What Is the Current State of Disney?
The official 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World is in the books, even though the party will last for another 18 months.
Wall Street analysts have cast a curious eye toward The Walt Disney Company, wondering whether ticket sales met expectations.
Meanwhile, Hollywood watches more warily. Industry veteran Alan Horn just became the latest Disney executive to announce he’s leaving.
This declaration happened less than a week after the head of Hulu abandoned Disney for Peacock.
As for fans, they’ve suffered a schism over the quality of some new shows.
All this drama forces me to wonder. What is the current state of Disney?
The Iger Era
Last week, one of the trades quoted Bob Iger several times in an article about his departure from Disney.
Some of the quotes read as either sage advice about the perils of spreadsheet-based decision-making or a passive-aggressive parting shot to his replacement, Bob Chapek.
I tend to believe the former, but I’m not much for gossip. Like most Fortune 50 companies, Disney has grown data-driven because that’s the best way to maximize revenue.
So, when Hollywood hears Iger saying that Chapek isn’t a creative, they fret. Simultaneously, Wall Street dances.
Running Disney is a tough gig, folks. You must try to please multiple masters, none of which have aligning goals.
Iger mastered the art over the years, yet his successor somehow did better in increasing the overall worth of Disney…during a pandemic, no less.
Now, Iger undeniably positioned Disney for that growth, as his acquisitions all count as masterstrokes.
For $12 billion, Disney snagged Marvel, Pixar, AND Star Wars. Any of those brands would have justified $12 billion on its own.
For his final two magic tricks, Iger picked up all the assets of the former Fox, thereby stocking the cupboard for his final act, Disney+.
So, any current Disney success occurred because of the stewardship of Bob Iger.
The Longest Goodbye
I don’t need to rehash the success of these projects, but I’ll discuss one to drive home Iger’s rare combination of luck and skill.
When Disney purchased Star Wars, the company immediately announced a new trilogy. Suffice to say that each new film faced substantial criticism.
Star Wars standalone films also became a thing, with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story justifying the premise.
Then, the one-two punch of Solo: A Star Wars Story and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker appeared to damage the brand dramatically.
In a very Iger turn of events, The Mandalorian rolled up immediately afterward and showed off its Baby Yoda.
All is forgiven after one floating carriage.
That’s Iger for you. Even when something like John Carter or Mars Needs Moms bombs, something like Frozen is lurking on the release schedule, ready to save the day.
Some Wall Street analysts have described Iger as the best CEO ever, and Time lauded him as the businessperson of the year in 2019.
Outside observers revere Iger so much that he couldn’t quit. One of the conditions of the Fox acquisition was that he extend his contract for multiple years.
Now, the time has finally come for him to say goodbye. Technically, Iger stopped being CEO in February of 2020, just as the pandemic struck.
Many speculated at the time that Iger wanted to protect his legacy by promoting someone else to be the fall guy.
Chapek’s remarkable success in increasing Disney’s market cap has quieted such suggestions.
As for Iger, his last day at Disney is December 31st, less than three months from now. So that’s the real changing of the guard date at Disney.
Meet the New Boss
The term ‘trial by fire’ has never applied to a CEO more than Bob Chapek during his first two months on the job.
During his first six weeks on the job, boats sank, theme parks closed, and two different PeopleMovers crashed. Then, for a time, the sun set on the entire Disney empire.
Chapek proved as fortunate as his predecessor in one regard, though. Even while suffering nine misfortunes, he also caught a break.
The pandemic spiked demand for streaming services. Hulu, ESPN+, and Disney+ all experienced massive growth since March of 2020.
Now, rivals expect Disney’s three-pronged streaming product to surpass Netflix for total subscribers over the next two years or less.
Along the way, Chapek has prioritized having his own people in positions of power. That’s part of why Alan Horn is leaving.
Kelly Campbell’s departure from Hulu to Peacock is more about the desperation of the latter streaming service, but it hints at something else.
Bob Chapek only empowers people he trusts. Hollywood executives feel strongly that his inner circle is fractional compared to most in the industry.
Given the power Disney tells in the realm of storytelling, that’s worrisome. Networking remains central to the plot of entertainment production.
Few people know who to contact at Disney to get a project off the ground. Even some people within Disney indicate the same.
In poker terms, Bob Chapek ain’t ever showing anybody his hole cards.
However, Chapek is perfectly willing to play the game in hyping all his projects. Disney hosts investor days and Disney+ days and virtual conventions for this reason.
Chapek believes in headlines and the power of free publicity. He’s also, by all accounts, a shrewd businessperson who believes in numbers and is all about the bottom line.
Here’s where the conversation grows more interpretive. To hear some speak, Chapek embodies the worst kind of management.
Hollywood resents that Chapek isn’t a creative, someone who understands the process.
Disney loyalists express something between irritation and enmity over his prioritization of intellectual property (IP) for rides.
Chapek came up with the idea of repurposing Twilight Zone of Terror at Disney California Adventure as Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!
Imagineers have indicated that Chapek is responsible for creating the new Harmonious show at EPCOT as well.
How is someone non-creative doing these things? Reportedly, Chapek feels comfortable with delegation. He trusts people to do their jobs.
So, when he tells Imagineers to craft a nighttime presentation that celebrates Disney films, they do so.
Apparently, Chapek was more hands-on with the Guardians of the Galaxy attraction reboot. Yes, that flies in the face of criticisms about his lack of creativity.
Anyway, the point is that people believe he’s taking Disney down a path where IP matters too much.
Then, there’s the mixed reception to Walt Disney World’s three new shows.
Harmonious has angered some due to its unattractive barges. Others lament its multilingual story, which makes me wonder what they think the World Showcase is.
As for Disney Enchantment, some people believe it ignores classic Disney movies too much in favor of the new stuff. So, they see it as an attempt to sell merchandise.
Finally, we have Disney KiteTails, which has unfortunately shown signs of poor planning. After less than two weeks, we’ve had jet ski crashes and kite incidents.
I could address these criticisms point by point, but people are going to feel how they feel. So instead, the real problem spot many have for Chapek is…
Magical Express dies at the end of the year. That increases the cost of traveling from the airport to Walt Disney World.
Once people arrive at the parks, annual ticket prices have gone up as well. Also, these annual passes come with fewer standard features.
On October 19th, Disney will introduce paid FastPass for the first time under a new system called Disney Genie+.
Simultaneously, guests may pay for short-line access at some attractions via Lightning Lane.
The most recent (non-crepe) restaurant opening at EPCOT, Space 220, charges $79 per person for a prix fixe dinner.
Folks, Disney prices have undeniably gone up since the start of the pandemic.
Now, in the interest of fairness, I should add that this is true for most businesses.
Supply issues have forced price increases, as manufacturers must charge more to stay in business.
Still, the perception of Chapek’s Disney is that he’s pricing the common person out of a family vacation.
I could counter that my Five Guys order that cost $21 in 2019 is $32 today, but Disney fans won’t care about sudden price inflation elsewhere.
What Is the Current State of Disney?
Many of us feel like we’re carrying the torch of Uncle Walt’s legacy. Therefore, anything that threatens Disney’s position as the best theme park in the world is problematic.
That is the current state of Disney right now. The company is in flux as old leadership departs, and new leadership embarks on its vision for tomorrow.
Change is inevitable in such an environment. Losing Iger only hurts if he hasn’t trained his successor well, which would make us all think less of him anyway.
As for Disney as a company, I’m not reading too much into the reception for the new shows.
Off my head, the last one that had a glowing reputation from day one was Wishes, which came out in…2003.
I mean, Happily Ever After only lasted a little over two years. Early criticisms of it were sharp, which made the lament over its death somewhat amusing.
Then, there’s EPCOT Forever and Rivers of Light, neither of which ever had the crowd behind them.
I liked them both, especially EPCOT Forever, but that was NOT the majority opinion.
Some fans set unrealistic expectations for Disney presentations, ones that Imagineers cannot possibly surpass.
Then, these same folks get mad at Disney for letting them down. It’s a vicious circle that’s not on Disney.
I read nothing into any of the negative reviews for Disney Enchantment or Harmonious. Disney KiteTails, on the other hand, needs a comeback. It’s off to a nightmarish start.
The complaints about Disney price increases come with validity. How much of that is Disney versus society as a whole, though?
That’s the debate we’ll be having during 2022 as Bob Chapek’s Disney takes full control.