring -- sounds an awful lot like a sneaky way of saying Disney created kiddie stuff.

But that's just not true. Mickey Mouse came to life because Walt Disney wanted to create an amusing character who would appeal to a broad audience. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became a legendary sensation (grossing the equivalent of $743 million in the U.S., according to Boxofficemojo.com -- which, in un-adjusted numbers, is about 24% more than Titanic) because it captured the imaginations of kids and adults. Disneyland was famously borne from a desire to create an amusement destination that families could enjoy together -- Dad wouldn't have to sit on the bench, bored, while the kids rode the merry-go-round.

Even in its moribund years, Disney's great successes, like The Love Bug (which would have been something like a $250-million grosser today) and the opening of the Walt Disney World Resort, came not out of a desire to please a specific audience ... but out of a desire to cater to all audiences.

Now, it's all about the 'tweens.

For a while, toward the end of the Michael Eisner era, Disney tried desperately to engage young boys. But they just weren't biting.

Then, it became about little girls, and we saw the age of generic Disney Princesses dawn. Removed from their context, Belle, Aurora, Jasmine and even Snow herself became simple objects of emulation and aspiration simply because, well, I guess because they wear sparkly things and nabbed the Rich, Hot Prince.

But those efforts to segment and age-down Disney's audience pale in comparison to Disney's nearly single-minded obsession to nab the coveted 'tween crowd. Seen those posters for Prince Caspian? They're not about the story or the fantasy or the adventure -- they're about another Hot Prince that 12-year-old boys can aspire to be and 12-year-old girls can swoon over. The rest of us? Well, we're disposable.

A recent news story about Disney's planned re-take-over of the Disney Stores (after giving them up a few years back, claiming that they could never turn a profit -- weird how minds change, eh?) made prominent mention of the fact that brilliant DIS executives plan to reduce the number of stores and make them into hip destinations for 'tweens, focusing on things like High School Musical (run, dead horse, run!) and the Jonas Brothers.

And then, of course, there are the theme parks.

And poor ol' EPCOT.

There's no fate worse, as Woody could tell you, than being rendered meaningless to a 'tween. You're tossed aside, dismissed as unimportant, forgotten, even mocked.

You're tragically un-hip and there's nothing you can do about it.

That seems to be EPCOT's fate. One side of Future World is now cartoon-driven, the realm of the young ones, while the other side is powered by high-octane thrills. (Yeah, OK, you're right, Soarin' is over on the cartoon side, so that undermines the argument just a bit. But only a bit.) The rest? In the case of Universe of Energy, it's been forgotten; in the case of Wonders of Life, it's literally been discarded. Spaceship Earth gets a pass only because, well, it's smack dab in the center, and Disney has to do something with it.

But so much of EPCOT seems a victim of Disney's unhealthy obsession with 'tweens.

Forget the fact that 'tweens are notoriously fickle, and will drop you like a hot potato the minute something better comes along. Forget that they grow up quickly, and soon come to view their favorite things as irrelevant faster than anyone imagines. Disney doesn't care how risky the 'tween market is -- everyone else is going after them, so Disney should, too.

Trouble is, catering to 'tweens or, for that matter, catering to any crowd to the exclusion of others, only leads to trouble. EPCOT's a brilliant example.

EPCOT can never, almost by definition, fit into the 'tween mold. But Disney is going to keep tweaking, changing and refining it until, damn it, those kids like it. Why? No good reason except the reason any obsessive has to keep doing things -- it just has to be done.

Forgotten in this is what made EPCOT, and Disney itself, so successful for so long. The appeal used to be that it was there for everyone. OK, sure, maybe sometimes Mom and Dad had to take a little hit by sitting through a cheery, fun, music-filled ride like Journey Into Imagination, and Sissy and Junior had to endure some lecturing on Universe of Energy. But for everyone, there was at least something to enjoy. Together. As a family. Or as friends. As a group.

The fixation on 'tweens, though, has had only a deleterious effect on EPCOT in general and Future World in particular:

The graceful curves and lines of the World of Motion pavilion, for instance, have become a jumbled mess of scaffolding, hyperactive signage and godawful color schemes for the sake of getting younger guests to think something truly exciting is going on back there.

The engaging, immersive experience of envisioning a possible future in Horizons has given way to a ride, Mission: Space, that ineffectively uses only half of its pavilion space, and finds hundreds of people at a time patiently waiting outside while the thrill-seeking part of their groups experience what's inside the building. The 'tweens love it; the adults, not as much. (And God forbid, though I've seen it done, a 6-year-old go on this ride. Poor kid.)

Disney theme parks have become increasingly age-sensitive. Either you love cartoon characters or you want thrills. But that old notion, the one that worked so well for so long, of appealing to everyone simply doesn't apply anymore. Kids or 'tweens -- increasingly, that's about it.

And parks like EPCOT find themselves in the 'tween era, too ... somewhere 'tween the greatness of their past and the disappointing mediocrity that continues to creep in.


Digital Jedi said...

Something I said over at Re-Imagineering is very much in line with a point you make about what put Disney where it is.

In a sense, Disney is resting on their laurels. They got where they are because of a sound, established business sense that put their best foot forward, while at the same time reaching for everyone, regardless of demographic.

Now that their in such a favored position, for whatever reason they think it's reasonable to do so, they don't try that hard anymore. They go for the easy dollar, the immediate, fast acting business plan, with no regard for how damaging that is to the long term of their product.

As you said, Disney forgot (but I suspect it's more like ignorance, then forgetfulness) what made them successful for so long. And I sincerely feel that they can only ride Walt's legacy for so long, before they damage the legacy irreprably.

Brian said...

Things won't change at EPCOT until there are some people in place with some real respect for the EPCOT brand and long-term vision. Long-term vision is rare in today's economic environment--look at the US economy. :) It is probably nearly impossible for Iger to make any real change--he is occupied with way too many other things right now and "EPCOT ain't broken- don't fix it."

I *thought* Jim MacPhee was going to help restore some of the shininess to the EPCOT experience but I haven't seen much come out of his corner lately. It's not clear whether he was totally involved in the rehab of SSE; he did put together a decent 25th anniversary celebration in zero time on a limited budget, but I haven't heard much from him since and nearly all of the artifacts of this celebration have already been removed from the park, save for the gallery. (Jim MacPhee didn't speak at the SSE rededication - which is VERY curious...)

Disney himself had the rare gift of insight and vision--it's what he built his company on. He gave people what they wanted but also gave them stuff they didn't know they needed--the early EPCOT had a lot of this going on, as well - who ever would have demanded a ride like Horizons be built? The customers handed over trust to the Disney company and they gave you what was good ("nutritious") for you, not just what you demanded at that exact moment (a high-sugar snack food :)

But with shareholders in control Disney is handcuffed--they have to do anything they can to grow income as quickly as possible. Gone are the 10-year and 20-year plans. Disney used to be a bastion of long-term creative vision, but it too has succumbed to the mood of the economy as a whole. This is how global corporations work in 2008. Everything could change tomorrow, so let's extract as much cash from the public as possible *right now*.

Until someone else comes along and figures this out and starts giving Disney some real competition in some areas (like Apple & Google did for Microsoft over the past few years), I don't think we'll see the dramatic, inspirational stuff come back to EPCOT for a while. :(

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how unique I am in this viewpoint, but by a certain age as kid I remember feeling uncomfortable towards entertainment that was specifically geared towards my age group. It always fell like I was being pandered to -- as to what adults thought I would think was cool. It was embarrassing.

The best thing about Disneyland was that kids could experience grown-up "real life" adventures, and adults could indulge in being kids again. The attractions appealed to everyone and each person could take away something enjoyable from the experience. It's unfortunate that specific groups need to be targeted but it's not expected since it requires a lot more effort and talent to create something that's universal and timeless.

Anonymous said...

I have been and will continue to go to EPCOT but (that is a big but) only because I and my family enjoy the rides and atmosphere.

We were there earlier this year just before they opened "Space Ship Earth" for the revamp and got a chance to check it out. Seemed pretty cool but still low budget.

I agree it needs to change and be updated and get back to it's roots. Tweens are only going to be tweens for a few years and that doesn't last long enough to have a strategy or a vision for this brand. This is the time to make it happen we are living far beyond the future they preticted with EPCOT opened. Most of the "future" items have happened and/or very close.

How to fix it:

EPCOT - Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow

- Where is the home, community, city of tomorrow? (Home is/has been built in california)
- Yes the mono-rail was awesome but why doesn't it go anywhere? (Quit with the busses)
- Empower the tweens with knowledge of how/who are making and wanting to make a difference to change how we power, feed, employee and create what is next.

And that is the key focus on what is next. We still don't have flying cars or flying cities but there are other thoughts and ideas we can create, innovate or build to express what we can do next.

Anonymous said...

The odd part is that Disney could do a LOT to appeal to the tweens..and adults and kids alike.

Ironically Epcot was born in the 80's...and something else was born around that same era...the high-technology geekdom. People love technology, suddenly things coming out of Japan were the hottest products going.

As I've said before, the idea of interactivity is not a bad one at all, but the execution at EPCOT has been horrid. First there's the fake interactivity of Mission:Space, then the esurance commercial of SSE.

They could do SO MUCH more with high technology and interactivity and make it for the whole family. Emphasize how it all works...

Speaking of which, look at the most interesting shows on the Discovery and Science channels...there's a lot of new popular shows on how things are built, designed, home-made. Innoventions is such a weak part of what could be the heart of the Future World experience.

Anonymous said...

Dean said it best:

"I'm not sure how unique I am in this viewpoint, but by a certain age as kid I remember feeling uncomfortable towards entertainment that was specifically geared towards my age group. It always fell like I was being pandered to -- as to what adults thought I would think was cool. It was embarrassing."

You triggered a memory for me, and it's funny because it actually has to do with Disney. I remember being a "tween", you know, age 10-14. I was on the Disney Cruise Line back in like 2000. I distinctly remember the awkwardness of being pandered to a certain age group on that ship. They had play rooms specifically for kids, but they were just too kiddie. And then they had the "cool place just for teens" called the 'Cool Beans Cafe' which was supposed to be like a coffee bar and music lounge for our age group. But one step in there was just as sickening. I think now what I realize is that I just wanted to be with my family. In the past 10 years, Disney has really pushed that separation amongst age groups- from Disney Channel to the parks to the movies, they're forcing something on us against our will. And there's nothing we can do about it...

Anonymous said...

Send messages like that often and regularly to Bob Iger, Jay Rasulo, Tom Staggs, John Lasseter and Roy Disney and you just MAY be able to do something about it. Address them to each executive, mark the outside of the envelope "PERSONAL CORRESPONDENCE" or "CONFIDENTIAL CORRESPONDENCE" and send to:

(Executive Name)
The Walt Disney Company
500 S. Buena Vista Street
Burbank, CA 91521

The more responses THEY receive (as opposed to just being blogged here), the more difficult it is for them to ignore the comments.

Anonymous said...

I wonder to what extent the pressure from the shareholders is only perceived.

Would shareholders really revolt if Disney rolled out a new detailed plan that would lay the groundwork for continued, stable growth, rather than chasing the latest trends to maximize profits for the next quarter? Is shareholder feedback really so granular that there would be an objection to a specific plan about a specific park?

I don't think it's fair to blame the shareholders. If Disney had any cojones, they'd simply do the right (and proven) thing, instead of worrying about what they think someone else might say.

Epcot82 said...

I can't imagine that would happen, Capt. Schnemo -- not if Staggs and Iger made the rounds with a great presentation and laid out why. At this point, had they had a solid plan 10 years ago to do something amazing and expensive and risky, the stock would probably be languishing no more than it has. Consider that the adjusted close on March 27, 1998, was 32.54 (just before the last split in July 1998) -- which is only a buck and change higher than it is today. Put another way, if you invested $1,000 in Disney on March 27, 1998, you'd have $973 today.

On the other hand, if you had invested it on Oct. 1, 1975, and cashed out on Oct. 1, 1985, your investment would have grown by 110%, so you'd at least have been up by double-digits. Keep in mind, that was the growth during Disney's period of ridicule as a "family" company. That was just as Eisner and Wells came on board, and despite the fact that EPCOT Center was apparently filled with boring rides and Disney wasn't "appealing" to youngsters, the company grew by greater percentages during that decade than during the last.

Despite all the "improvements," despite focus on the bottom line, despite all the promises that Disney was an extraordinarily well-managed company, the shareholder value just hasn't been there.

Pleasing Wall Street has, in 10 years, led to no greater results than trying something new, risky and bold.

People tend to forget that Disney went public in 1957 ... and Walt Disney was still very much alive. Yes, audacious, crazy plans like Walt Disney World, the "real" EPCOT concept, the WEDWay PeopleMover and others came when DIS was a publicly held company, and Walt Disney seemed to care very little about what his investors wanted him to do. They were investing in HIM, he wasn't investing in their opinions.

There are financial and ethical obligations Disney has to listen to its shareholders. On the other hand, there are also obligations it has to be genuinely creative, bold and exciting, but it would rather play it safe.

For all the "growth," playing it safe hasn't done much for the investor in the past 10 years.

bluesky said...

Great article and comments! You hit the nail right on the head. Disney parks were intended to be enjoyed by everyone in the family. Throughout my life, I have always been given a choice to visit concrete jungle amusement parks with the biggest thrill rides. They are all over the country and a dime a dozen. However, I have always and still gravitate toward the Disney parks because they offer something different. I have been going to Disney parks almost every year since I was 2 years old and I am now 32. Only in the past 10 years or so has the experience been somewhat troublesome. Not because I have out grown it, but because Disney goes out of their way to shove what they think is "now" down my throat. That goes for Disney channel, TV ads, parks, hotels and most of all the exit queue stores. They have turned something special that had a sense of place and time and homogenized into a tweeny corporate campaign that makes me sick. I still go to the parks, but it seems that I have to turn on my tunnel vision to enjoy the things that I love and try to ignore all of the loud, cheap, in your face drivel that they try to push on every family that comes through the parks.

Anonymous said...

The last part of my comments didn't come across right, mostly because I typed it wrong. :( I'm wondering, is it really all that difficult to create attractions that appeal to a general audience? ...attractions that different age groups can enjoy on different levels?? Or are these "tween" and "teen" focused approaches we have seen coming from Disney lately just a market/product driven agenda that steamrolls over any creative endeavor???

It's been a long time since the days when you could pick any color as long as it was black, but business seems to have become too obsessed with catering to specialized groups. And anyway, that was never the purpose behind places like Disneyland to begin with.

I have no doubt that WDI has been trying to create attractions that appeal to everyone, but when you are given a directive from a market study group and are forced to create a show from it, the end result is going to feel forced as well. The ideas have to generate from notions of what can inspire, not from what can impress.

Anonymous said...

Disney has always chased the money.Those who want a strong Disney brand have not noticed that the entire concept of the brand has become deregulated.American brands are now owned by Europeans and manufactured in China.

Those who want a strong family have not noticed that the entire concept of the family has become deregulated.Disney should not have a strong family image because the strong family is history.

Branding relies on trust that is less effective in a deregulated world.Americans are shocked by tainted goods from deregulated markets and weakening brands like Disney.They display a naive reaction instead of hardening themselves to the paperwork they signed.

Tweens are subsidized by parents so cost controls are weak like health care.Disney stock competes with drug stock that is subsidized by medicare part D.America has weakened its brand to profit oil and defense stocks.

Americans show great tolerance that has encouraged profiteers.I went to a private school but cannot afford the same school myself.Americans say things cannot get worse,then it does,then we say it again-like a dog chasing its tail.