Declining by Degrees: The Definition and Context
Lest newer readers think the following marks me as a Disney-hater, every time
I return to the "Decline by Degrees" I like to preface these comments with a
disclaimer. What looks like criticism of Disney World, its operational
decisions, its policies, and its maintenance is done not because I dislike the
place, but because I wish for the park and its managers to live up its potential
and its reputation.
The critique here should not be interpreted to mean that visitors should
cancel their plans to visit Disney World. The message is more for Disney
management, to alert them that we notice when maintenance and other policies are
less customer-friendly than they had been in the past.
I've coined the term "Declining by Degrees" to capture the essence of the
problem: little touches are being ignored, maintenance is being deferred, and
details are being skipped over. There is a decline, in other words, but it's
happening in such small degrees at a time that most visitors don't notice them
individually. My idea is that they build up, perhaps subconsciously, and the
"magic" of what makes Disney different is endangered… perhaps even removed… when
the decline reaches a tipping point. Some may say that tipping point has been
met or even surpassed.
Declining by Degrees: Scorecard
Rather than start with the nitty-gritty, let's take a really long view today,
and start with the really big ways that the Walt Disney World vacation
experience has declined in recent years. As the list progresses, we'll start to
come to the more trivial stuff. Remember that the small stuff, these details,
are not insignificant! In some ways, they make up the heart of the declining by
degrees concept, since the decline is slow and persistent, and invisible when
Increased cost/fleecing. It's undeniable that things have gotten more
expensive at WDW, and there is no convincing argument that we're looking ONLY at
inflation as the culprit. It doesn't take much more than a glance at the ticket
costs to see this. Certainly tickets were underpriced in 1984, when Eisner first
came, but is there any excuse for the enormous rise even from 2000-2008? And
it's not just the big stuff. Consider pressed pennies, which cost 51 cents (two
quarters, plus your own penny). These days, you'll find pressed quarters
machines. You'd think that would cost 75 cents (two quarters, plus your own
quarter). But no; it costs $1.25. They seized the change from pennies to
quarters as an excuse to raise prices.
This kind of fleecing on merchandise happens across the board. Why in the
world wouldn't you want every single visitor buying a park map or cheap park
book to take home and leave on the coffee table? It's free advertising! The
maximizing of profits on souvenirs is short-sighted and stupid. And I can't
leave this section without mentioning how much a child-sized milk carton costs
at the counter-service window of Yak and Yeti. You can find the double-sized
milk bottles at 7-11 for $1.49, yet the small-sized 2% white milk at Yak and
Yeti costs you $1.99; it would cost $4 to buy as much milk as you can get for
$1.49 at 7-11.
Look, I understand the concept of a captive audience. I still think people
would return for a vacation every year if the prices were reasonable, but if you
must charge a premium and rip them off, surely there's a line in the sand
somewhere in terms of how much to rip them off and still be within the bounds of
propriety? I'm sorry, but this milk crosses the line. And it's only one example
among hundreds. (and no, I won't accept any argument about Yak and Yeti being
run by an outside company. It's in Disney's park, which makes it Disney's
I know costs are rising, but this is ridiculous.
Decreased operating hours. I have in my paper collection some guidemaps
from my visit to WDW in 1989, and they clearly state how late the parks are open
every night in the summer: 11 or midnight, or even 1am. No more. Excepting
holidays themselves, the parks are not open nearly as late, even during summer
and Christmas. If you lose 3 hours per night in the parks and still pay the same
admission price, you're being ripped off by comparison to those previous years.
Add in those more-expensive admission tickets (see above), and you're being
ripped off twice.
From time to time, I hear the counterargument that the park now offers Extra
Magic Hours (EMH) for its own hotel guests. I guess so. That means a couple
extra hours in the morning, and a few at night. But if you think about it, even
for the hotel guests this represents a lessening of the experience compared to a
decade ago. Instead of all the parks being open late, now only ONE of them is.
And every guest swarms there, so the place is busy. Only Disney could save
money, reduce the guest experience, and STILL market it as somehow a perk for
the guests. (The marketing genius simply must be admired sometimes).
Sure, the parks are saving money and maximizing returns for shareholders, but
at what cost? Does there come a point when people decide to return every other
year, rather than every year, because things are less magical? Because they
sense the company is reaching into their wallet more and more obtrusively each
time? Raising prices at the same time as cutting services is extremely
short-sighted, and it's eroding the brand. I get plenty of emails from folks who
used to visit WDW yearly, but do so less often now. In a word, the place is
declining by degrees.
Hard ticket private parties. Going hand in hand with the notion of
closing early is the idea to utilize the suddenly-free evenings to offer
hard-ticket parties. At first blush, the idea sounds great. Dress up as a pirate
or princess! Go trick or treating in the parks! Celebrate the holidays! But it's
a marketing bait and switch. You get special fireworks and a special parade,
sure. But why in the world can't they do this as part of the regular day, and
let all the visitors see it? Epcot and DHS do that (Flower and Garden, Food and
Wine, ESPN Weekends, Star Wars Weekends, Soap Opera Weekends).
But the Magic Kingdom charges extra, and it's just not good customer service.
They close the parks extra early on that day, usually 6:00 p.m. On your way out,
you are besieged by CMs excoriating you to buy a ticket for the special event
that night. It's insane. It's tantamount to saying "get out, and pay to come
right back in!" A true marketing visionary would realize that making the events
free and included would give a boost to the park attendance, and keep people
coming back for more. And buying event merchandise. Doing it their way now is
just risking ill will.
Get out, and pay to come right back in!
Attractions closed without replacements. Dead real estate sends a signal
that the parks are partly-rotting hulks. We finally got something in the former
submarine lagoon (not that a kid's playground is anything remotely as
interesting), but there's still lots of dead space where once we had something.
There's the skyway buildings, the Odyssey building in Epcot, the upstairs zone
of Imagination, the boat docks at DAK. But forget the signal sent about real
estate. The real sin is a diminished experience compared to previous years.
Conflict (or loss) of theme. When you add music that clashes with the
original theme of an area (such as Beach Boys at the Epcot entrance for Flower
and Garden), you dilute the impact of the original idea. This occurs also with
the garish flag decorations in the Future World central courtyard. It's happened
with the Captain Jack Sparrow additions to Pirates of the Caribbean, which is
now about a specific movie rather than a concept, and thus makes it harder to
fall into fantasy.
Most of Epcot has lost its theme. Just consider the original edutainment
goals of Land, Living Seas, Spaceship Earth, Horizons (now Mission Space), and
World of Motion (now Test Track). The original idea is gone. But by far the
biggest culprit here is cartoonization. The Golden Mickey now at the hub is only
the most recent example. Tomorrowland is nowhere near the theme of optimistic
futurism; now we have Stitch and Monsters Inc everywhere. Nemo has invaded the
Cartoonization now extends to us, the visitors.
FastPass side-effects. This is always a controversial topic. Long time
readers know that while I know FastPass is free for everyone, the reality is
that many first timers don't know how to use it, or that it's free, or how to
maximize usage of it. Taken as a whole, this means the only reason the system
generates time savings for users is that other people are not using it, so in
practical terms, it's an unequal system.
But even beyond all of that, you have side effects like people not being in
line, and since they have to be somewhere, they are now in the walkways, and
things are more crowded than they were a decade ago. Plus it gets even worse.
Queues were built to tell the story even in line, and those are now being
skipped some (or all) of the time. For those who do use the standby lines, the
lines move slowly. Compare that to a non-FP ride like Nemo's sea cabs or
Spaceship Earth, two Omnimovers. Do you see how fast and consistent the line
moves? That's how all of Epcot and the Magic Kingdom used to be. Now the parks
Reduced entertainment. There are still parades and stage shows, to be
sure. But not everywhere. Epcot once had parades and a sky spectacular above its
lagoon during the daytime. Where did this go?
Restaurants closed and replaced with food carts. This problem is worst at
the Magic Kingdom, where El Pirata, the Adventureland Veranda, and the Noodle
Station are often closed even on busy days. Meanwhile, a few new quick vending
carts have sprung up. Sure, it may look better on paper and result in more
marginal profit (sales per labor hour, labor percentage of sales, etc, will all
look better with carts), but that doesn't mean it's good for the theme park.
Blackjack tables would make millions! Doesn't mean they should rip out Peter
Pan's Flight and replace it with a casino.
Blanding of menus. The relatively new Disney Dining Program has rapidly
grown, and many vacations are now sold with this pre-paid food option. It's a
separate issue that the DDP itself has had declines by degrees, like the loss of
free appetizers or pre-paid tips. Let's focus instead on what the DDP, in any
form, does to the theme park. It's made the table service restaurants full all
of the time, which was doubtless Disney's goal. But with meals pre-paid, just
how much incentive do they have to make the food actually good? Isn't it logical
that quality will slide?
Bland menu? Blame the DDP.
And any manager will tell you that people who prepaid for food want food they
are familiar with, which often leads to dumbing-down of the menu to more
populist choices. People who in the past might have had hot dogs at fast food
now want hot dogs at the table service places, and as a result, the menus are
becoming increasingly bland. If you want an extreme example of where this is all
leading, look at Universal's Meal Deal, which is only accepted at a few
restaurants around the park, and the quality is universally bad at those places,
since they have no incentive to try.
Loss of spontaneity. FastPass is one culprit here, but so too is the way
restaurant reservations are now handled. It used to be you could easily grab
same-day reservations, but the combination of the DDP and the ability to make
reservations six months out has led to a real requirement to make them early, or
you won't get them at all.
The downstream (and probably unintentional) effect of
this is that the day becomes pretty planned out. Your food reservations dictate
major events of the day, and FastPass tickets take care of the rest.
Spontaneity, and indeed possibly relaxation, is no longer the point. They call
this a vacation?
Homogenization of merchandise. Long ago, every shop had its own unique
set of merchandise, some of it quite difficult to find outside of your Disney
vacation. Now, it seems like every shop has the same merchandise as every other
shop. Part of the problem is the lame attempt to save money by branding
everything with "Disney Parks" as though Disneyland and WDW were
interchangeable, but the issue is bigger than even that.
Merchants may realize a
small savings by buying things in bulk and buying fewer unique varieties, but by
golly it means visitors are going to spend less, since they are seeing the same
thing over and over.
Loss of quiet corners and special areas. The play area on a Viking ship
at Norway is perhaps the most visible special area that's now gone, but there
are loads of quiet corners which were once content to merely be quiet, out of
the way places for people to relax. Increasingly, it seems like every square
meter is required to generate money. The invasion of the parks by DVC is only
one such example (did you know there is DVC in Tomorrowland as well as
Frontierland?). Apparently executives didn't know people want to sometimes just
relax and catch up with their day.
Upkeep, paint, and regular cleaning. In some ways, this category is the
heart of the decline by degrees. The problem here boils down to managers and
those empowered to fix things not actually riding the rides and seeing the
problems. Or, I suppose, it could be that things are being reported, but there's
something broken about the workflow that keeps things from being fixed.
customer end, none of that matters. The point is, something is broken or ugly
for a long time onstage, and it diminishes the experience. Period. And it's
unacceptable in a Disney park. Here are just a few current examples:
- The mural at the climax of Maelstrom has a big rip in it, utterly
destroying the illusion of being outdoors in the North Sea. Horrible show.
- Outdoor signs are left to rot for a long time before they are replaced.
The Richard Petty Driving Experience vinyl banner was recently replaced (yay!)
but the banners at the entrance tunnel to DHS are old and faded. And they
still claim Bear in the Big Blue House is somehow at this park, which is no
longer true. There are old and faded outdoor banners all over WDW.
Hey! Where is Bear in the park!?
- Scuffed paint and visible wear and tear imperceptibly add to the notion
that WDW is tired, old, and stale. This problem is literally everywhere, but
particularly bad spots can be seen at the columns inside Mickey's
Philharmagic and all over the bridge over Columbia Harbour House. But as
noted, this is universal. Every ride coordinator and every low level manager
is somehow guilty of not following up enough on this issue.
- Fresh paint is
not expensive. The parks positively MUST put a premium on this issue. If the
work order request system is backlogged, then they must throw money at the
problem to fix it. These are the kind of details that imply to visitors that WDW has lost its sheen and is now not that different from the local
carnival. They can't afford to lose these once-a-year visitors.
Is it that hard to get managers to wander the parks?
- Things are dusty that shouldn't be. Only the Haunted Mansion is
allowed to look dusty. Everything else is laziness. Look at the scrims
on Carousel of Progress, or the mural on the loading dock of Maelstrom,
or the cobwebs that are still on every lantern around World Showcase for
simple examples of how dust builds up. These problems have to be
detected on the most local level. Managers have to ride their own rides
and walk their beats with a critical eye. And I hope someone lowers the
boom if the job isn't being done right. Again, this problem is all but
universal at every ride.
In person, those scrims are awfully dusty.
- Water fountains are being left off. They finally fixed the one by
MK's first aid (yay!), but there's the one by Pirates which is full of
potted plants, as is one by the Italy pavilion. This is not water
conservation. They run two water parks and evaporate millions of gallons
via the artificial lakes and bays! This is pretending that the public
doesn't notice. Well, the general public may not notice, not
consciously. But subconsciously, these things add up.
- Mechanical breakdowns seem more common. Do I really have the bad luck
that every day I visit, the retracting shark in the Nemo ride breaks,
even though it was fixed that morning? Do they fix the waterfalls above
Rainforest Cafe at DAK's entrance every night, only to have it break
again the next day? Or is it more likely that these are problems not
getting quickly addressed? I have a lot of understanding for things that
break. I don't complain that the yeti on Everest is in so-called B mode
up to half the time for me. But when something is broken for months on
end, that's a problem. That's someone now doing his job.
- Lastly, trash levels in the queues seem much worse than previous
decades or Disney's hard-earned reputation for cleanliness. Partly, the
problem is FastPass. In the old days with fast-moving lines, you could
send a sweeper into the line, and he'd just wait along with the Guests
and not need to zigzag around them, since the line was moving fast. Now,
with the standby line quite frozen for minutes at a time, sweepers are
forced to rudely sweep under people's feet, and to zigzag through them.
I can see why some might not bother, since it looks rude.
Diminished detail. Have you looked lately at the trashcans outside of
DAK? They are plain green, with no decoration or logo at all. And what happened
to the gas pump with the key bubbling inside it, at Pete's Garage in Mickey's
Toontown Fair? There's just a nondescript metal box there now. Um, executives?
The details are not expensive wastes of money. They are the reason we come to
your parks. Fix this or risk losing your audience.
It's just a trashcan, right? Wrong.
Lawyer-ing of the parks. Heard for some years on Spaceship Earth: "you
are now rotating backwards." Can you imagine this with a coaster! "Warning! You
are now going through a loop upside down. Remain seated please." Ludicrous. Put
this on the screen now that you have one.
Bland park promotions. It's the year of a million dreams, now lasting 2.5
years. There's nothing inventive about this promotion. Vague and bland words
about magic and sentimentality don't really work. At least for the anniversary
celebrations, you could capitalize on nostalgia for the park attractions, and
you'd have a real reason to clean things up, and create new parades rather than
rehashes. The million dreams logo is bland and boring, and if you plaster 300 of
them in close proximity to each other in the parking lot, all you're doing is
strengthening the idea that your parks are bland and boring. Not good.
Cuts for Disney's Dining Experience. The DDE delivers 20% discounts, but
this year you only get one card for free, not two. And restaurants are now
assessing an automatic 18% gratuity on DDE purchases, which means you are
getting a 2% discount, not 20%. Sounds like it's worth your $75 annual fee,
doesn't it? It gets worse. The receipts print up with a blank line labeled for
the TIP, and if you don't look closely, you won't see that you've already been
assessed 18%. Misleading is right. Only a few servers cross that off for you;
the others must be hoping you'll tip them twice.
External intrusions. I've seen the local blimp hovering over the parks
more often lately, giving ads on the side. For some reason, the helicopter tours
have become more brazen in recent months, some of them buzzing only two hundred
feet overhead. And they occur every 20 minutes now; it's quite annoying.
Seagulls descend in droves at certain times of the year. And while all of those
are external factors, they are still Disney's problem, since the real world is
intruding. Worse, Disney is adding to the problem. They're selling 25 acres
along 192 near the DAK DVC lodge, and the Kingdom Tower DVC might well interfere
with sightlines from inside the MK. I thought the point of a Disney World
vacation was to escape the everyday world?
Even the CMs have declined. It used to be that
sent home for wearing sunglasses that hide your eyes.
As a conclusion, I should point out that I'm not angling for a free or even a
cheap vacation. In fact, I'd probably be happiest if a Disney vacation were
expensive. If you put me in charge, I might even raise admission costs. But I
would also radically change the experience once you're inside. Keep it awesome
People are happy to pay a premium price for a premium
experience. The problems arise when you charge premium prices for what is no
longer a premium experience, and you're just trading on brand recognition (and
eroding the brand). That's the decline by degrees.
Inclining by Degrees
Fair is fair; if I'm going to catalog the ways the parks have chipped away at
the experience, I'll need to stay balanced by also mentioning how the experience
has been plussed in recent years. This list is unfortunately shorter.
Finally Fixing Things That Should Have Been Fixed Right Away. These are
items that were long-term eyesores, and frankly shouldn't be considered
"inclines" at all, since the parks should be fixing these things anyway, and in
fact shouldn't have taken so long to fix them. Some items on this list took
literally years before they were fixed.
- One glass panel at the loading area of Nemo had been shattered and is
- "Pepe Churros" is covered up now at the Churro cart outside the Great
- After more than three years, they finally fixed the broken windmill
blade on Tom Sawyer's Island.
It looks great! But what took so long?
- It took years to replace the sign at the TTC with black paint
covering up a no-longer-available transportation option. They replaced
the signs once, and then again a few months later when DHS changed its
- The neon lights at DHS are now usually well-lit, as are the
lightbulbs on Main Street. Usually. I think they didn't return to the
policy of replacing bulbs before life expectancy was reached, but at
least they appear better now about reporting the dead bulbs when they
Special Events that Don't Skimp. Epcot
special events requires building and rebuilding things fresh every year, such as
the butterfly house and a large amount of infrastructure. This costs a good deal
of money, and it's impressive that they are willing to spend that much.
ESPN the Weekend opens up a parking lot with lots of free
New Initiatives that are Customer-Friendly. I count PhotoPass as a
customer-friendly service that I'm glad exists, though others say it's pretty
expensive and not that friendly. Certainly Disney's Magical Express, the free
bus service from the airport, qualifies as nice. Despite predictions from
curmudgeons such as myself, this has so far stayed free, so I stand corrected on
Infrastructure Investments. The argument could be made that Disney is
SUPPOSED to upgrade its infrastructure every so often, but I like to give praise
where praise is due.
- The United Kingdom bathrooms finally got electric-eye faucets, after
many years of lagging behind other facilities.
- A quick construction job later, there are no more curbs at the
Central Plaza or Town Square, which is very much appreciated by users of
wheelchairs, ECVs, and strollers.
- New drinking fountains have been added to the TTC, a traditionally
hot and unfriendly facility.
- Monorails converted to a stroller friendly format. That was money
Disney didn't have to spend, but spent it anyway.
Attraction Updates. There have been lots of these over the years, but the
most recent ones provide an example of how Disney really does try to keep things
fresh inside the rides. The Haunted Mansion enhancements hit the spot, and the
articulated character heads (Mickey moves his mouth in the stage shows!) is a
nice, if slightly creepy, addition. But it's little stuff too. Have you seen the
attraction signs that sport tiny characters, like the Barnstormer or
Cinderella's Golden Carousel? It's a nice touch.
A nice touch, and probably hard to paint on an ongoing basis.
Overall Verdict: As noted at the start, I'm not anti-Disney in the least.
If anything, I'm highly pro-Disney, and am just trying to keep current
management's feet to the fire, to hold them to the standards we've come to
expect over the decades. The above lists should not be construed as saying that
you should cancel or avoid a trip to Orlando. I still love the parks and I think
you'll love them too. But yes, the parks could be better still.
management could learn a thing or two from the Oriental Land Company, which runs
the incredible Tokyo Disney Resort. Which leads to the next topic. . .