Hey, gang!

I don't know how many of you will remember Michael Sweeney AKA Big Mike. Last week, he was one of the folks who was kind enough to share his thoughts about what was going with WDW's Magic Kingdom as part of last Wednesday's "Trash Talk OR Why Can't Disney Keep Its Kingdom Clean?" article.

Well, in response to Vance Rest's "Once and Future Kingdom" series, Big Mike's sent along another letter. Offering up his thoughts about what can be done to turn the Walt Disney Company's current crisis.

Given that JimHillMedia.com has allowed a themed entertainment industry expert the opportunity to weigh in about what's wrong with the Mouse House these days, I thought that it was only fair that Mr. Sweeney -- who, up until just recently, was a WDW cast member -- be allowed to give the rank and file's take on this situation.

After all, while the generals may plan the battles, it's the foot soldiers who actually fight the war. And sometimes it's really important to hear what the folks in the front line have to say.

So let's give Big Mike a big JimHillMedia.com welcome, as Mr. Sweeney tries to give us a cast member's eye view of what's gone wrong at the Mouse Factory. More importantly, his "Top Ten" suggestions for what it's going to take to turn this situation around.

Enjoy! And don't forget to share your thoughts on Big Mike's "Top 10" tips to fix Disney on our Discussion Board.

jrh


 

Dear Jim,

I am most definitely enjoying the articles by Vance Rest, although I do feel the language is a little above my level (What do you expect? Casting did send me to Frontierland. LOL).

Enough jokin' around, y'all...let me get to the point. I guess, in short, what I am trying to say is that the problems the company is experiencing is born out of short-sightedness for which a very thick pair of glasses are needed in order to correct their lack of vision.

What is this short-sightedness that plagues the company? Money, or more precisely, the stock's current standing. All of the problems we discuss on all of "State of Disney" websites is born out of short-sightedness and a foolish belief that the company must do whatever it can NOW to keep moving the stock-price up. This can be very dangerous considering the reputation of the company as well as the quality of the product.

Is this dangerous? Shouldn't the company do whatever it can to ensure the returns of its investors? Yes and yes. To the first question, we must examine the danger behind short-term profit chasing.

Jim, as well as you and I both know, the name is Disney. Its creator, Walt, is the most beloved creator of all-time. His brother, Roy, however, we really didn't know much about. Why? Because Walt, the creator, trumped his brother, Roy, the dollar-watcher, when it came to all of the key business decisions of their days running the company, and for this he received the most credit.

Out of this one-sided union, where creativity and the quality of the product were number one on the company's agenda, came long enduring classics ranging from animated classics (for which the company stills profits today)to Disneyland and Walt Disney World, the parks and properties that forever changed the amusement industry and for which hundreds of millions of people have enjoyed(and for which the company still profits from today).

When producing these wonders that still continue to attract millions upon millions of people to this day, Walt wanted to spare no expense. Of course, we all know Roy helped tremendously by reigning in Walt on occasion by telling him we have no more money(and unbelievably, Walt would find money when there was none---maybe he had his animators draw money onto the studio trees, who knows)!!! But to both their credit, no expense was spared and everything was done in accordance with producing the best possible product with the money they had available. And for their innovative risk-taking, the world, as well as the company, enjoys products that produce a profit to this day!

These products were born out of a quality first, let's make the best possible "widget" we can produce. Not every "widget" that Walt and his many teams produced were successful, but many of them were; and the ones that were are still a success to this day. To us, the formula seems so simple: let the creatives, within reasonable financial parameters, dictate the best possible way to build and add an even more wondrous luster to the Disney name. And yes, to a large degree, this is all it takes considering the legacy and reputation of Disney.

Now, the kingdom has lost it's "quality first" mantra. It used to be a way of life; attractions and films that took up to 10 years to plan and execute because of this stern and unshakeable belief in building the most fantastic "widgets" and the people will have no choice but to come. Product is always what it boils down to, no matter how much marketing a company does. And when it comes to Disney, the guests of the kingdom expect no less than a quality feature or a knock-your-socks-off attractions experience. They could care less about marketing.

I mean, yes, marketing initially will pull people into the theaters for a week or two (see "The Matrix: Revolutions" or better yet, "Pearl Harbor"). But quality, unlike marketing, will keep bringing them back for weeks upon weeks upon weeks of double-digit millions of dollars viewing pleasure weekends (see "Titanic," "Lord of the Rings" - could of been yours, Mike, "Harry Potter" - could of been yours, Mike, "Monsters, Inc.," "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo," "Star Wars," "E.T.," "The Lion King," etc). So you see, product does matter. Market (California Adventure, Pearl Harbor) and they will come for a little while to see what all the fuss is about. Produce quality (Tokyo DisneySea, "The Lion King")and they will come for a lifetime.

The quality of these products, over the long-run, depends on how much belief management has in its creative people to get the job done. However, in the current state of Disney affairs, cost are being cut across the board in the pursuit of short-term growth and gains. This compromises the management/creative relationship and ultimately quality suffers as projects are finished prematurely without the realization of the creative vision. When this happens, we get everything from "off-the-shelf attractions" with no soul or lasting appeal to movies with, also, no soul or lasting appeal. While I understand that this isn't always true, over time this factor will predominate in the success or failure of an entertainment company. A good story is what keeps them coming back...so stop cutting out the chapters of the book and let us see the entire vision of the story.

Striving for short-term growth is a dangerous proposition. My father always said to me, "If you do something, do it right." In other words, don't cut corners. The foundation of this company has always been the animators and Imagineering. They are the dreamers in the dream factory. Many of us have screamed, cried, smiled, laughed, pondered, and believed that dreams can come true because of these dreamers.

They are the reason our country, and many outside of our country, have a unique connection with the Disney name. We all scream on our first Space Mountain ride, we all cry when Simba loses Mufasa, we all smile when Pinocchio becomes a real boy, we all laugh when Big Al plays his set, we all ponder our past when we see The American Adventure, and we all believe that dreams can come true when we wish upon a star. These are the intense feelings and connections that are imbedded into our society as a result of these dreamers.

Where are these dreamers now? Most of them don't even work for Disney anymore because Disney has decided to cut cost in order to pursue short-term growth. The old legends of Disney's storied past are upset at the state of the company and can't believe the company is trashing its most important and treasured assets.

Instead, Disney has striven to expand its television presence(ABC)and its internet presence(go.com---over a billion dollars lost)and global empire to match the ego of its CEO. For Disney, this is a bad thing. Why? It has watered down the integrity and unique place the brand held in the hearts and the minds of the many. The name has been so overmarketed that people have become slightly resistant to it or altogether opposed to it. Let's tie in these 2 components: too much marketing plus a deemphasizing on the quality of the product equals what? A lot of people who are keenly aware that the Disney product is no longer what it used to be. It baffles me to no end. Why would anyone go out of their way to tell the world about a terrible product. If I produced something terrible, I would want no one to know about it which is why I pass gas in private places (sorry, only good parallel I could make plus I am a big fan of Pumba).

So therein lies a problem: Disney oversaturates the marketplace with its name and products...for which a lot of people respond to the marketing by buying/experiencing the products...and then they realize that the product isn't all as good as the marketing made it seem to be. Over time, this can be disastrous to a company as its reputation becomes inextricably linked to its substandard products for which no amount of marketing(unless you mention the word free) can help.

I worked in the parks. No longer are the hallmarks there: burnt out light bulbs, walls badly in need of paint, crumbling facades, trashy queues, trashy walkways, chipped benches, attractions in terrible need of maintenance as well as cosmetic makeovers, unhappy and unwilling cast members, etc. These problems cannot continue on. We market ourselves to our future guests and they will come away from their visit unimpressed. They will not come back. And this is what I am dreadfully afraid of. Much like Coney Island over a 100 years ago, Disney's reputation will slowly descend into the murky depths of that much hated concept: carnival.

That can all be prevented if the company makes some radical moves:

1. Get rid of Eisner and anyone who believes the bottom line is the only thing that matters and that creativity is really a four-letter word.

2. Develop a One-Two Combo along the lines of Walt and Roy; the CEO will be a creative guy and the #2, President or whatever you want to call him will be a money guy.

3. Get back to the foundation of the company: the dream makers, also known as Animation and Imagineering.

4. Get rid of newly acquired properties that don't make money; keep only ESPN as it has consistently shown itself to be profitable---this way instead of the company raiding the cash cows, ie Walt Disney World, for quick money to subsidize projects that are earmarked for company failures like ABC, the company can instead raid ESPN for added money to ambitious theme park and movie projects; this will help protect and further expand the company's core assets for which its reputation is built on.

5. Pay your workers, especially your lowest-paid workers, a living wage; many of the people I know who work at Disney World barely survive from paycheck to paycheck, if at all; how are they supposed to be happy at "the happiest place on earth" when some of them can hardly take care of themselves or their families? This will also show Disney to be a caring company and will also lend itself to the forefront of socio-corporate concerns.

6. Invest less money in marketing and more money into quality.

7. Get rid of FastPass, and instead build more high-capacity, high-quality, I.E. "real Disney attractions", for each of the parks; this will simplify the logistics of the visit but it will also lower the waits for most, if not all, of the attractions while increasing the guests happiness because there is more fun things to do!!!

8. Concentrate on the story in all things: make us smile, laugh, cry, hoot and holler, ponder...bring us back to our emotional connections!

9. Stop forcing people to purchase Disney products; you know, the old exit the ride into a gift shop gag; instead use the exit as a long conclusion to the journey/experience.

10. Get rid of Eisner (again); I am not anti-Eisner, I just believe he has lost his way. I believe what has happened to Uncle Mikey is just plain old ego from the company's first 10 years of success with him at the helm. His ego now blinds him from making the proper decisions in regards to running a company that has a special place in many millions of hearts around the world. Also, not having Frank Wells around to balance that ego out has hurt the company as it has made many blunders, both creatively and financially, since Mr. Wells' passing.

Jim, have a great day and keep up the good work. We need more people like you working to keep Walt's vision known loud and clear. Also, tell Vance we hope he continues to keep us informed of his thoughts and feelings regarding these tumultuous times at Disney.

It almost kind of feels like 1983-1984 again, doesn't it?

Sincerely and with hope,

Big Mike