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Five things Walt Disney World is doing right

Even though it’s a construction site, it’s still very colorful and themed thanks to the image on the tarp.

A few days ago I looked at the five biggest needs at Walt Disney World, I though it was only fair that I identify five things WDW is doing right. So without any further ado…

1. Building maintenance at the Magic Kingdom

For the last few years I’ve noticed some big improvements in maintenance on the buildings at the Magic Kingdom. There are literally managers who walk around with a camera and voice recording taking pictures of work that needs to be done and recording notes. Then when I come back a few weeks later, that problem has been fixed. That’s how it should work.

The whole park has been working on upgrading everything from facades to sidewalks. You couldn’t miss it if you visited the last few years, inevitably there would be some building shrouded in a giant tarp. But you might look twice once you noticed it, as Disney has taken to printing giant pictures of the buildings being repaired on the outside of the tarp. It doesn’t make them go away, but at least guests can tell that Disney cares about their experience.

Follow me below the jump for even more great things Disney is doing:

2. More rooms suitable for families larger than 4 – aka Family Suites

For many years if you had a family of 5, 6, or more you were forced to either book two rooms, a suite, or a cabin at Fort Wilderness. Spurred by the Nickelodeon Suites, Disney has recently added some family suites to the All Stars and Pop Century. These typically cost a bit more than a standard room, but less than renting two rooms and sleep a family of six. Now Disney has announced that the Art of Animation Resort will have over 800 family suites. This is a wonderful move, and it’s location right across the street from ESPN WWOS is sure to attract more complete families who will come and visit WDW while one of the family competes in their sport.

3. Social Media

For a long time I encouraged Disney to jump with both feet into the world of blogging and other social media. Just over a year ago they took that plunge and the results have been outstanding. There is now more information coming direct from Disney to its fans than ever before. There’s still a lot of work to do, but they’re definitely on the right path.

Let’s include in this the Disney World Mom’s Panel. They amount of buzz, goodwill, and groundswell momentum they’ve gotten out of this is immeasurable. Disney’s still experimenting with the model, but I think it’s a good one for the long term.

I’ll also include fan and social media out reach in here. The crew that coordinates media events goes out of their way to include some of the blogs and websites that have great relationships with their fans. This is very cost effective marketing for Disney. More of these and closer collaboration should be considered in the future.

4. Festivals and Special Events

The 2009 entrance topiary for the Flower and Garden festival.

While the Flower and Garden Festival and Food and Wine festival are old favorites, Disney has found a way to keep them fresh and exciting year and year. They continue to draw huge crowds to EPCOT at times of the year when things would otherwise be slow.

I’m also going to throw the Holidays in here. Disney owns Christmas around here and has a rather sizable chunk of Halloween. I think they could do more here (like bring back the Easter Parade) but they’re definitely on the right path.

Then there are the smaller festivals. Star Wars Weekends are extremely popular. Festival of the Masters is a wonderful weekend event. And Disney’s made a real name for itself with the Endurance Running series, the largest of which are now weekend long heath festivals.

The more Disney can leverage these festival type events, without cannibalizing other events of hotel bookings, the more repeat business they’ll get year after year. And that’s a good thing for Disney.

5. Project NextGen – Jim McPhee’s big secret project

Perhaps inspired a little by the Star Trek level technology that’s rumored to be part of this new secret project headed by former EPCOT Vice President Jim McPhee, the undercurrent of every rumor at WDW is Project NextGen. What is Project NextGen? Well we don’t rightly know for sure. But the rumors are pretty exciting.

There’s no official word on exactly what NextGen will bring, but it promises to revolutionize the way guests experience a vacation at Walt Disney World. Rumors have the project involving some sort of wireless technology, GPS location, augmented reality, virtual reality, RFID chip, live character initiative, or some combination of the above.

If Disney can deliver on NextGen, at a price that’s affordable or even at a cost savings for the company, then these next ten years will be pretty exciting.

Disney’s T-shirt design team keeps new concepts coming that are surprisingly in touch with fashion trends.

Bonus Round – These are even more things Disney is doing right these days:

  • Mickey’s Magic Express – a brilliant move, even if it puts a stress on the WDW transport system,
  • T-shirt design – these last few years have seen hundreds of wonderfully designed Tees, MouseEars – ditto, and
  • The Living Character Initiative – please bring back the Muppet Labs!
  • Toy Story Midway Mania – adding in new scenes is a great thing. Disney can even do holiday overlays.
  • Animal Conservation – Disney’s Animal Care program and the Walt Disney Conservation Fund has done so much good for endangered species it’s hard to even wrap your mind around.

It’s walls everywhere in Fantasyland.

However, there are a few areas where the jury is still out:

  • Four Seasons Hotel and Villas – Outsourcing the Luxury Resort may yet turn out to bite Disney in the you know what. But they didn’t seem to be able to pull it off themselves (I don’t think they ever really tried myself). As for the million dollar homes, well if you’re rich right now, you haven’t even noticed the down economy, so that will probably work fine.
  • Fantasyland expansion – This is a big gamble for Disney. Phase one is one new ride, one innovative dining experience, and about a half dozen new character meet and greets/mini-shows. Will that capture the hearts and minds of Magic Kingdom guests? Or are they simply picking the least expensive option here.
  • Vinylmation – Disney Pin Trading, which has been amazingly lucrative for Disney since 1999 or so, hit the 10 year mark and started a rapid deceleration. Vinylmation appears to be Disney’s attempt to reignite the collector’s passion. Will it have it’s own 10 year span? Or is it a flash in the pan.

Please chime in below with the things you see Disney doing right or areas where you think the jury is still out.

Postscript: I really really wanted to include ‘The Cast Members’ on this list. There are certainly excellent cast members that go out of their way to make a difference with the guest experience. But an increasingly large percentage of the cast doesn’t seem to realize they’re part of a show that’s being put on for the benefit of the paying guests. It’s just another job for them. I chalk this up to a combination of reduced training on Disney traditions and the expanded size of Disney’s cast. I hope that when I re-do this list next year, I can add “Cast Members Make the Magic” in above.

23 thoughts on “Five things Walt Disney World is doing right”

  1. While Magic Kingdom may finally be getting some maintenance attention (much of the woodwork of the buildings the are refurbing was completely rotted) the other parks are not so lucky. Glaring issues can be found at all of them,

    I wont believe project nextgen will bring anything good to the World until I see it. Unfortunately I cant help but feel that it will bring another unneeded layer of complication to what has already become a complicated resort. Since they still havent even figured out a way to print your photopass on your room key or allow you to add onride photos to your photopass (except at Test Track) I cant imagine they will come up with anything more exciting than Kim Possible or wait time apps for smart phones.

    At one point about 7-8 years ago I remember hearing about a “nextgen” initiative that would allow you to view dining availability and make reservations, view photopass and onride photos and make purchases, see interactive previews of attactions, find characters in the parks and much more all on the TV in your guestroom. Since most of the resorts are still operating on analog TV with tiny CRT sets I cant see this happening anytime soon.

    The T-shirt designs may be cool but the material is crap is so thin you can see skin through and falls apart after the first washing. There is also much more generalized merch and much less specific to a land/attraction/resort. Hopefully Potterland helps them see that niche stores still have a market. (Bring back the Main Street Magic Shop!)

  2. I agree with the above comment that the resort is complicated. As they plan for the future of guest experiences, I hope Disney takes into account the enjoyment of those of us for whom the latest portable technology (i.e. iphones, smartphones) is a wave that has washed right by us. That could include seniors, or someone like me (mid-40s) who has decided that that level of technology and expense is unecessary. While my family and I have been to Disney many times over the years, I’m starting to think that it’s getting too complex a resort to actually enjoy a stress-free vacation. Hearing that things like free dining plans and Magical Express are putting too much stress on the systems at WDW (like not being able to get dining reservations when we want them or buses being too crowded) just make me feel like taking my hard-earned vacation dollars elsewhere. I love the Disney experience, but I refuse to be an uber-planner who walks around with a digital spreadsheet telling me what to do and which 5-minute interval to do it in. Are you listening Disney? I have money I want to spend at your resort, but if you continue to make it too complex to provide a relaxing vacation, I’ll go elsewhere.

  3. Great list! I agree with almost everything you said. You are 100% right about cast members. I used to be a CM and NEVER would have dreamed of acting the way some of them do. It seems to run hot or cold…either they are incredible or they are downright rude!! In this economy Disney should be bringing in the people that WANT to be there (pay rate is another issue altogether)

    I have to disagree with your comment about T-shirts however. Disney continues to disappoint me in the merchandise that it offers. Despite the fact that most rides let you off in a gift shop, you used to be able to purchase merchandise themed to the ride or area that you are in. I am continued to be disappointed with the generic merchandise that can be found in EVERY guest shop. I was pleasantly suprised while visiting Disneyland to see that problem is not so widespread.

  4. You made my day! I am busy over here working harder than Cinderella, Gus and Jaq combined. Thx for noticing!

    Princess Pink Laura

  5. Regarding Social Media, I have to disagree with you. Yes, they’re finally doing more than they used to (nothing), but by in large, Disney’s social media presence is a one way street. The official twitter & FB accounts merely spew out marketing stuff and they barely, if ever, respond back to the users. That really isn’t how social media ought to be utilized. Other mega companies do a MUCH better job at using social media to not just push their products, but make the consumer feel a bigger connection. Disney’s social media is a step in the right direction, but it’s hardly something they do well….yet.

  6. The “tarp” is referred to as “scrim” at Disney. High resolution photographs are taken before construction begins and printed onto the scrim to cover the scaffolding that faces the buildings.

  7. I can’t say much on the festivals, because I can rarely (if ever) find information on something other than the Star Wars weekend that provides enough notice for me to plan my vacation around (I like to plan early)… perhaps if the social media was improved (as somebody mentioned earlier) and not just a one way announcement machine, I could find out more… but I am not sure.

    Vinylmations. Since I am fairly new to the whole pin thing (started collecting in 2007), I hadn’t realized it was on the “downside” I happen to be at WDW for the launch of VinylMations, and I am sort of embarrassed to admit… I just don’t get it. I think they look stupid, and have absolutely no desire what-so-ever to collect them. And while I know there are people that like them, and will collect them (more power to them, different strokes and all that) but I don’t think that they will ever be the hit that the pins were.

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  10. I’ve been a longtime complainer about the lack of attraction-specific merchandise, but I’ve noticed a big improvement in the last year or so. In addition to more options for Haunted Mansion shirts, I now have a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Jungle Cruise shirt. I’ve seen them for Big Thunder, Maelstrom (Maelstrom!), Pirates (of course), Small World, Splash Mountain, and lots of others.

    To me, it seems like they really listened on this one.

  11. 2. Pop Centuiry has family suites……. since when?

    3. Social media may be making strides but Disney’s own website is often incorrect and its almost an embarrassment. While the mom’s panel may be cute they are often wrong on thier answers. Screening hundreds of thousands of applicants you think they would find the best of the best but they missed the boat this go around.

    4. Holidays and events are awesome at WDW but with the cuts and changes to Christmas decor last year I don’t know if I would go around praising them. Lights of Winter ring a bell anyone?

    Pin trading is not popular anymore? Then why are there more choices in every kiosk than before. Maybe its dropped in popularity b/c its impossible to stay ahead of any of the collections when every day 15 variations of the same ride pin are released. I wish someone would tell my kids its not popular anymore, we sure spent alot of money on it a month ago when we were there.

    1. My understanding was that two rooms at Pop Century had been converted to Family Suites as models. I could be mistaken.

      I’m willing to forgive some budget cutting this last holiday season and chalk it up to the economic downturn. You can’t expect Disney to continue spending at the same level when they’re worried about bookings. That said, I won’t be as forgiving if it hasn’t returned to previous levels in a few years.

  12. Hard to defend cast member performance in the last year. A lot of it has to do with the economy and bad job market. Turnaround has slowed down as the bad cast members are doing what they can to get by so they don’t lose there jobs. Also, you hate to blame cp’s and icp’s but those are the cast members Disney is hiring.

  13. Another cast member chiming in– I admit that I’ve run into some rude, or at least possibly bored, cast members when I’ve visited the parks as a guest. However, one must realize that all these new changes going on at Disney are putting a *HUGE* strain on the cast members as well. You think a guest is confused, disappointed, and/or angry that something is down for refurbishment or just not there anymore? Try having to field the same questions two hundred times (or more!) in a row from those angry (and hot from the Florida heat) guests. It’s *incredibly* stressful and yes, sometimes we can get a bit frustrated. We may work for Disney, but we’re also human. It happens.

    I try very hard to help guests at my attractions, and I also realize that many of the temporary changes curently in place are not working for these guests. But we cast members are not the ones who put these changes into place. The people at the higher levels in Disney do, but we get the backlash because we’re the ones who the guests see.

    As far as reduced training goes, I think cast members are getting better training. The very first day of being a cast member, what we call “Traditions,” used to involve an entire day sitting in a room just talking about Disney. Now, though, they actually take the brand new cast members into Magic Kingdom and walk them around, showing them in person what it’s like to be a CM and how to put the Disney Attitude (upbeat, smiling personality, etc) into practice. I wish I had had that when I first started.

    1. Believe it or not, training used to take up most of a week with lots of role play, lessons at the skill of Disney level customer service, and more.

  14. I am very disappointed in removing Mickey and Minnie’s house in Toontown. I have heard they may be relocated. I now have grandchildren who would very much appreciate their houses not to mention their grandparents faces to see their expressions on their faces when Minnie’s oven talks and her cooking utensils clatter or Mickey’s bedroom and vegetable garden.

  15. Thanks for these recent posts, John. As someone who doesn’t get to go to the parks very often (Minnesota to MCO flights keep getting more and more expensive) I truly enjoy reading what struggles and successes can be seen by an expert eye. I also appreciate the photos from construction as I’m curious what the parks will look like when I finally get there in September.

    I can’t speak to what Disney may or may not be doing right in the parks, but I agree that they’re starting down the right path with social media. They still have very far to go to make their blog and twitter feed successful, but I enjoy the small glossed over “news” they do provide, even if I see a lot of it here first. Maybe they’ll do better from the start with whatever NextGen will be.

    As for cast members, well, I feel it’s always hit or miss with them at the parks. As a former CP I do resent the stereotype that CPs are the source of the World’s problems. I ran into more disgruntled full-timers during my program than anyone else. Hopefully with the economy on a slow recovery management will have more time to restore the seven guest services guidelines, instead of worrying about that next round of budget cuts.

  16. I hate this nextgen stuff. I’m a gadget lover. Admittedly addicted to my laptop and iphone, have a few blogs, and spend a lot of time on Twitter and Facebook. But to me Disney is meant to take me away from all that trappings of my home life. Those things are my way of connecting to friends or escaping from the mundane working life. But Disney transports me. I am just dreading going in October only to see people walking around staring down at their iPhones instead of taking in the surroundings. Or being so wired to GPS nonsense when a map will get you just as far. It’s really unnecessary. They’d be better off spending the money on plussing Epcot and DHS. Everything Disney provides can be obtained the same way my family did it nearly 30 years ago.

    That said I have no problem with the living character initiative or some element of VR. The former is in keeping with the spirit of Imagineering. And the latter, if done right, would be a great way to take rides to the next level. Maybe turn Wonders of Life into a Horizons 2.0 pavilion, transporting us to the future via a VR dark ride. Hmmmm.

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