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Disenchantment: The Reality of Disney’s Desire for a Dollar

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Imagine: You’re in Walt Disney World for the first time. You’ve been saving for this trip for years, and you’re ecstatic to finally bask beneath the Florida sun. You and your party of five have just entered Hollywood Studios, one of the resort’s four theme parks, and you can’t wait to visit the new “Star Wars” area that has everyone buzzing. After spending all that money, you can’t believe you actually made it to the big day. But wait — your party wants to ride the most popular Star Wars attraction? That’ll be another $75.

This is the unfortunate reality of the Disney Genie Plus Service, a ride reservation system that debuted at Walt Disney World in Oct. 2021. The system, which replaces the FastPass Plus service that had operated at the parks for many years, requires guests to pay for “Lightning Lane” reservations in order to experience rides with a reduced wait time. While the advent of Lightning Lane has caused an undoubted frenzy among Disney-goers, it is only the latest in a recent series of monetizing moves by the Mouse House. Disgruntled fans have largely associated this trend with CEO Bob Chapek, who has certainly earned a profit-pushing reputation since his appointment in Feb. 2020. In a memo to Disney staff at the start of 2022, Chapek outlined three pillars for the company: “First, storytelling excellence… second, innovation… and third, relentless focus on our audience.” While these goals are admirable on the surface, a closer look at Disney’s track record in recent years will show that the company’s cash-grab mentality works opposite to each one these purported pillars.

First, “storytelling excellence.” In the beginning, there was nothing. Then, there was Disney Plus. Disney’s undeniably popular streaming service burst onto the scene in Nov. 2019, fresh with content from across Disney’s media empire — Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel and more. As expected, this content base attracted subscribers rapidly, achieving a count of 50 million subscribers within five months of its debut. In recognition of this success, The Walt Disney Company reorganized its business divisions in favor of such direct-to-consumer channels in Oct[ober][.] 2020. However, this focus on Disney Plus has led to an excessive prioritization of the service, even as movie theaters have begun to regain prominence; for instance, the latest three releases by Pixar — “Soul,” “Luca,” and now this month’s “Turning Red” — have all been Disney Plus exclusives.

This trend toward exclusive virtual showings, however, doesn’t seem to be strictly for pandemic-related reasons alone; Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Raya and the Last Dragon” debuted both in theaters and on Disney Plus (for an additional fee of $30) in March 2021, before the releases of both “Luca” and “Turning Red.” Given Pixar films’ tendency to receive greater acclaim than Walt Disney Animation Studios’, Disney’s recent habit of limiting Pixar films to Disney Plus may be a strategy to retain a robust subscriber stream for the company’s hottest commodity. Evidently, Disney’s business-driven outlook has begun to interfere with the ways in which its stories are experienced, which certainly complicates the proper execution of “storytelling excellence.” While the company hopefully isn’t likely to lose the creators behind its stories that are adored by so many, it is upsetting to see optimal modes of storytelling disrespected in favor of a focus on numbers.

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Second, “innovation.” Disney theme parks have been fully transformed by technology in recent years. Once upon a time, guests would have to print a FastPass ticket from a physical kiosk and present it upon arriving at a ride. This process has become completely digitized, though, to the point where 2021 even saw the debut of a virtual itinerary-maker — Disney Genie — which aims to craft a visitor’s day in the theme park according to their interests. The introduction of this function was accompanied by the aforementioned Disney Genie Plus Service, which replaces FastPass Plus and allows guests to make Lightning Lane reservations. Whereas the ability to make FastPass Plus reservations was included with park admission, Lighting Lane privileges can be purchased for $15 per day, and some rides — like “Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance” — even require individual fees.

Disney Genie and the Disney Genie Plus Service have been cleverly marketed in tandem as a great innovation for the parks, but in reality, they are far from it. Compared to the clear infrastructure of the FastPass Plus system, which allowed guests to make three ride reservations prior to park entry, Lightning Lane reservations can only be made on the day of a visit, and guests may only make one reservation until they either go on that ride — or wait for a period of two hours. Ultimately, it seems that Lightning Lane is merely FastPass Plus with a new name, far less efficiency, and a greater cost.

Finally, “relentless focus on our audience.” When Walt Disney came up with the idea for Disneyland, his vision was very much family-oriented. As he watched his daughters ride a merry-go-round, Walt imagined a place “where parents and children could have fun together.” If the new Star Wars resort at Walt Disney World is anything to gauge by, the company is losing sight of its founder’s vision more and more every day. The resort, which exclusively offers guests a two-night experience, is called “Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser,” and its price tag for a family of four is a whopping $5,999. This designation is undoubtedly a remarkably high ask for the average family, making it abundantly clear that the people whom Walt wanted to engage with his creations are gradually having that opportunity stripped from them. If anything, the company appears to be relentlessly focused on turning away the audience it has held dear for so long.

If the Walt Disney Company sticks to its habit of choosing money over magic, fan disillusionment is sure to persist as well. In a telling example of such sentiment, a constituent of Disney shareholders has threatened to vote against Bob Chapek’s re-election as CEO at an annual shareholder meeting to be held March 9. And while it’s true that no one person should be blamed for the company’s recent actions, its behavior is perhaps best encapsulated by a nickname for Chapek that has quickly gained traction on the internet: Bob Paycheck.

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