Declining by Degrees
Al's recent article on his visit to Walt Disney World sparked a lot of discussion on MiceChat and in emails. I did some soul-searching as a result. Have I been too "easy" on Disney World? Not really—I shared pretty much all of Al's beliefs in the staleness of parts of Disney World, and have said so from time to time. But I don't point them out week after week. My first mental protestations were that it would make for boring reading online to read the same thing over and over. What I've realized is that I was missing a metaphor, a way to symbolically capture what's been going wrong at parts of Disney World, even while other things are progressing swimmingly.
Then it hit me. There was a PBS special on higher education in 2005 called "Declining by Degrees." The pun about diplomas aside, the point was that expectations from professors were decreasing steadily over time, as a consumer-mentality begins to dominate the entire educational spectrum, and "grade inflation" becomes increasingly common. I see a lot of parallels to the modern era at Disney World. Tourists, by far the largest type of visitor to the Orlando parks, have been subjected to a steadily decreasing emphasis on excellence from Disney for some time.
On the one hand, maybe this isn't surprising. A publicly-traded company, Disney is supposed to maximize shareholder value. One school of thought holds that an effective way to do that is to cut costs. It may make sense to curb profligate and unnecessary spending. Thus, some managers opt to cut spending until the customer notices. Why not just take away what the market can bear? It's the ultimate application of the free market thought process.
Problem is, it doesn't work that way at Disney. These aren't automobiles or digital cameras or frozen turkeys—what Disney is selling is much less tangible: experiences. What constitutes the magic? Who decides exactly which spending is "unnecessary"? What focus group can really, truly, honestly discover which details the guests are noticing? Walt Disney knew that the accumulation of thousands of minute details, most of them registered only subconsciously, is what generates the Immersion Toward Interesting Illusion (a tenet I've made reference to many times over the years). If you take away the details until the guests start noticing, then you've moved several orders of magnitude below the level of experience that USED to be de rigeur at Disney.
The idea that a publicly-traded company must cut all costs is a red herring. It doesn't have to be this way. Is it not a viable business strategy to maximize customer experience so that they'll come back next year? Maybe tell their friends to go visit, also? If this happens without cutting every last cost of doing business, isn't that a win-win? It's the management, from Iger on down to the park managers, who decides what level of customer service to offer. Current thinking seems to imply a belief that the tourists, the primary visitors to Disney World, won't notice the missing details because they don't come all the time. But they do notice. Walt knew that the magic is in those annoying, expensive details. And by "details," I include the issues of upkeep.
For Disney to metaphorically sweep problems under the rug is to contribute to a "declining by degrees" of their own. The implicit contract with the consumer is being subtly altered, and guests are being guided to expect less from Disney. Taken individually, these issues are minor. But seen in aggregate, we're looking at a seismic shift. Each decline may be small, but they add up.
Calling attention to the "declining by degrees" at Disney is not the same as being a perfectionist, and it's not just me (a frequent visitor) starting to notice things that others do not. Think of it this way: perfectionism is what sets the Walt Disney Company apart, or at least it used to. My complaints about the Disney Cruise Line experience (just slightly shy of perfect, despite truly premium pricing) were made with the same thought process: we as customers have come to expect perfection from Disney, especially when we're paying the highest prices. I realize that perfection is a "reach" goal (something you reach for, but not actually achieve), but that shouldn't stop our expectations for perfection. Especially since that's what Disney delivered for so many decades. We've come to expect it. It's part of the brand now. To settle for less than perfection is to erode the brand.
All that said, I've realized I need to offer a weekly update on Disney's Decline by Degrees. There needs to be a place to list (and show visually, when possible) just how Disney is allowing the perfection to decline. There are four parks here (and two water parks), so I can't pretend to see everything the instant it needs addressing, and things I list in this space may not be "new" problems, but that doesn't mean they deserve to be ignored.
Without further ado, here's the list of ways in which Disney World is declining by degrees. Each week I'll try to create a list like this:
Inclining by Degrees (aka, Baby Steps away from Mediocrity)
Turnabout is fair play: if I'm going to catalog the ways Disney is falling down on the job, it's only right to also list the things that have recently been fixed, and work in harmony toward the principle of Immersion Toward Interesting Illusion. This list is almost always sure to be shorter than the list of problematic elements, alas, but here's hoping that reverses itself:
Disappointing Spectacle of Dancing Lights
Out of previews and into regular performances (starting at 6:00 pm nightly), the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights features snowfall that stops only for the lights to perform their dance every fifteen minutes, and is otherwise the same static show. The lights are great as always, but the dancing element was somewhat disappointing. There are two songs by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, with a third coming in December (the artist or song has not yet been announced).
Though I applaud the effort to do something different with the lights, I found the result underwhelming. No doubt the entire enterprise was inspired by amateur videos of home lights set to music, courtesy of YouTube. But that invites comparisons, and it pains me to say that the amateur performance was better than Disney's professional one. There was more charm, and less intent to inspire awe by sheer magnitude, the way that Disney's does. I'm not sure how to fix this. There weren't obvious problems on the technical side; the syncopation with music seemed to be on cue. But something in the way it was choreographed just felt routine. Perhaps different songs would help?
Holiday Tag Begins at Illuminations
The arrival of the holiday season means that my favorite fireworks presentation is once again exploding nightly: the Holiday Tag at the end of Illuminations. The deafening roar of the finale, with thousands of shells exploding microseconds apart, would amaze me even if I saw it every day for the next ten years.
But Illuminations itself has undergone a slight change, courtesy of a new voiceover introduction. It's the same words, more or less, with different intonation. Clearly it's the same vocal artist, but at the same time, something in this new performance allowed me to realize what more perceptive people have probably known for years: this voiceover is done by the "movie trailer guy," Don LaFontaine. Imagine his voice saying "In a world…" and you'll know what I mean.
There's another change in the announcement between the regular show and the Holiday Tag. Previously, a female voice would thank the audience and encourage safe driving on the way home, and plenty of tourists would pack up, thinking that was it. Now, a new voiceover makes explicit that there's a finale to come. The result is that there's less confusion (and angry tourists), so this is a positive change.
Innoventions Exhibit #1 - Nanoscience
On November 19th, Innoventions West opened "Too Small to See," an exhibit dedicated to nanoscience by the National Science Institute (with consulting on design from Cornell University).
Visitors can construct carbon molecules using pegs and round wooden balls, and there are a couple of other displays with minimal interactivity, such as a darkened room that lets visitors touch giant screens and disrupt the carbon structures.
|CONTENTS | LEGAL|