Thursday, February 25, 2016

My Letter to the Walt Disney Company

Sometimes friends have to be honest with each other, and when you're doing something stupid a real friend will point it out.

It was in that spirit that I sent the following letter to several Disney executives:

February 25, 2016
Dear *******,

Thank you for taking the time to read my letter.

I must confess, I'm rather at a loss on how best to word this message. I'm not out to attack you personally, and I'm certainly not angling to score any Disney “freebies”. I am rather concerned about trends I've seen develop within the Walt Disney Company over the last several years, and I thought it may be of value to you to let you know how decisions are being viewed by consumers.

Let's start with ticket prices. According to The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2015 (and I'll trust Len Testa's math skills over mine every day of the week), the cost of a Disney vacation has increased roughly three times faster than US workers' median wages (6.2% vs. 1.9%) since 2005. To put that in perspective, it took the average worker 3.8 hours to earn enough money for a 1-Day Base Ticket in 2005. In 2015 it was 4.9 hours. If this trend continues, it will be 8 hours in a decade. According to my math, that means a person in 2025 would have to work an entire 40 hour week just to get his family of 5 into a theme park for a day. I really hope they're not hungry.

But I'm not kidding myself; the median US worker isn't exactly your target market, is it? It now costs more than an entire year's travel budget for 80% of US households to take a trip to Walt Disney World. If you're one of the 230 million Americans making less than $100,000 annually, then a yearly Disney trip just isn't in the cards.

So you're targeting the top 20%, once-in-a-lifetime visitors, and foreign tourists. You know what? I get that. I don't love it, but I understand it. If revenue is up (which it is; I pay attention to the annual reports), then the market can obviously bear this strategy, at least for now. (Once you're only bringing in the top 15% instead of the top 20% I think you could be in trouble, but that's a conversation for another time.) And let's face it; the parks are busy – crowded, even. Lines are long and guest satisfaction is down. Now, here is where I have an issue.

I've seen Disney using lower guest satisfaction due to long waits as an excuse for raising prices, as so many Disneyland AP holders will attest. But that's not the whole story, is it? Not when reports have surfaced that across-the-board cuts are coming to all domestic parks and resorts. Numbers of Cast Members are being reduced wherever possible. Fewer CMs will be at registers in shops, operating resort front desks, handling bags at the resorts, and running attractions. Overtime is being suspended wherever possible, and when Cast Members leave, they are not being replaced. And all of this despite record numbers of tourists and profits being reported. Shorter park hours and fewer Cast Members mean longer waits, and less things to see and do: Meet and Greets have been cut; rooms taken out of inventory at the resorts; reduced park hours; reduced operating hours of attractions, shops, and restaurants; and lower levels of customer service. And sadly, the Disney standards have slipped so far already. I can't count the number of times I’ve encountered filthy – indeed swampy – restrooms at places as varied as Epcot, the Magic Kingdom, and the Beach Club Resort. It's a sad, sorry decline from the days when top Disney executives would dive to pick up stray pieces of garbage.

And why are guests being treated to a sub-par experience? It's not like 2001, when guests were staying away in droves. No, the general perception is that these cuts are because of issues in Paris and Shanghai, and perhaps some lingering fallout from the boondoggle that was MM+/FP+. So once again, the geese that lay the golden eggs (the domestic theme parks) are being starved and deprived to cover ineptitude in other facets of the company. I have to feel that under those conditions, the production of golden eggs won't continue forever.

I obviously don't know your personal feelings or attitudes towards the Disney fan community. But I can tell you that the general perception among many Disney fans is that you view us as unintelligent, unsophisticated rubes that you can continue to milk shamelessly, and we'll continue to smile vacantly and thank you for the honor. How else to explain the outrageous increases in price combined with the egregious decline in service? Or that we continue to subsidize other aspects of the company, when there hasn't been a new country added to Epcot's World Showcase since 1988, and one of only two rides there has been out of service for a makeover since October 5, 2014? And don't even get me started on the Graveyard that was Formerly Known as Disney's Hollywood Studios. Don't you feel the least bit embarrassed about charging for a full day's admission there right now? Of course, I'm very interested in what may eventually come to that park, but if DAK's Avatar is any indication, I have to wonder if it will actually open before I'm in a nursing home.

I suppose now is the time when I should threaten to pull all of my business and never visit again, but the fact that I care enough to send this letter tells us both that's not very likely. I can tell you that even as a DVC member, I won't be visiting in 2016. 2017? Time will tell, I guess. More than anything, I'm just disappointed. I've always considered the Walt Disney Company as the gold standard for customer service, and modeled myself after you professionally. I'm truly sad to say that I believe I now provide a higher level of service to my customers than you do to yours.

If you would like any clarification to what I've said or to discuss this with me directly, please feel free to email me at ************ or call me at (***) ***-****. Thank you very much for taking the time to read and consider what I had to say.

Teri ********

In case you'd like to contact Disney executives as well, here are some useful email addresses:

Robert Iger

Tom Staggs
Chief Operating Officer

George Kalogridis
President of Walt Disney World

Jim MacPhee
Senior Vice President of Next Generation Experiences and Walt Disney World Parks

Phil Holmes
Vice President of Hollywood Studios, Former Vice President of Magic Kingdom

Sam Lau
Former Vice President of Epcot

Trish Vega
Assistant to Tom Staggs