Disney’s Biggest Theme Park Mistakes

This is a refinement of an earlier article I did for LaughingPlace.com.

It started last year, as my wife and I finished our day at Disneyland and walked back to our room at the Disneyland Hotel. Not for the first time, I noticed the iconic “Disneyland Hotel” red neon sign missing, and an old sentiment awakened: “what moron decided to get rid of that sign?” (For those curious, here’s what it became.) At the start of every Disneyland trip—short of seeing the Matterhorn from Harbor Boulevard—was anything more evocative than that old sign?

I know: there’s some new Anaheim zoning law that precludes giant neon signs illuminating a several-city-block radius. Maybe Disney put up a good fight to keep the sign, but still…it seems like there exist alternatives that could have preserved the sign’s essence (red LEDs?) while complying with the regulation. Didn’t anyone at Disney find that sign as special as I did?

I didn’t stop there. Coasting a wave of indignation, I thought: what other mistakes has Disney made? This sprawling list is the result. Unlike the Disneyland Hotel sign fiasco, I decided to focus on what I consider to be the big mistakes: genuine blunders that have cost the company either 1) millions of dollars, or 2) millions of dollars in goodwill. (The “little” mistakes, like leaving that ridiculous Epcot wand up for a decade, merit inclusion on their own list…just not this one.)

So in no particular order, here we go…

No Follow-Up to Pirates and Haunted Mansion.

Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion are the most famous attractions at Disney parks. Pirates opened in 1967; Haunted Mansion in 1969. Ask people today about the best theme park ride of all time and they’ll likely mention one of these two. So why hasn’t Disney built any rides like these in nearly forty years?

And by “like,” I mean, long, meandering, atmospheric rides. Don’t get me wrong: I love the faster-paced rides like Indiana Jones and Tower of Terror that have been the focus in recent years. But what the heck is going on? The Disney filmmaking division doesn’t let a hit-making formula pass them by…why is this one sitting in the Imagineering cellar gathering dust?

Hyper-Marketing, Part 1: The Disney Vacation Club.

During a trip to Walt Disney World in 1996, I couldn’t help but notice that a fantastic number of “Disney Vacation Club” signs, kiosks, and information booths had sprouted at every park and hotel. The sense of being constantly marketed-to at Disney parks isn’t new, but the Vacation Club pitch took it to a new level. It was annoying and obnoxious, and unfortunately, its presence is even more smothering today.

Disney vacationers have voluntarily trapped themselves in a non-stop ad for the company. You’d think that concession would warrant corresponding subtlety on Disney’s part when attempting to coax even more dollars from visitors, but you’d be wrong. And with the addition of Vacation Club condominiums at Anaheim’s Grand Californian, the situation is likely to be duplicated at Disneyland. I can’t wait.

The Disney Vacation Club Itself.

The Disney Vacation Club is a vacation timeshare that lets people buy “shares” in a Disney property (typically condominiums at the resorts) in exchange for a significant upfront purchase price, plus annual dues.

I don’t begrudge the idea of people wanting to own a part of the Disney parks. I don’t doubt that some people have had very nice vacations as a result of the DVC, and gotten some good deals. But I question the result of 1) letting people feel like they own the place, and 2) the loss of quality that comes from any vacation plan where your money is taken in advance, the proprietor doesn’t have to work for it, and, in effect, is really hoping that you won’t even show up.

That the DVC kiosks have had a small but negative influence on the parks is, I think, hard to dispute. As places that work so hard to create a seamless environment, a DVC office is an intrusion that breaks the fiction that Disney is trying to create. Beyond that, with the DVC, you have a stable of owners who essentially have to visit year after year because their annual fees make it burdensome not to do so. How can that not weaken the incentive of Disney management to make the resorts better? How about getting people to come solely because they want to, rather than because it’s financially advantageous for them to do so? (I realize that members can avoid a “Disney trap” by traveling to DVC-approved locations elsewhere, but can there be any doubt that people are more inclined to make Disney their annual family trip after signing up?)

None of this means that Disney will always treat DVC owners as second-class citizens. But the behaviors this system incents all point in the wrong direction: away from Disney having to work its hardest to earn your vacation dollar.

Hyper-Marketing, Part 2: Disney’s Name on Absolutely Everything.

Is there anything more fatiguing that the constant use of the Disney name on every single property/technology/concept that the company employs at its theme parks? Does “FastPass” really have to be called “Disney’s FastPass?” Does the Grand Floridian Resort have to be “Disney’s Grand Floridian?”

If I see “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” on a set of bed sheets when I’m at Target, I understand: in a warehouse full of merchandise from thousands of manufacturers, it makes sense to call out the Disney stuff. But when I see “Disney’s FastPass” on signs that blanket the parks, I wonder: who else’s “FastPass” would it be?

Maybe there -is- some sort of technical or legal rationale behind FastPass being branded “Disney.” Whatever the reason, it’s not good enough. Disney too lightly discounts brand fatigue: overusing a name reduces its value. Disney, of course, has a long way to go before its name is ruined with meaningless uses like the ones I’ve outlined. But when the branding starts to become a joke (anyone hungry for a “Disney’s Handwichtm?”) then you’re not helping the brand, you’re hurting it.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that most people feel over-marketed-to during their Disney vacation. Why contribute to that problem in silly, meaningless ways?

Same Pricing for All Parks.

At a given resort, Disney always charges the same admission price for each theme park. Here’s the marketing reason: all of its magical wonderlands need to seem equally special. Here’s the reality: they’re not. And nobody thinks they are. What trick does Disney think it’s pulling?

Who would think California Adventure to be as good as Disneyland, even assuming one thought California Adventure a wonderful place to begin with? Disneyland is known world-over as the best. It has three times as many attractions, including landmark ones that any American could name off the top of their head. It has the Disney characters that little kids want to see. How could anyone in their right mind think that these two parks are equivalent products? And why would Disney want to promote them as such? It’s delusional.

California Adventure unquestionably had many problems when it opened, but pricing it identically to Disneyland was a naive mistake that exacerbated all of its issues. What could be wrong with sending a signal that a brand new, significantly smaller park may be—just may be—not as good as the world’s greatest?

Walt Disney World “Urban Planning”.

Walt Disney World was supposed to be Walt’s dreams of urban planning made incarnate. Yet here we are thirty-seven years later: could the place be laid out any worse?

“EPCOT,” The Name.

A less appealing name would be hard to think up, but worst of all, it has utterly nothing to do with the park that was actually built. Did Disney think that by choosing the name that Walt used (and who knows what attachment he really had to it) that they were satisfying Walt’s dream, despite the fact that they’d—rightly or not—changed everything about his design?

Yet the problem is worse than an ugly name. What to build in this park? What -not- to build? Disney seems confused. That the name of the park means nothing must have something to do with this confusion.

EPCOT, The Place.

Epcot has its moments. World Showcase can be charming, and features some good restaurants. (San Angel Inn…I’m looking at you as the notable, terrible exception.) Future World, at its best, can be inspiring.

So when I call it one of Disney’s biggest mistakes, it doesn’t mean that I hate the place. It just means that I wonder what Disney could have done with a similar amount of money had they not felt obligated to carry through with a watered-down version of Walt’s dream. A more tightly-focused, World Showcase-like shopping mall, not burdened with the baggage of Future World? A Magic Kingdom “plussed” beyond all reason? An American DisneySea? Something better than any of those?

Two Parks = Resort.

Two of Disney’s biggest financial messes have been in Paris and Anaheim, thanks to a devotion to the idea that adding a cheap second park to a location will fashion it into a place that people will plan their vacations around. We’ve seen the results, and the lesson is clear: you can’t just call a place a “resort” and expect people to automatically stay for a week. It worked in Orlando, but people had been taking winter breaks to Florida for years; Disney World just gave them a more exciting and convenient way to do that.

Though people love traveling to Paris, they aren’t looking for a resort. Same for Anaheim. Both of these locations seem to be turning things around, but the concept of “two parks = resort” should be buried.

Setting a Park’s Budget.

Disneyland Paris was too expensive. California Adventure, Walt Disney Studios Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland were too cheap. Clearly, the Walt Disney Company hasn’t got its budgeting straight.

Disney’s America.

Disney’s lucky that this park wasn’t built. I wrote about it in an earlier column about California Adventure, which I’ll quote here:

Disney executives should thank their lucky stars that that park wasn’t built in Virginia, California, or anywhere else. One can imagine after the first two years of lackluster attendance (as evidence, think for a minute: can you come up with any great ideas for new attractions in Disney World’s Liberty Square? Have any of your most promising ideas for future Disney attractions been situated there?) roller coasters, white water rafting rides, and simulators would flood the park, trivializing its mission and thereby becoming exactly what its detractors said it would be all along.

The sad part, however, is that in announcing the park the damage was already done. Disney became the company that destroyed Civil War battlefields; the company with the gall to imply that American history was too complex and intimidating for average citizens to understand without having Mickey Mouse hold their hand. 

Sprinkling Disney Characters on Something Makes It Better.

Given the torment that the recent Small World controversy stirred up, Disney fans sometime give the impression that the parks have been ruined by out-of-control corporate marketing. But are things today that different from when Walt was in charge? After all, wasn’t that ABC’s Davy Crockett hanging out in Frontierland at the Disneyland opening? And wasn’t there a 20,000 Leagues walkthrough situated in Tomorrowland from 1955 until 1966?

Both are true, and though I think those particular instances of movie tie-ins are by nature different than what we see today, let’s assume for the sake of argument that they’re every bit as geared toward marketing as a High School Musical parade. I assembled a comparison between the attractions present in Disneyland’s first five years and those added in the last ten. (I left out Fantasyland attractions; I’ve never contested that Disney characters weren’t, or shouldn’t, be present in Fantasyland.) You can quibble with the contents of my list (is the “Bathroom of the Future” really an attraction?), but if you look at the numbers, the conclusion is hard to dispute: 7% of the non-Fantasyland attractions had movie tie-ins at the beginning; today the numbers are 53% for Disneyland, and an amazing 83% for the Magic Kingdom.

That the Disney characters weren’t very important to 1955’s Disneyland isn’t necessarily a condemnation of the movie take-over that’s been in full swing since the early ’90s. But it is a reminder that those characters aren’t necessary to making the park a fun and relevant* experience to guests. Disneyland became a sensation in its own right; the movie tie-ins were secondary. That they’re perceived as essential now is an idea that, at the very least, can be questioned.

Looking at it from today’s hyper-marketing perspective, it’s amazing that the park Walt Disney unveiled in 1955 devoted only 20% of its real estate to the characters that had made him famous. Didn’t Walt understand synergy? Of course he did, but that wasn’t the point of Disneyland. Surprise: the place succeeded anyway.

*relevant: a word that should never be used to justify modifications to a Disney park. See Revisionism.

Disney Substitutes “Fake” for “Real,” Even When Real is Cheaper and Better.

Finally, here’s a mistake that Disney fans rarely notice, but I believe it to be the number one reason that those not enamored with the Disney parks are…well, not enamored. It’s a blind spot that the company has never rid itself of.

At the end of Disney’s CircleVision tour of Canada in that country’s Epcot pavilion, audiences are treated to a song written especially for the attraction, “Canada (You’re A Lifetime Journey).” This film is designed to communicate the majesty and grandeur that is Canada, yet somehow, Disney decided that real Canadian music can’t convey that feeling adequately; instead, they hired the guy who wrote the “Universe of Energy” theme song to tell you this in more explicit terms.

There isn’t any actual Canadian music that would communicate this idea more spectacularly, and in a more authentic fashion? None?

This “Disney-Magic-is-better-than-reality” problem reached its apex at Disney’s America, with the company seeming to imply that Washington D.C. and an authentic Civil War battlefield weren’t up to the task of telling America’s story. But this problem crops up in smaller ways in the rest of Disney’s parks.

On the Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, we see Casablanca‘s climatic moment acted unconvincingly by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman animatronics, and we’re moved far less than when we saw the scene that inspired it earlier in the ride, up on the silver screen. There seems to be no sense from Disney that they know when their magic works, and when it doesn’t.

And this quote from Imagineer Joe Rohde, discussing the Animal Kingdom park:

Each Disney theme park has a centrally-located defining monument – a castle, a huge sphere, a mountain – that iconically defines the park as space, and as story. Because of our themes, the Animal Kingdom team was driven towards a natural icon. We developed the “Tree of Life”, a hundred-forty foot tall sculpted tree composed entirely of the shapes of animals from every realm of the Animal Kingdom.[2]

It didn’t occur to the team building Animal Kingdom that a “hundred-forty foot tall sculpted tree” is not a “natural icon”? It’s cement and plastic. There’s nothing natural about it. We see a pattern: nothing “real” could possibly be grand enough for this park; we’re going to have to fake it up to adequately convey to you just how amazing the natural world is. Was this irony lost on those who built Animal Kingdom?

I’ll admit, this is a strange complaint. Aren’t the Disney theme parks “fake” to their very core? Isn’t that part of why people love them?

“Fake” as manifested in Pirates, Haunted Mansion, Tom Sawyer Island, etc., is more than fine, it’s necessary for Disneyland to be what it is. “Fake” is required in order to give people experiences that they couldn’t otherwise have, and to make things look like they otherwise wouldn’t (Big Thunder Mountain, for example. I’ll even throw the Jungle Cruise in as a place where “fake” is okay, because there’s no way to deliver the experience that the Jungle Cruise wants to give you by using real animals.)

Where “fake” becomes a problem is when it substitutes for reality in places where reality would have been more than adequate. “Disney Magic” works when it enhances what it’s applied to. (Undoubtedly, Splash Mountain is a better ride than it would be were it unthemed steel.) But in the Canada pavilion, they put some extra “Disney Magic” on the movie, and the result is worse (regardless of what you think of the song itself, which is pleasant enough), less authentic than it could have been, in a park whose goal is to deliver at least a little piece of authenticity.


In Conclusion…

So there we are: lots of mistakes attributed to this company that I love. All things considered, though, they do a great job: Disney gets far more right than wrong.

If I could close my eyes and wish for one of these mistakes to go away, it would be the last one: the “fake” one. It’s that issue that distracts me during a park visit more than any other precisely because it plays into the central criticism of the Disney parks: that they’re sanitized and artificial–even dangerously so–and therefore not worthy of our attention. No doubt Disneyland is, in fact, “artificial”. But when it does it right, its artificiality is thrilling; not mundane, not threatening. It’s when the artificiality oversteps its boundaries that the experience can feel cheapened, and that’s a shame, because there’s beauty hidden inside the place that I want everyone to see.


5 thoughts on “Disney’s Biggest Theme Park Mistakes

  1. I think Disney has tried to repeat their success with Pirates and Haunted Mansion, but it’s hard when the talented people who created those attractions are no longer with us. I think their biggest mistake was canceling Marc Davis’ Western River Expedition. That would’ve been the true successor to Pirates and Haunted Mansion.

    It still could be built, too. The people who put together California Adventure seriously missed out on not including WRE in the park.

  2. You and many others have covered how Disney has changed and screwed up over the years; I think it would be just as interesting to discuss how the average park guest has changed over the years. The lack of wonder, the abundance of sloth, rudeness,…it takes quite a bit to keep these morons happy, and unfortunately, it’s not the same things that attracted guests of the past.

  3. Thanks, Dave. Interesting point.

    One thing that has changed dramatically, and I think it’s more important than it sounds: people dress down for a day at Disneyland. I mean, really dress down. Mostly, they look lousy, especially compared to the ties and dresses that people wore back in the ’50s. We weren’t wearing ties, etc., when I started going in the ’70s, but people didn’t dress like slobs. And I think that -does- impact the overall atmosphere of the place, and how people behave.

    As to whether people are actually “ruder” than they were in earlier eras, I’m not sure. It’s a mix, just as I remember it being back in the ’70s.

  4. This is a great post. I really agree with a lot of these as being huge mistakes.

    I also agree with Dave.

    One can’t help but think that if Disney parks raised their standards for park goers (as in, what they would find interesting, what they are capable of imagining, and expecting them to be intelligent, polite, etc, and not catering to ‘morons’), and didn’t make a lot of mistakes on this list, that the people who go the parks would rise to the occasion. It’s been shown over and over that action leads attitude, and that high expectations or others lead to better performance from them in any subject.

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