February 22, 2010

Taking Off the Rose Colored Glasses

As mentioned in my post just below this one, admitting there is a problem is the first step. So, here I go. I am officially removing my Disney colored lenses to see some harsh but liberating truths. Dare to join me?

Truth Number 1:
It's time to admit to something the executives at the Walt Disney Company have known for decades: The company Walt built has very little left of him in it. If you want insight into the real man, head to San Francisco for the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Sure, his name remains iconic, but the man and his guiding principles of entertainment are a thing of the past- aside from images and soundbites being used for promotional purposes. The Walt Disney Company is first and foremost a business. It is one that has demands placed on it by its investors and its leaders. The bottom line is money. It's the American way; the guiding principal of the last few generations. Make money fast, make a lot of it, and deal with the consequences later.

Truth Number 2:
The Disney theme parks are no longer an expression of love for or the commitment to excellence in artistic expression. I'll linger awhile here as the Disney parks are the primary reason why I am interested in the doings of the company.

This change began with the purpose for the Disney-MGM Studios theme park in Florida. Flatly, Michael Eisner was threatened by the arrival of Universal Studios. Being determined to beat them at his game, the chief okayed the construction of the third theme park on the Disney property. Upon its opening in 1989, it was a beautiful but very little gem. And it has turned into a patchwork quilt of creative and financial success ever since.

For every amazing Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, there is an equally off-putting Sounds Dangerous. Not even the very funny Drew Carey can save this attraction from being a placeholder at the near center of the park. Is American Idol really better and more of a tribute to the genre than Superstar Television? No. When in doubt about priorities at this park, think about the state of The Great Movie Ride and the placement and purpose of the giant sorcerer's hat. If those are not convincing, let me refer you back to Truth Number 1.

Money and making it also motivates what is and isn't happening at the rest of the Walt Disney World property. Before you scream "Fantasyland Forest", think about its last major addition. Or even the minor ones. Monsters Inc and Stitch? Ugh. It's the Harry Potter threat that is pushing the company to finally take action. Even this beautiful looking addition comes with a mixed bag of new attractions. I'm thrilled the Little Mermaid is making its way to Florida. Love the movie, love the music. It's about time! Coloring pages and character greetings? Not so much love there, but I cannot blame the company for doing it. See Truth Number 1. They do have a business to run. But do not get me going on Epcot and Disney's Animal Kingdom!

Truth Number 3:
California Adventure 2.0 will be a success. Due to the first point made, the executives are determined to make this happen. It will not celebrate the strengths of the Golden State but will celebrate the ability of the company to use their animation based success to bring guests- and their dollars- in through the gates. Who will be able to resist Ariel or Radiator Springs Racers? Not me- or anyone else with small children in tow.

Truth Number 4:
The Walt Disney Company can no longer make great films without animated characters. My point is made by presenting the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Film number one is excellent, and Johnny Depp couldn't be better. Live action, you say? Yes, but is there a character any more animated than Captain Jack Sparrow? Pirates aside, Disney films seem to have fallen flat- and the removal of Dick Cook seems to validate that Robert Iger and much of the executive branch of the company agrees with my Truth Number 4.

Truth Number 5:
The company Walt built can no longer build great attractions without using characters and stories from their films. Regardless of their greatness, Expedition: Everest really is the Matterhorn Bobsleds revisited, with Mission: Space and Soarin Over California also being new takes on old favorites from Walt's time. Originality at the parks is dead. Whether the wonderful Imagineers aren't given the freedom to do so or cannot come up with great ideas for something original, sometimes they cannot even build great attractions using the characters they do have.

Truth Number 6:
The company's focus is now "International first, United States second". It's a smart and savvy business move. And the company we love is playing whore whenever it can. (Remember Truth Number 1?) Setting aside human right violations and whatever else it needs to, the company wants the big bucks from China. Disney is an established name in the Western Hemisphere, land and people conquered. Miley Cyrus/ Hannah Montana, High School Musical and all the Disney characters own the younger student world here, so its time to move on to untouched territory.

Truth Number 6 explains one of the real reasons Tokyo Disney Sea is so elaborate and why Shanghai Disneyland and a park in South America are on the horizon. It also explains why Walt Disney World has remained relatively untouched, why Disneyland was left to rot once upon a time, and why the company thought they could fool us with the original California Adventure, and the Walt Disney Studios theme park in Paris.

Truth Number 7:
I couldn't do it any better- and neither could you. There's a real reality check. Though we may view ourselves as budding Tony Baxters and Joe Rohdes, the truth is we are not. These men and women at Imagineering are the last of a great bunch- at least until someone else comes to the helm of the company. For now, they are stuck navigating the turbulent waters of politics and finance just to survive the for the ability to potentially be creative. We are a different America and a different people than we were in Walt's time. Innocence lost and dollars gained. There's the tradeoff.
(Art and photos copyright The Walt Disney Company.)


SamLand said...

A very thoughtful take on the modern version of the Walt Disney Company. With Iger's "brand" concept, he is even going to outsource the creative side of things as well. All the Disney Company is becoming is a pass through of other peoples ideas.

I for one think that the new Fantasyland Forest is going to be a huge flop. It is going to drive as many people to that park as Tower of Terror did for DCA (which is to say very few made that special trip). An expensive fix for a problem that doesn't exist.

As for Walt, he will only be important to the Company as a Baby Boomer marketing device. That is why I don't belong to D23 anymore and joined as a member to the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Good article.

Mark Taft said...

Thanks, Sam.

Hopefully, you are wrong about Fantasy Forest- but just enough to get more real attractiosn there! :)