The rumors had been brewing since May that Tom Staggs was about to begin a re-organization of the bloated Disney Parks management structure he inherited from Jay Rasulo last year, and the sudden retirement of Parks President Al Weiss in June was the first big move. But the news last week that Meg Crofton would take on Al’s old title hit the fan community like a ton of bricks, even if Meg’s new role is dramatically downsized from Al’s old empire and is shaping up to be a rather hollow figurehead position.
In this update we’ll fill in West Coasters unfamiliar with the Floridian names who Meg is exactly, we’ll tell you why the news about Meg isn’t nearly as bad as most people are assuming, and why Anaheim won’t go the way of Orlando anytime soon. In addition to the executive scoop, we’ll get you up to speed on a few smaller rumors and plans for the Disneyland Resort as it glides through its 57th summer season looking fresher than ever.
Special thanks to Andy Castro and Fishbulb for the photos today, and be sure to check back tomorrow for the MiceChat Round-Up which will include one more update item that was placed there for space reasons.
Did you stop by Subway this morning for that breakfast flatbread? Have that chilled Cranapple juice
poured now? Well then let's get going shall we? - Al
The online Disney fan community erupted in shock and horror last week at the news that Meg Crofton was being promoted to the title of President of operations for Disney’s American and European theme park properties, a portion of the job duties that Al Weiss has held for the previous six years. On its surface the news was disheartening, and for Disneyland fans especially it seemed to be a giant step back to the days of Paul Pressler and Cynthia Harriss when the Anaheim parks languished and dimmed as attractions were run to failure, yet blow-dried executives glossed over the gloom with fake declarations that everything was fabulous and this was exactly the direction Disneyland needed to take in the new century.
For the Disney fan base, other than a few photos of her in the Mommy blogs Disney is so fond of cultivating these days, Meg has a rather lackluster resume; starting her career out of college as a manager in the marketing department of Disney’s internal phone company back in 1977, a time when most big companies ran their own telecommunications networks to get around the monopoly of the Bell System. Meg left Disney for a time in the early 1980’s, and then hired back in to the phone company before rising quickly through the management ranks of Orlando’s Human Resources department in the 1990’s.
This is not a Disney leader who has pictures of themselves bussing tables at Tomorrowland Terrace in a polyester jumpsuit, or can tell funny stories at cocktail parties about the time they were working the Hall of Presidents in college when the animatronics went on the fritz and George Washington slapped Richard Nixon and the audience applauded. Meg is a product of a solely white-collar, administrative, paper-pushing career with none of the glamour and street-cred associated with spending time working onstage in the theme parks. On top of that staid history, she’s been in charge of WDW for over five years as it went through a noticeable decline.
To be blunt, despite the many excuses offered by online apologists, the comparison to the Disneyland of a decade ago is rather apt for the Walt Disney World of today. The core WDW properties around the Magic Kingdom complex are hitting the same mid-life crisis that Disneyland hit around its 40th birthday in the mid to late 1990’s, with attractions and facilities looking worn and tired, and the basic infrastructure around the Magic Kingdom park in particular seemingly falling apart at the seams with weekly problems with transportation or rapidly aging hotels.
As Crofton (shown above) has been in charge of the entire Walt Disney World property for the last five years, the buck has to stop with her, and people lay most of the blame at her feet for the stale and neglected state of too much of the WDW property. At the very least you would have thought the lessons learned at Disneyland from 1996 to 2003 would have been used by the Florida team to stave off the same types of problems, but apparently WDW is doomed to repeat Disneyland’s mstakes, even if they’ve been more liberal with the new paint lately than Pressler ever was. We won't even mention how they were caught so flat-footed by the Harry Potter jauggernaut that has fueled the Universal complex down the road.
In the meantime, back in California, several well placed executives in Anaheim, Glendale and Burbank had been able to convince Tom Staggs that the setup of the “One Disney” structure Jay Rasulo dreamed up was too stifling to the Anaheim operation. (Not to mention the Parisians who had been weighing in with similar thoughts) While there is still great merit in streamlining some of the administrative and back-of-house tasks shared by the various properties, the thought that Disneyland could ever operate just like Walt Disney World, or vice versa, was the fatal flaw to the One Disney structure cooked up by Jay Rasulo.
Tom Staggs had repeatedly acknowledged those concerns about a bloated bureaucracy in Florida over the past six months, and he was agreeable to creating a different hierarchy that would give Anaheim leaders further autonomy while allowing them to tap into the streamlined One Disney structure when and where it suited the local culture and operation. TDA executives were then quite pleased to hear of the rumored changes coming after Al’s retirement.
To his credit, Al Weiss (shown above) was technically in charge of the Anaheim property for the past five years, but he knew well enough to stay out of the operation except for some long-term strategizing. As a lifelong Floridian, Weiss would visit Southern California regularly if a bit grudgingly, but he primarily stayed in Burbank and Glendale, with a rare drive down to Anaheim only once or twice a year. He had absolutely no facial recognition at the Anaheim property, and very little name recognition amongst anyone below the executive ranks. Weiss could walk around Disneyland completely anonymous, and his rare visits out in the park over the last few years usually consisted of polite conversation with middle management about how pleasant the SoCal climate was and how well-maintained the attractions were in Anaheim.
Weiss allowed the local leaders to run their property as they see fit, and he stayed out of the way. In that executive environment, Anaheim has had what many consider a new Golden Age for the past six years of countless new and updated attractions, new parades and night spectaculars, and well maintained facilities young and old, with the 1.2 Billion extreme makeover of DCA the big prize waiting for 2012. The reality out in Florida during that same time frame, however, was almost a complete opposite experience; and again it should be noted that Crofton was in charge of the entire property during that whole time.
In this delicate environment of a visibly declining Florida property, Crofton doesn’t do much to put fans or Cast Members at ease with her carefully crafted corporate personality that never veers off-script and always includes the latest marketing buzzwords. For all their alleged marketing savvy and attempts to harness social media, Disney’s senior executive structure in Orlando still thinks it’s communicating with a mentally-challenged audience who has nowhere else to go for news or information. Crofton personifies this unfortunate executive trait, and she appears to shy away from actually appearing in the parks or engaging the fans and her Cast.
A perfect example was the recent D23 Destination D event celebrating WDW’s 40th anniversary at the Contemporary Hotel, where Crofton and the rest of the Orlando execs chose not to show their face that weekend, even if just for a 30 or 45 minute window of working the crowd in the lobby at one of the pre or post-event mixers. (George Kalogridis, on the other hand, gladly appeared at Disneyland’s Destination D last summer for an onstage interview and then wandered through the lobby afterwards shaking hands and posing for photos.) Key insiders have acknowledged that Crofton and the Orlando team have embraced the trendy social media technology not so much for the desire to communicate, but because they think it absolves them of having to actually appear at fan events or walk through a crowded theme park on a steamy Orlando day. Yet there are very few people left who can’t see right through that.
A few banners popped-up backstage at Disneyland noting a website's readers had voted DCA
third place for best theme park in the US. USA Today also ran a story last week about how
Disney has improved DCA. Note some of the comments there about WDW's decline.
So, with that all said, it took lots of folks in TDA by unfortunate surprise when Crofton was elevated to a newly created role that technically oversees the Disneyland Resort. Interestingly, the announcement was not put on any of the usual internal communication devices, like Disney’s intranet site or other online resources that are normal venues for executive communication and that were all used to boldly announce Weiss’s retirement just a few weeks earlier. There was just the one memo, sent electronically only to top executives who were then expected to forward it on as they saw fit. The local media in SoCal didn’t cover the story at all, and if it weren’t for a single blog post by Orlando Sentinel reporter Jason Garcia that was endlessly circulated around TDA and theme park offices, it would have been nearly impossible to tell anything had happened.
The good news here is that after the announcement, the Burbank organization was dispatched for some damage control in Anaheim to help explain that it’s not as bleak as it looks. On the contrary, this change is going to offer the TDA team more of the reins on their own destiny while Crofton stays even busier in Orlando. Crofton still retains sole ownership of the WDW property, as she wasn’t outright promoted to a new position with someone else to fill her old role; rather she was just given a new slate of committee meetings to schedule in to her traditional workload. The shakeup Staggs rolled out also cut loose the DVC business, the struggling Adventures by Disney group, the successful Disney Cruise Line, and the three Asian properties from Weiss’s old role, sending those key facets of the Disney Parks empire to their own presidents and executive hierarchy that no longer intersects with the domestic theme parks.
Crofton’s executive strengths, primarily in Disney’s famously out-of-touch Human Resources group, will come in handy if a proposal that has been kicking around for a few years gets the green light; the outsourcing of the HR department at all the American properties. The new executive structure also doesn’t help to stifle pesky rumors that Disney might be open to shopping their various Parks & Resorts division around to an outside buyer; either the newly-created Asian division to a Chinese government-backed concern flush with cash, or the Euro-American parks division and/or the Cruise Line/DVC group to an interested party on either side of the Atlantic. We honestly can’t get a better read on that rumor, other than we have heard about an internal list of negatives for the company that is currently longer than the positives.
But back in the current situation, TDA appears assured Crofton will be a figurehead who already has enough charity boards to sit on to keep two or three people busy. She sits on the board of the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission, the board of the Central Florida Regional Commission on Homelessness, she’s an acting executive at Orlando’s Phillips Performing Arts Center, and just last month she was named to the 13-member Board of Trustees for her alma mater, the University of Central Florida. No wonder she didn’t have time to stop by the Contemporary for Destination D!
What the Anaheim team will have to get through, however, is the upcoming goodwill trip Meg has to make to Disneyland to pander to the locals at the park with the little, tiny castle. You can bet Crofton’s executive handlers are researching some Disneyland history for her to memorize on the plane, and her speechwriter will soon be preparing her schmoozy talking-points that are heavy on the Walt references. If Crofton gets desperate with the Disneylanders, she may even un-casually mention the fact that she was born in San Diego (before her family moved to Orlando when she was in kindergarten), since nothing goes over like a lead balloon at Disneyland than a native Floridian on a tight-smile executive tour.
There’s still no word on whether Crofton will make an appearance at Anaheim’s D23 Expo next month, but she could kill two birds with one stone and fold her goodwill tour of Disneyland in with a strategic appearance at the Expo since Staggs and Iger will both be there on Friday, August 19th.
NextGen continued: Meet the XPass
The other group that was cut loose from Al Weiss, and whom Meg Crofton won’t have control over, is the secretive Next Generation, or NextGen, organization that has been given a nearly limitless budget to remake the entire Disney theme park experience, at least for Floridians. The NextGen team is led by Jim McPhee (shown below), a well-liked senior leader who worked his way up from a host at the Tiki Room in the 1970’s to a Senior Vice President overseeing the NextGen skunkworks. NextGen, working closely with a team from WDI, has been manifesting itself in its early stages in some of the interactive queues popping up primarily in the Magic Kingdom with varying degrees of success. But the real NextGen goal is to remake how a visitor plans and experiences their stay at Walt Disney World, from pre-arrival to departure.
The core of the NextGen concept is something that currently has the working title of XPass, which is the next generation of Fastpass. XPass would work with the backbone of the current Fastpass and PhotoPass systems, but would go far beyond anything offered today as visitors would plot out each day of their Disney vacation weeks or months in advance with XPass. The system would schedule not just the big E Ticket return times for you, but nearly everything about your visit from lunch seating’s and Fantasmic! viewing to meet n’ greets with your kids preferred Characters to the smaller attractions and shows. The attractions that currently offer Fastpass to any park visitor, and plenty of attractions that don’t have Fastpass currently, would be converted over to XPass so that the only way to access a priority boarding slot at the ride would be to book your vacation with Disney and give your vacation plans over to the XPass system in advance.
An XPass card with an RFID tag in it and the visitors own smart phones (or a loaner unit from Disney) and the new QR codes they can scan would be necessary for anyone booking their trip through Disney. With the XPass RFID tag monitoring your every movement around property, every single on-ride photo or video capture device would know which vehicle you are in on rides, and once you walked out the exit it would offer instant picture previews sent to your phone for your purchase consideration through PhotoPass. XPass would seemingly know no bounds when it comes to planning your entire vacation and then shepherding you through day after day of pre-planned reservations and appointments and Character greetings and ride return times.
The entire NextGen and XPass concept is near and dear to Bob Iger’s heart, and the WDW planners hope to be rolling this all out by the middle of this decade. It’s a massive undertaking, and with this management overhaul Tom Staggs wanted the NextGen team to report directly to him instead of going through Al Weiss as it had done since its inception a few years ago.
Not surprisingly, an XPass concept could wreak havoc with many of Disneyland’s Annual Passholders who just drop in for a few hours at a time. DCA already dealt with a stream of enraged AP’s last June when they arrived to see World of Color for the first time and were told they should have been there that morning to get a Fastpass. The AP crowd has figured out how to schedule in a World of Color Fastpass, or purchase a dining package to get one, but it was ugly for those first few weeks last summer. The transition to an XPass type of preferred experience is something best rolled out in WDW, and most people in TDA are more than happy to let the Floridians have at it.
57 and counting...
Aside from that bit of corporate drama out of Florida, Disneyland is now enjoying its 57th summer under the sun (if you count the abbreviated summer season of ’55 that began late on July 17th). It’s been over a week since the Paradise Garden restaurant complex opened, but WDI and the electrical contractors are still struggling to get the thousands of decorative popcorn lights installed and wired correctly. The complex opened on July 1st with only about 75% of the lights installed, and less than half of them able to be turned on. They really did pour on the details here, and it’s worth the wait to get it all done, since this corner of restaurants was budgeted as a long-term investment for the park that won’t be going anywhere for decades. The expansion pad that would eventually place another attraction on the Goofy’s Sky School site extends to the east up to the Little Mermaid building, but it stops roughly at the patio of Paradise Garden and so the restaurant facility was given the full Imagineering treatment of detailing and extras.
If things go well out at the new main entrance turnstiles, those will be opened this weekend, with a new access route into the park behind Soarin’ opening up shortly thereafter. We had told you in the last update of the growing nervousness in WDI and TDA of the ability to get all of Buena Vista Street completed late next June, so the Buena Vista Street team is chomping at the bit to get access to the rest of DCA’s entry complex.
The Carthay Circle Theater building (shown above) has the luxury of already being behind walls and is on schedule, luckily, and TDA is still leaning towards the plan to create a second Club 33 style membership club for Anaheim for this facility. The plan now is to have two separate cocktail lounges on the first level, with the entire second level dedicated to a swanky and ultra-themed dining room. The club concept would allow members-only access to one of the first floor lounges and the upstairs dining room. The second lounge downstairs would be opened up to anyone, but would hopefully feed off the cachet of being associated with the Carthay Circle Club, its working title thus far.
There’s two competing schools of thought on launching the Carthay Circle Club concept; one faction in TDA looks at the long standby list of people willing to shell out big bucks to join Club 33 and thinks it’s a slam dunk, and the other faction realizes a similar club in DCA won’t mean much because alcohol is available all over that park and the Walt-era mystique of Club 33 will be nearly impossible to recreate on the former site of Pressler’s giant hubcap. The risk is that DCA already tried two upscale dining experiences and failed with the Vineyard Room and Avalon Cove.
It might be safer to try and skim off some of the Club 33 waiting list and then spend the next 20 years sucking up to the new members of the Carthay Circle Club until DCA’s own mystique is formed. Maybe they could hold an annual springtime tug-o-war competition in the Esplanade between Club 33 members and Carthay Circle Club members? TDA will have to make a final decision soon on whether to pull the trigger on DCA’s membership club, and the D23 Expo is going to be the perfect venue to launch it if they do go for it.
Expo Once, Expo Twice...
The D23 Expo is now five weeks away with plenty of tickets available, and late last month they were still working to sell all the discounted tickets set aside for Anaheim Cast Members. Despite the availability of tickets, there are very high occupancy rates at the 20,000 hotel rooms in Anaheim for that weekend, as the much earlier notification of this Expo gave people from outside SoCal time to plan and budget their visit this year.
Still, unlike 2009 when the rumors of big announcements about Star Tours 2 and WDW’s New Fantasyland were all over the web in the weeks before the Expo, this year doesn’t look to have a big exciting announcement in the pipeline.
There are a few possibilities to be announced, or merely hinted at, in either Tom Staggs keynote presentation or at the WDI-operated Parks & Resorts Pavilion. Hints could be coming at the Expo about a planned overhaul and expansion of WDW’s struggling Downtown Disney retail/dining complex to include a small water show using the World of Color technology.
But what is for sure is that Staggs will offer a fleshed out description of the parts of New Fantasyland that have changed since Jay Rasulo stood on the same stage in ’09 and announced lavish meet n’ greets and Pixie playgrounds that have since been cut and replaced. (And maybe it should be remembered that Tony Baxter's 1983 Disneyland Fantasyland makeover did little to increase numbers upon its debut.)
Info on the tightened up version of the original Tiki Room show for WDW will be offered up. Also up for grabs is the announcement of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory tour and soda fountain slated for DCA’s Pacific Wharf, and Staggs could also begin a campaign to get folks used to the NextGen concept by introducing some of the elements of the plan for WDW.
What is off the table in Staggs’ keynote speech is any mention of Disneyland expansion in either the northern section of Frontierland out beyond the berm, or the east side of Tomorrowland and the Innoventions building. There have been a few rumors about something new for the Orlando Studios park, but nothing that can be locked down. (They would beneft from ether the Cars or Marvel franchises I would think.) While the new Planes project might be a natural for the Condor Flats area of DCA should it succeed, that too is just speculation, if even that, at this point.
WDI’s Parks & Resorts Pavilion is planned to offer far more detailed glimpses of the big projects WDI is working on. If you wondered why there was no DCA Blue Sky Cellar update after the Little Mermaid ride opened, it's because you'll now find more detailed information on Buena Vista Street and the Red Car Trolleys there, along with a clearer display of Cars Land, Radiator Springs Racers, and the two smaller attractions it will feature.
Since the budget on just Tow Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree (shown above) has swelled past the 100 Million mark, for example, WDI will be eager to show where all the money is going on what many people wrongly assume is just a simple spinner. WDI wants to pull out all the stops, as many of the Imagineers really got a kick out of exhibiting their wares at the Expo in ’09, and their audience this time should hopefully be bigger.
It’s still a bit murky if the D23 Expo will be successful enough however, as rumors continue that Burbank is taking another look at the entire D23 concept and the lack of money and interest it’s generating beyond Southern California. It’s been hinted at repeatedly that this may be the last D23 Expo, at least in the mega-convention format in the giant Anaheim Convention Center.
My thought here is that this just might leave things wide open for Comic-Con to move up from San Diego, as it could benefit from the expanded exhibition space and hotel room inventory and price ranges in Anaheim. And it could offer Disney an easier and much less expensive way to pop in and out as needed to herald their priorities for the year.