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Declining by Degrees: 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.

Read what you’re missing...

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.

A separate concept comes into play here: the lack of concern on the part of executives about these issues. It's as if they feel that their audience comes so infrequently, they won't notice. It's a line straight out of MuppetVision 3D's queue movie, so I've taken to call this attitude the "Rizzo Factor." Like Rizzo the Rat (dressed like Mickey Mouse) says, "they're tourists... what do they know?" The Muppets mean it ironically, but sadly it sometimes seems like the Team Disney Orlando executives actually believe it.

Note that it could be possible to include such things as price increases, decreased food portions, homogenized menus, fewer perks included with special event tickets (like free photos of your family during Not So Scary Halloween party), and so on. Often I use the term to apply just to maintenance and upkeep. The following lists are presented in alphabetical order.

Still Broken

  • Dinosaur – the “laser scanner” at the start of the ride (just after dispatch) is often missing
  • Dinosaur – the lighted gateway after the starfield (as we transition to the past) is missing
  • Dinosaur – pterodachtyl no longer “dives” at vehicle
  • Dinosaur – compgsognathus no longer jump across the trackway
  • Dinosaur – “laser net” around iguanadon missing
  • Ellen’s Energy Adventure – the third room has curtains on the MAIN screen but not the side screens, so the “reveal” moment is stupidly lost
  • Expedition Everest - the Yeti is stationary; illuminated by a strobe light as cars pass by (shown in the story banner today)
  • Expedition Everest – the ‘bird on a stick’ seldom functions
  • Expedition Everest – the steam generated when the train first dispatches is often broken
  • Grand Floridian - a great many light bulbs along the roofline are burned out
  • Great Movie Ride – girls on the first set (Footlight Parade) are not spinning
  • Great Movie Ride – the second interaction scene – bank robber – is seldom seen, since all groups see the first scene of gangster

You won’t get away this time, bank robber!

  • Great Movie Ride – the “side” alien is always stuck in the “up” position even before his moment arrives to hiss and move
  • Impressions de France – a small tear/rip in the screen on the far-left mars every image.
  • Jungle Cruise – there's no mist/rain in the “rainforest” at the start
  • One Man’s Dream – the film is jumpy beyond the point of being actually watchable
  • Pirates of the Caribbean – many holes in the rockwork over the drop show the lightning effect right through them
  • The Seas with Nemo and Friends - the anglerfish is usually stationary these days
  • Splash Mountain – the bees do not spin over Brer Bear after the Dip-Drop

Recently Fixed

  • Pirates of the Caribbean – the mist waterfall and projection are back
  • Splash Mountain - the "hopping" bunny has been working most of the time lately
  • Spaceship Earth - the rocking Phoenician boats, broken for many months, are working again

Conclusion - the Broken Window Effect

My tracking of the declines began years ago with "small" items like burned-out lightbulbs or items needing a much better paintjob. The problem is partly that Disney set a high standard for itself that people expect - they are not shy about telling a story that bulbs used to be replaced when they reached 80% of the expected lifespan, so that visitors would never see a burned out light bulb. That was years ago; now the bulbs not only burn out, they stay dark for weeks at a time. The problem is further compounded by the premium pricing. Disney doesn't cost the "same" as other theme parks; it costs more.

The other main issue is the "broken window" effect. This theory became famous from the clean-up of New York City in the 1980s, where neighborhoods and officials stopped tolerating even one broken window. When the perception is that no one cares, vandalism and other crimes multiplied. When the perception shifted so that everyone cared, the problems failed to materialize.

A bouncing Brer Rabbit!

Walt Disney understood the Broken Windows theory decades before it became famous. He instructed his workers at Disneyland to instantly pick up any trash on the ground, with the theory that a dirty street encourages everyone else to add to the mess, but a clean street brings out the responsible citizen in all of us, and visitors make a special effort to use trashcans rather than throw things on the ground.

Something similar is at play in theme park psychology, this time among the executives (and in reverse). When they give themselves permission to let a few lightbulbs be burned out, it's only a small hop, skip, and jump to turning a blind eye when key show elements are broken. It used to be that several robotic performers per ride were considered essential to the show, and if any one broke, the attraction was closed until repairs could be made. These days, there are no such show elements. If the ride functions safely, it will not be shut down, regardless of how lifeless the robotic performers are.

Thus, we need to remember that there ARE no "small" declines by degrees. A decline is a decline. The burned-out lightbulb is like a "gateway drug" that leads to other, more visible lapses in theme park upkeep. If the theme park executives recognize that people won't stand for burned out light bulbs, then they'll know that visitors definitely won't stomach bigger show problems.

After all, if we are silent, isn't that the same as granting tacit permission to the executives to turn a blind eye to upkeep, and allow declines to continue to pile up?

Ultimate Orlando

Reminder: I’ve been blogging daily at http://ultimateorlando.blogspot.com – drop by to see my in-depth photo essays!

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Kevin Yee may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally. FTC-Mandated Disclosure: As of December 2009, bloggers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose payments and freebies. Kevin Yee pays for his own admission to theme parks and their associated events, unless otherwise explicitly noted.

© 2012 Kevin Yee

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Kevin’s Disney Books

Kevin is the author of many books on Disney theme parks, including:

  • Jason’s Disneyland Almanac (co-written with Jason Schultz) is an exhaustive listing of every day in Disneyland history, from 1955 to 2010. You’ll find park operating hours, weather and temperatures, and openings and closings of any park attraction, shop, or restaurant… for every day in the park’s history.
  • The Unofficial Walt Disney World ‘Earbook 2010 is a photo-rich volume of 70 pages that park fans will find especially useful if they want to know what’s changed at WDW since their last visit.
  • Walt Disney World Hidden History: Remnants of Former Attractions and Other Tributes As the title implies, this is all about those little things in the parks that have significance to insiders and long-timers, but are never explained or highlighted.
  • Your Day at the Magic Kingdomis a full-color, hardcover interactive children’s book, where readers decide which attraction to ride next (and thus which page to turn to) - but watch out for some unexpected surprises!
  • Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Memberprovides the first authentic glimpse of what it’s like to work at Disneyland.
  • Tokyo Disney Made Easy is a travel guide to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySeas, written to make the entire trip stress-free for non-speakers of Japanese.
  • Magic Quizdom offers an exhaustive trivia quiz on Disneyland park, with expansive paragraph-length answers that flesh out the fuller story on this place rich with details.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland is a list-oriented book that covers ground left intentionally unexposed in the trivia book, namely the tributes and homages around Disneyland, especially to past rides and attractions.

More information on the above titles, along with ordering options are at this link.