At first blush, you might think this blog involves reports of more family fights in Mickey’s Toontown that at one point appeared to become as common as Mickey and Minnie holding hands on main street. Rather, the focus of this piece is a different kind of mayhem, corporate mismanagement.
I moved to Orlando in the mid-eighties to escape the cold New England weather, but also because I enjoyed visiting Walt Disney World. Visits to the parks were a welcome change of pace from the hustle and bustle of the real world. The parks were clean, staff all greeted you with a smile, and there were endless things to do inside the happiest place on Earth. Fast forward to a post-pandemic Disney, where the magic of pixie dust was replaced with blockout dates, Genie plus passes, and ticket price increases. Like the name of one of my favorite Disney attractions, single day tickets continued Soarin’ through the years from $21.50 to upwards of $200 as of the writing of this blog. From their inception in 1982, season passes have gone from approximately $100 to $399 plus tax for the lowest level Pixie Dust Pass. However, the Pixie Dust is currently only available to Florida residents and comes with restrictions including the requirement to book a theme park reservation in advance. When Epcot opened in 1982, it felt like a special place and after only a few visits I was hooked.
My last visit to the parks was a few months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Former CEO, Bob Chapek, unveiled a new vision for Epcot center at the D23 convention. I was excited to return a couple years later to experience these wonderful new additions to my favorite park. Sadly, the pandemic coupled with Chapek’s relentless pursuit of profits from their Disney+ streaming service resulted in my experience of Epcot as a shell of its former self. Walt Disney promised Epcot would be a place that would always be expanding toward the future. Walt’s vision of Epcot was exciting and new, but his death in 1966 would ultimately lead to the death of that vision (the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow).
Disney had been on the verge of a corporate takeover by raiders whose plan was to sell off the attractions to the highest bidder. Roy O. Disney, Walt’s brother, was the money man behind Walt’s visions. Walt would think it up and Roy would find a way to finance the dream. What about those corporate raiders? Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew, got involved and hired a new visionary CEO for the Disney corporation named Michael Eisner. Eisner was the president of Paramount Pictures at the time, but he had a plan to stop the raiders and reimagine Disney.
The first thing Eisner did was start making animated films again bringing the company back to basics. Somewhere along the way, Disney forgot Walt’s pitch phrase “It all started with a mouse”. He was implying the Disneyland and Disney World parks were financed with money made from profits off his cartoon shorts. Eisner instantly enlisted animators from all over the world to begin working on current day classic Disney films including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and The Beast, and Aladdin. The success of the films enabled Eisner to turn his attention to the parks and create shows and attractions inspired from the movies. He brought back the Wonderful World of Disney where Eisner essentially modeled himself in Walt’s image (with a bit of help from then Senator Bill Bradley). He would introduce the evening’s cartoons and share new and exciting things coming to the Disney parks. Eisner remained at the helm for 20 years turning Disney into a corporate giant adding ABC programming to its portfolio.
After being embroiled in a lawsuit with Jeffrey Katzenberg, a misstep in hiring Michael Ovitz as President, and butting heads with Roy E. Disney Eisner resigned in 2005 after receiving a vote of no confidence from shareholders. Michael Eisner would be succeeded by his second in command Robert Iger.
Bob Iger was a businessman not a theme park visionary, though he worked under Eisner for years. Almost immediately, Iger brought Disney’s stock back up by brokering deals to acquire ESPN, Pixar, Marvel Studios, and Lucasfilm. Iger’s business acumen kept the stock rising and shareholders happy since he became Disney CEO in 2005. Iger’s reign lasted until 2020 when he announced plans to retire, and the board of directors named Bob Chapek the next chief executive.
The Chapek “era’ was fraught with missteps and poor decisions, not to mention a complete lack of vision. Iger initially stuck around to assist Chapek in navigating the company through a global pandemic. Iger stepped away completely in December 2021 and that is when things began to spiral out of control like a teacup in Tomorrowland. One of Chapek’s many mistakes was eliminating numerous park positions while the parks remained closed during the pandemic. This may appear to be a sound “business” decision, but upon the parks re-opening beginning with Walt Disney World in July 2020, the guest experience I came to know and love since the mid 80s was a mere memory. Rather than invest in the people, which they could have done while adhering to CDC protocols, Chapek turned his attention to streaming media.
Chapek seemed to be doing something right given Disney was still making a profit with their parks around the world. How did they pull this off? One of Bob Iger’s final tasks was to launch a Disney streaming platform to compete with rival Netflix. Disney+ launched in November 2019 and early adopters could sign up for up for a multi-year subscription at a lower price than Netflix. When Chapek took over, the subscription price almost immediately increased and those who did not lock in a lower rate wound up canceling the service having an impact on the bottom line. Disney stock began dropping and the board extended Bob Iger’s role as executive chairman through the end of 2021so he could aide Chapek in bringing back their profitability.
Post-pandemic, the once happiest place on Earth lost much of its magic. No longer could you simply walk up to a counter and purchase a ticket to visit one of Disney’s parks. Guests are currently required to book a theme park reservation to visit a park on a specific date. This extends to Disney Annual Passholders including Florida residents. According to Disney, this enables them to manage park capacity while at the same time reducing staffing levels to further cut costs. Mask mandates and social distancing requirements have since been lifted. As a result of their need to manage the crowds, park essentials including evening fireworks were suspended for a time to maintain social distancing. Disneyland remained closed for thirteen months until re-opening on April 30, 2021. Since re-opening its doors, the only new noteworthy additions to the parks include Guardians of The Galaxy Cosmic Rewind at Epcot and TRON Lightcycle Run at Magic Kingdom Park.
The failures under Bob Chapek’s short tenure may be felt for years to come. His initial “success” from the Disney+ streaming platform earned Chapek a three-year contract extension in June 2022 to stay on as CEO. As Disney stock continued to decline, so did any affinity for Chapek leading the house of the mouse. Consequently, five months later in November, Bob Iger agreed to reprise his role as CEO signing a two-year contract while assisting in a search for a successor to lead the company. Meanwhile, Bob Chapek was shown the door and rumored to be last seen floating high above Magic Kingdom Park in a golden parachute.
As of this writing, it has been more than six months since Iger’s return and Disney World remains a park in need of serious repair. The Epcot overhaul was to set include several exciting additions to my once favorite Disney Park including an update to Spaceship Earth, a Mary Poppins attraction, and enhancements to The Land pavilion. One announcement that did come to fruition was Epcot’s new evening fireworks show at the center of the World Showcase. Harmonious premiered in October of 2021 and had its final showing on April 2, 2023.
Ironically, all Chapek had to do was read the local paper to see how Universal Studios was handling the same issues related to the COVID pandemic. Not only did they open a state-of-the-art Jurassic Park inspired roller coaster called Velocicoaster, but they broke ground on their next theme park expansion Epic Universe slated to open Summer 2025. Universal Epic Universe will include Super Nintendo World and a section devoted to Universal Classic Monsters. Universal is building a better mousetrap than Disney.
When I moved to central Florida in the mid-eighties and fell in love with Disney’s magic, I never would have imagined Universal Studios taking over as the state’s number one place to visit. However, as Disney cuts back and Universal expands, I may find my loyalty shifting from Mickey to Mario!
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